David Lean’s magnificent Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is about creating something out of nothing, about doing the impossible, willfully biting off more than you can chew. It asserts this idea in visual terms, giving us shots of the expanse of the desert, the oppressive conditions of the least inhabitable of places, then showing us defiant human beings emerging from the horizon, one step at a time in some cases, in proud audacity.
The movie’s conduit for its bravado is T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), one of the strangest heroes ever to buoy a Hollywood movie, whose personality rails against not only his surroundings but also the conventions of so-called normal behavior. His temerity is the key to his success but also his undoing. The movie is about big dreams and wild ambitions but also about the limits of those ambitions. Lawrence is a proud man, one whose hubris leads him to remarkable feats but must also eventually bring him down. He is a man who wants to give an oppressed civilization freedom, but his desire is only partly altruistic and is more about his own glory, and he doesn’t realize that the freedom is not his to give. In the end, he has led many people to their deaths, killed some himself and accomplished only what is well summed up by a character near the end of the movie’s 216-minute running time: “It seems we’re to have a British waterworks with an Arab flag on it. Do you think it was worth it?” In Lawrence of Arabia, every second is.
The movie follows the real story of Lawrence, an English soldier in the Great War, who essentially leads his own campaign in the Middle East, uniting the disparate tribes of Arabs against the occupying Turks, with only loose approval of the British military. He’s sent to babysit the Arabs, who his higher-ups refer to as “savages” and “wogs,” but Lawrence is able to organize them into an effective army, taking bigger and bigger tactical risks and fighting battles with progressively worsening odds. Lawrence is a thrill seeker; he extinguishes matches with his bare hands and drives his motorcycle too fast, a habit that will eventually kill him, so it’s only natural that he will recklessly lead his army into increasingly chancy predicaments.
So much of Lawrence is about defying convention, as if he has a pathological need to baffle expectations. Much of this is transmuted through O’Toole’s performance. In his first significant film role he creates a dazzling, ambiguous hero, one who is both inspiring and off-putting. The way he walks isn’t graceful exactly; in fact, it’s often clumsy, but it’s deliberate, like every step is with a purpose, even the stumbles. His voice, high and effete, suggests a mixture of avidity and contempt. There’s something decidedly feminine about him that seems purposeful, like an unabashed desire to impose his strangeness on every situation. Then there’s his beautiful face and his radiant blue eyes that cut against the rough and dusty desert and seem to shine even in the dark of night.
Lawrence is almost avian, constantly preening and showing off, as when he models the robes his Arab friends have gifted him. He often walks with his arms out, the fabric of his clothing flowing behind him like wings or peacock feathers. When he’s in suits or his military uniform, his pants are too short, giving him a crane-like appearance. Most birdlike of all, he has an undying desire to fly.
However, like Icarus, Lawrence flies too close to the sun. His brazenness coupled with his intelligence is what wins over his allies like Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), the tribal heads that join forces with Lawrence.
But when he finds his success, he begins to believe that the world conforms to his will and that he is its deity, capable of parceling out liberty and happiness like throwing out candy from the back of a truck in a parade. He loses some of his humanity, convinced that he is the sole actor in the universe. Gone is the man who was marked for his compassion, replaced with a man who secretly enjoys executions and believes he can conquer a city simply by walking into it. The war conquers him, turning his disdain for violence into a blood lust and his desire to do the right thing into a desire for glory. When he is struck down, what’s left of his humanity is wiped away completely. His military brilliance remains, but his victories are empty, less concerned with furthering the cause of the Arabs than with furthering the legend of T.E. Lawrence.
For its big scale and historic scope, Lawrence of Arabia is in many ways an existential epic. It’s the story of a man who created himself in defiance of the world then found out that that is a lonely proposition. Those who believed in him, particularly the loyal Sherif, are left disappointed, and he finds his friends are either dead or disillusioned. His British superior, just minutes after promoting him to colonel, and Feisal, whose cause has been advanced beyond all expectations by Lawrence, share a sly joke about how they’ll both pleased when he’s out of their hair.
Lawrence shares the same fate with all nonconformists, one of eventual comeuppance, and in falling in line, much of what made him exceptional doesn’t survive the trip. Lawrence goes from wanting to prove to the world that he’s extraordinary to wanting nothing more than to be common, but his curse is that he can never stop reminding people just how exceptional he is. “Do you think I’m just anybody …” he cries to Sherif at his lowest point. “Do you?” His voice is carried by a revealing concoction of indignation and shame.
Lean and his screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson have picked as their hero a very strange man indeed, then Lean decides to surround him with one of the most breathtaking technical achievements ever undertaken. The harshness of the desert is ever-present in dunes that crawl with heat and blowing sand. The compositions are so bold and fill the screen with such oppressive and encroaching landscape, it’s not surprising that John Ford, the master of brutal environments, was interested in doing a movie on Lawrence as well. The vastness of the space, gorgeously photographed by Freddie Young, is amplified on a big screen, the only way to see Lawrence. (An anecdote: The last time I saw it, I used the restroom before the showing [four hours is a long time, people]. When I went back to the restroom during the intermission, the room, after the first half of the expansive Lawrence of Arabia, seemed tiny, a fraction of the size it had appeared to be when I had been in it before being exposed to the movie’s wide world.) All movies look better projected onto a large space, but Lawrence is only alive in a movie theater. Its famous scene of Lawrence, who has led the army across an uncrossable desert just to go back to try and save a fallen soldier, returning from the arid sand ocean is the exclusive property of large-projection. He begins as a tiny speck in the middle of the screen, obscured by the heat so we’re not sure if it’s a person or a mirage, and slowly he comes into view, heroic and triumphant. On a small screen, the effect is rendered toothless. Even the scenes in cities highlight the outdoors, as the Middle Eastern locales like Cairo and Damascus are full of courtyards and buildings with open windows, where the moon or the breeze comes majestically through.
Lawrence of Arabia is a peerless visual movie (and, with Maurice Jarre’s amazing score sweeping us along, a remarkable aural one); the fact that it has an interesting character in the center, brought to life by a magnificent performance, is a bonus. Even more of a perk is Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, the suave diplomat, who coolly manipulates the entire future of the region. He is patently the anti-Lawrence, able to exert his will over all the proceedings without hardly being noticed, or wanting to be. It’s a sly reprise of the seemingly placating but secretly circumspect character Rains played in Casablanca (1942). Here he spends much of his time listening, and his presence seems like a cameo, until suddenly you realize he’s the smartest person in the room, confident to let the show-offs talk until he strikes seemingly innocuously to smoothly pull the strings.
However, it’s Lawrence’s movie and much of the picture’s success must be contributed to O’Toole, who seamlessly becomes this man who wanted to be all things to all people but ended up as none of them. It’s interesting that the British call the nomadic and blood-feuding Arabs savages (Lawrence even warns them that as long as they continue their infighting, their civilization will remain cruel, ironic as his speech is given while the powers of Europe were tearing each other apart). However, in the end it’s Lawrence that aimlessly bounces from place to place.
When the war is over, a fellow soldier cheerfully intones to Lawrence, in a thick Cockney accent, “Goin’ ‘ome,” which hits Lawrence like a bomb when he realizes he doesn’t have one to go to. It’s asserted in the movie that the Arabs need a miracle, which is one thing no man can provide. Possibly, but I’d argue that David Lean just may be that man and Lawrence of Arabia is one of the cinema’s miracles.