Lawrence of Arabia unwraps, even as it enshrouds. David Lean’s masterpiece is at root the character study of an elusive historical figure. T.E. Lawrence, portrayed by Peter O’Toole in his major Hollywood movie debut, ventured into the Arabian desert over one hundred years ago for his own purposes.
Mr. Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, produced by Sam Spiegel for Columbia Pictures, provides the widest scope for his epic adventure. With a majestic overture and score by Maurice Jarre, an intermission and diligent photography by Freddie Young, this is an opulent indulgence in the Westerner’s journey east.
As a study, the 1962 film, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, remains enigmatic. Beginning and ending with a framework hinged on the main character’s thrill-seeking, his life arguably doesn’t amount to as much as has been made of him and this biographically-themed picture.
In other words, don’t expect grand ideals to match the magnificent visuals. Behold, instead, David Lean’s integration of each detail, small and large, into an upshot of the bond among men and boys seeking larger than life heroism. This film dramatizes valor and bravery in the company of inter-cultural men—and it pivots on the fact that they are each inspired and led by one man. In this sense, the one who leads literally conquers, changes and unites the world.
The neatly arranged opening shot, which follows the overture, consists of a motorcycle and, entering the overhead shot, a man cloaked in riding gear who comes to tend to his machine.
The story of the unusual British military officer romanticizing his mission and becoming drunk with power in what amounts to vain glorification of his place in the world begins in earnest with a warning of danger ahead, reckless speed and a flashback to a handsome, restless young man painting maps with brushstrokes in Cairo.
This is why Lawrence of Arabia endures with remembrance for its sense of majesty and wonder. As travelogue, cinematography alone makes an impression. But it’s Mr. Lean’s insight — and wisdom — about human desire which makes his film remarkable. As a matter of fact, this is what sets Mr. Lean’s movies apart, from Bridge on the River Kwai to Summertime and Doctor Zhivago. As a director with a sharp sense of color and composition, it’s his mastery of human action, in particular man’s insatiable want to live in the most exalted sense, that distinguishes his work.
This is evident in Lawrence of Arabia, too, with its eroticism, of course, made implicit for the culture of the times in which it was made. Whatever Lawrence’s sexual proclivities and orientation, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence exudes passion for life. In certain scenes, such as those with a couple of servant boys, and in scenes with Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali, he shows undeniable sensuality.
Lawrence’s wandering quest is captured step-by-step, scene by scene in aerial images and shots David Lean borrowed from John Ford’s The Searchers. The Arab people’s tribalism comes through in outstanding supporting performances by Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal.
Lawrence of Arabia does not merely depict Arab culture and history, however, nor does it confine itself to capturing Lawrence’s immersion in exotic lands. With a script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, the picture exhibits Lawrence’s brilliance, too.
Shuttling between alluring images of sunup — including the transition from warm to cool sun — and the bold British youth leading primitive men toward an uncertain yet engaging goal, Lawrence uniquely perseveres.
When Ali commands Lawrence to leave a lost traveler behind, invoking fatalism, claiming that the man’s doom “is written”, Lawrence recoils, stabs his finger at his own temple and declares that he will turn back and retrieve the caravan traveler, countering Ali with an affirmation of free will: “it is written in here.”
Soon, the man Lawrence will come to love, who comes to love him in return, recognizes that Lawrence must be free to choose his own way.
So the legend of the white, blond savior of Arabia is born.
Living up to legend — refusing to fully reconcile his mythology with the facts of reality — proves to be his undoing. This, too, is integral to the movie’s success. How complicated life is — how lonely one can be in pursuit of one’s best achievements — how desperately one can want to belong to the world — complexity pervades the layered and poetic Lawrence of Arabia.
It’s in his glimpse of a reflection on a blade, in his dance of billowing robes, in the awesome dimension of jagged desert rocks and in the vibrancy of red flags whipping in the wind as Lawrence leads charging men on Arabian horses. Lawrence of Arabia fulfills its title’s simplicity. It’s not about battles, strategies, tacit affairs. The nearly four-hour film, shot in Super Panavision 70 and Technicolor and restored by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten, excels on the human scale. In the most memorable scene, he exacts his sense of justice and guides an Arab boy into the British officers’ den for refreshment.
A lost compass, quicksand, crossing the Sinai, a raid on Aqaba and, indelibly — unforgettably — the stillness that comes before the first sense of the Suez Canal — long before Americans sold out the British and French to Arab nationalism — serve to support, explore and answer the question which is soon put to him: “who are you?”
Arthur Kennedy portrays an American photojournalist who, decades before the American media abetted George W. Bush or, for that matter, his father, in their wars without proper purpose, exploits Lawrence to propagandize for war. The character’s embitterment gives, gathers and sustains plot momentum after intermission through completion. But not before megalomythical Lawrence stops to examine his reflection in a bloodied dagger and begins to see himself as the delusional egotist he’s become.
“I am going to give it to them,” Lawrence preposterously proclaims about Arab autonomy when he’s too gone to save himself from despair and descent into near madness.
That he pays dearly for this self-delusion brings Lawrence full circle from his initial euphoria to a delirious defeat at the hands of lusty, leering barbarians. Robbed of his idealism, the character re-creates himself. Removed from sandstorms and black-haired, dark-skinned troops and lieutenants, he returns to marching with the British, complete with marching band.
But he has tasted wildness and he will never be the same. This is why Lawrence of Arabia stirs one’s fantasy and imagination and lingers. Like the best among us, Lawrence is exalted by life’s grandest adventures; he finds it difficult to live a smaller life.
Nevertheless, he reconciles himself with glory — reclaiming his sense of justice — and, having earned respect, accepts his life as a triumph by returning to the hall where he broke with tradition and first pioneered his own, enlightened values in action.
David Lean’s humanism, which is distinctly secular, leaves its imprint in these scenes. With Claude Rains as the cool, detached middleman — and Omar Sharif’s Ali back in Damascus as the politician-to-be — and Anthony Quayle brilliantly as a colonel opposite Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia winds adventure down. In strikingly silent, almost slow motion, the young officer with queer ways passes through the hall to a kind of solemn tribute as men stand by in awe of Lawrence’s achievement.
Historically, at least as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, his singular accomplishment commanding disparate Arabians from warring tribes to take back cities on the sea and in the desert from various conquerors is a marked contrast to British imperialism (though watch for impending betrayal). The desert journey comes to an end with the lights going out as newly trained Arabs still squabble in disunity.
So, why does a 57-year-old movie with an antiquated intermission, overture and larger than life sensibility retain relevance?
The answer has little to do with this being based on a true story. It also has little to do with overcredited aspects for which it is known. The movie is stunning in music, cinematography, acting, staging, lighting and other technical elements. Lawrence of Arabia shines because each scene, expression and moment authentically re-creates the unbridled individualist striking out on his own with a sense of purpose. He is at times unkind. He is flawed, even deranged, and reckless. But Lawrence as portrayed is passionate and intransigent in pursuing what he wants.
That he goes for it — and, to a certain degree, gains it — and does so with both vigor and splendor is the essential meaning of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
This is why it matters to the very best of men.