Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Written by Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean
In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures positing the great man theory. This belief is that history is simply the impact of a series of great men who were highly influential and better than the ordinary person. This was attributed to some innate superiority or divine providence. This has become a well-deserved point of contention in modern history discourse as it’s become clear that white men did a very efficient job of suppressing the accounts and perspective of women, black people, and other non-white, LGBTQ+ people that lived alongside them. T.E. Lawrence was definitely seen as a great man, but David Lean’s controversial film about the historical figure explores that the myths and stories did not match the reality.
T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) was a British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo during World War I who has a reputation for being insolent and smarter than his superiors. Lawrence has a deep interest in the Arab peoples who have lived under the oppression of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The Arab Office request Lawrence is sent into the heart of this region to assess the willingness of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in working with the British. Lawrence sets off on an epic journey that has him meeting the prince and working alongside Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), an advisor to Faisal, to cross a supposedly uncrossable desert. Through his trials, Lawrence discovers things about himself that cause his spirit to soar and darker aspects to his character that profoundly terrify the man. He finds himself overtaken by bloodlust and doesn’t quite know how to process these new emotions. It also becomes clear that his country’s government has no interest in merely freeing the Arabs from the Turks but would prefer to impose British colonial rule on the region.
One of the things that have stood out to me in both this and The Bridge on the River Kwai is how astonishing Lean’s camera is. The shots he gets and his use of lighting makes some scenes appear as if they are from films twenty or thirty years ahead of their time. Some moments take place at magic hour in this picture that always blow me away and cause me to suddenly feel like I’m not watching something “old,” instead, this is a picture that can stand up to modern epics and outshine them. I think the fact that there are no shots with digital effects added makes the movie stand out even more.
Lean revels in photographing the desert, the mountains, and the stark blue sky. There’s geometry to his shots, the top two-thirds being the sky and the bottom third the desert, with Lawrence never breaking the horizon as he rides across the screen on camelback. Lean makes use of the heat-rippled air, building tension with abstract forms on the horizon that at different times spell doom or triumph. I’ve not yet had the honor of seeing this picture on a theater screen, but I can only imagine how brilliant it must look projected on the scope it was intended for. I was actually reminded of the first act of 2001: A Space Odyssey several times during the picture, and I think Kubrick was most certainly influenced by this film.
The character of Lawrence is so unlike the epic heroes of cinema at that time and even today. There is no shoehorned love story; instead, it a character piece about a man struggling with himself and the seemingly impossible problem before him. There are brief moments of action, but never any elaborate set pieces. Lean sees the violence in the film as a horror that Lawrence must commit in some instances because otherwise, his goal would collapse. Yet, the character of Lawrence is not capable of justifying these actions to himself, and O’Toole beautifully plays the trauma of the protagonist. The weight of taking a life means something in this picture, and O’Toole’s shaky, haunted frame exudes all of that.
Ultimately, the story is about Lawrence’s naivete. He somehow believes as an outsider who can’t even fit in with his own culture that he will unite disparate Arab tribes into a single new independent nation. The deeper he gets into the conflict, the more he discovers his assumptions won’t work because these people have a way of life that has worked quite well for them for centuries. When Lawrence becomes aware of the British government’s aims to claim a stake in the region, he realizes how genuinely powerless he is. The man has become a public relations prop used by the British Empire to further their claims of legitimacy in the region.
Lawrence’s achievements are not through killing those in his way but appealing the reason of his new allies, of showing them that ideas like predeterminism are not valid, that humanity can carve out its own destiny, and the future is unknown. By the end of the story, Lawrence is clearly questioning those ideas himself, his violent nature has emerged, and despite his head full of logic, a dark animal side has been released. Additionally, he wonders if he ever had autonomy in this situation or was just another pawn in a larger game played by more powerful figures. He ends the film defeated and broken, cheered on by his allies, but the look in Lawrence’s eyes tell the audience everything. He knows the Arabs will live under the British’s thumb and struggle for independence for decades to come. While the world might think of Lawrence as a “great man,” it’s clear his character in the film did not. And in some ways, that questioning of himself is what makes him such a great character.