“If I fear him, who love him, how must he fear himself who hates himself?” – Sherif Ali
Those words, spoken through tears by Sherif Ali near the close of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, are at once incisive, poetic and heartbreaking – like the film itself. David Lean’s masterpiece is rightly praised for its sweeping scope, its lavish production and its general “epic-ness”, but lines like that are what give the film real power and life. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is as much a quiet, personal film as it is an epic, and it is the interplay of these two elements that make this film absolutely riveting for me. Scope alone is not enough, but when coupled with superior dialogue and a fascinating personal story about a unique historical (or fictional) figure, it can catapult a film into greatness. This explains why films like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ work, while others collapse under the burden of a vast canvas. Amid the battles at Aqaba and Tafas, the pageantry on display at Wadi Rum, and the numerous treks across forbidding deserts, the central theme of the film is always at the forefront.
What is the central theme? Midway through the film, after Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) sees the eerie image of a ship – obscured by sand dunes – navigating the Suez Canal, a man on a motorcycle provides it as he yells across the Canal: “Who are you?!” (this line was actually shouted by director Lean). The film examines the discovery of identity by telling the story of a man who didn’t fit into British society, British military ranks, or even his own family (due to his illegitimate parentage). As Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) remarks to Lawrence, “It seems to me that you are free to choose your own name, then.” In Lawrence’s case, he finds his real identity, of all places, among warring Bedouins in the “burning, fiery furnace” of Arabia – and to his horror discovers masochistic and barbaric impulses that he would rather not discover.
The first half of the film soars as Lawrence finds confidence, success and eventual fame as a brilliant military tactician. The second half examines Lawrence’s hubris as a self-appointed messiah of the Arab people, and his inevitable downfall as he first flees and then indulges his thirst for bloodshed. Most people I talk to who have seen the film (a small group, unfortunately) say that they loved the first half but not the second. But without the second half, Lawrence’s character arc would not be as resonant or tragic, and therefore not as powerful. Lean conveys Lawrence’s decline in many subtle ways – when Lawrence first dons the flowing white Arabian robes, they are clean and unwrinkled. Near the end, as he tours the military hospital in Damascus, his robes have become dirty, blood-stained and nearly see-through – as if Lawrence has become a ghost of himself (the costume department gradually eroded the texture of the robes until they resembled muslin cloth). There is the brilliant final shot, where Lawrence’s face is seen opaquely through a glass windshield right after a passing motorcycle prefigures his eventual death. Even the film’s original poster (used for the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray) beautifully conveys the character’s ambiguity and complexity. In a sense, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ contains the seeds of the antiheroes that saturate our multiplexes today.
Remarkably, the film is more or less faithful to actual historical events, and most of the key plot points (though somewhat romanticized) are taken from actual occurrences during World War I. The siege of Aqaba, the success of the Arab revolt, Lawrence’s imprisonment (…) at Deraa, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the ultimate failure of Arab governance in Damascus are all well-preserved in the annals of history, and in Lawrence’s autobiography ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Col. T.E. Lawrence is a well-known figure in British military history due to his successful (though short-lived) uniting of the Arab tribes against the Turks. From a film perspective, the historicity of the plot lends the central themes even more gravitas and power by providing a compelling backdrop for sensational battles and quiet moments alike. Furthermore, the movie contains many perspectives on the Arab peoples that remain salient today. The divisions among tribes that caused a failure of the Arab National Council in 1920 also threaten to fracture today’s fledgling Iraqi government. T.E. Lawrence is credited with innovating guerrilla warfare tactics that are still employed today by ISIL, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters against the West. And the US is still embroiled in the quagmire of Arabia, just as Britain and France were for so long. Auda Abu-Tayi reminds us that the desert has indeed dried up more blood than we can imagine, yet we may be approaching the ability to do so.
There is no shortage of things to admire in the film. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is blessed with an uncommonly intelligent, literate screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (Bolt also wrote ‘A Man for All Seasons’, a film similarly blessed). Dialogue exchanges are deep, thought-provoking and frequently inspiring. Some memorable examples:
(Prince Feisal) “There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.”
(Ali) “These are not ordinary men.” (Lawrence) “I don’t want ordinary men.”
(Lawrence) “I shall want quite a lot of money.” (Gen. Allenby) “All there is.” (Lawrence) “Not that much.”
(Ali) “The Nefud is the worst place God created.” (Lawrence) “I can’t answer for the place, only for myself.”
The script is genuinely thrilling to follow, and it achieves a type of poetry through its utter simplicity. However, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is far from a simple film. Complex themes aren’t just introduced, but given time and depth so the implications can sink in. Take Lawrence’s rescue, and subsequent execution of Gasim. The incident serves as his first experience with bloodshed, yes, but it also reveals Lawrence’s emerging God complex via his mediation, and extends the subtext of whether one’s actions are indeed “written” or not. Scenes will also hearken back to lines and events seeded earlier in the script. Consider the heartbreaking friendship of Lawrence and Sherif Ali at the film’s core. With self-righteous indignation, Lawrence first accuses Ali of being “greedy, barbarous and cruel” – words that Ali uses to convict him after the final massacre at Tafas. Ali has become the sympathetic and pacifistic one, while Lawrence has descended into madness and shame. This is also depicted in scenes where Lawrence views his reflection in a dagger – first clean and then drenched in blood (remarkably, O’Toole improvised the initial dagger scene).
So many other elements combine to make ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ a masterpiece. Peter O’Toole is perfect in what would become a career-defining role, and he is able to convey Lawrence’s inner turmoil with the slightest facial tic. Omar Sharif matches him with a supremely confident, emotive performance. He is undoubtedly gifted with one of the best, most lauded ‘entrances’ in movie history, but he is also given one of the best ‘exits’, retreating into the shadows in Damascus in one of my favorite shots. David Lean’s direction is peerless, telling the story through rich visuals and memorable set pieces. Visually, it is a very generous film – I think of the famous mirage scene at the well, the crashing waves along Aqaba’s coast at sunset, Lawrence framed in shadow as he walks on top of a train, the image of blood on the sand just before Lawrence shouts “No prisoners!” Lean also employs exciting editing techniques, like the cut that takes us straight into the desert immediately after Lawrence blows out a match, or the cut from Feisal’s interview with Bentley to Lawrence detonating a Turkish rail line. I can’t think of a film that is as old, yet feels so modern. And to top it off, Maurice Jarre’s rich score contributes a great deal to the alchemy of the film’s success.
‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is a flawless film and the best, most intelligent of all epic films (AFI voted it the top epic in their 2008 ’10 Top 10’ list). It continues to thrill after all these years, and hasn’t really aged at all. It never steps wrong.
Note: I highly recommend reading Tim Dirks’ summary of the film on filmsite.org, which highlights additional themes and subtexts that I had scarcely contemplated.