Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
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Background

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the filmic retelling of Britishman T. E. Lawrence's heroic, autobiographical account of his own Arabian adventure, published in "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" (originally published with the title Revolt in the Desert). The cinematic "men's film" (with first-time screenwriter Robert Bolt's screenplay) is a superb character study of a compelling cult hero, who exhibits homo-erotic tendences in his relationship with Arab blood brother Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a dark personal nature, and an obsession with Arabia itself.

The beautiful masterpiece (accompanied by a superb score from Maurice Jarre) is thought by many to be director David Lean's best (even topping The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)), with its Super Panavision 70 mm scope, magnificent color cinematography and poetic imagery of the desert captured within a spectacular epic story of a larger-than-life, idealistic adventurer.

The Arabian desert functions as a majestic backdrop and metaphysical land for Lawrence's exploits. Its two most famous shots and cinematographic images are the mirage shot - to announce the arrival of Sherif Ali, and the jump-cut from the burning match in Lawrence's fingers to the rising desert sun. Lean admitted that almost all of the film's movement was from left to right, to emphasize the journey theme of the film.

The film conveys the enigmatic, complex life and exploits of an eccentric, rebellious, desert-loving, messianic, Oxford-bred British Army officer cartographer (repeatedly referred to as an "Englishman"), who unites the desert-dwelling Arabian Bedouins against the oppressive Turks (allies of Germany) during World War I. His extraordinary knowledge of the politics and culture of the Mideast allows him to organize the various, willful Arab tribes to repel enemies of the British.

The film focuses on four major events in Lawrence's life - told in flashback:

In 1962 when the film first opened, it was 222 minutes long, but it was subsequently cut down by 35 minutes to 187 minutes, and not restored to 217 minutes until 1989. [This was to satisfy profit-seeking theater-owners who wanted additional showings of the over-long film.] The overly-indulgent film was budgeted at $12 million, and had a box-office of over $20 million. The nearly four-hour long film (without any female speaking roles) featured a star-studded cast, with a virtually unknown, blue-eyed Irish Shakespearean stage actor Peter O'Toole in his first starring role. [Both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney were also considered for the role.] The lead character is the heroic, contradictory, uncrowned King of Arabia - T.E. Lawrence - a solitary, masochistic adventurer (with confused sexuality, and hidden, repressed, and unrequited homosexual feelings for Sherif Ali) who paradoxically wanted to be both extraordinary and ordinary. In the end, his excessive arrogance, violent masochism and pushing of limits led to his own downfall, and to his belief that he had failed in his mission and duty.

This was a major award-winning film that received ten Academy Award nominations and seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography (Freddie Young), Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound (John Cox), Best Music Score (Maurice Jarre), and Best Film Editing (Anne V. Coates). Its nominations for Best Actor (Peter O'Toole, with his first of seven unsuccessful Oscar nominations), Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt) were unrewarded - O'Toole lost to Gregory Peck for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The only reason that the film wasn't nominated eleven times was because Phyllis Dalton's name was inadvertently not submitted for contention in the Best Costume Design category (won by The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm!). She would win a few years later for Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965).

The Story

The film opens with a jaunty British march prologue to a black screen for about 5 minutes (much like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did with Atmospheres). The opening scene of the film is both a prologue and an epilogue, depicting Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence's (Peter O'Toole) death in mid-May of 1935. After the credits, Lawrence races his motorcycle along an English country road. [The custom-made motorcycle was a 'George VII' Brough Superior (Model SS100) with a 998cc overhead valve engine - Lawrence nicknamed it Boanerges or 'Son of Thunder'.] His daredevil face is alternately illuminated and darkened - foretelling his own destiny - as he passes through shadows cast by roadside trees. At the crest of a hill, he brakes and swerves to avoid two bicyclists, losing control and crashing his motorcycle into shrubbery - he disappears off-screen. His riderless motorcycle hurtles through the air and comes to rest with its rear wheel spinning. His eye goggles hang lifelessly from a branch. The freakish, disastrous motorcycle crash is fatal.

Following the mysterious accident, the camera pulls back from a bronze bust of T. E. Lawrence 1888 - 1935, located in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, where a memorial service is being held.

Colonel Harry Brighton (Anthony Quayle) offers his assessment of Lawrence:

He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.

The camera pans down the front of the Cathedral, where on the steps, General Lord Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and then American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) [in a role based upon real-life reporter Lowell Thomas] are asked for a few words by an agile reporter. In an informal eulogy, Bentley provides two contrasting, contradictory views of the man and legend:

Allenby: What! More words! The revolt in the desert played a decisive part in the Middle Eastern campaign.
Reporter: Yes, sir, but about Colonel Lawrence himself?
Allenby: No, no I didn't know him well, you know.
Reporter: Mr. Bentley. You must know as much about Colonel Lawrence as anybody does.
Bentley: Yes. It was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior. (As the reporter runs off for his next interview, Bentley makes an aside to his companion.) He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.

Another memory from one of the funeral-goers provides the framework for a giant flashback to tell the story of Lawrence's earlier life:

He had some minor function on my staff in Cairo.

At age 29, young Lawrence began his career in the British headquarters in Cairo during World War I (January 1917), working at a lowly desk job. He is disgruntled and uninterested in his work as a military cartographer coloring maps, wanting only to get involved in adventures out in the desert - where "Bedouin Tribes Attack Turkish Stronghold." An exhibitionist, Lawrence shows how he can snuff out a burning hot match with his fingers. He also advises Corporal William Potter (Harry Fowler), who tries to repeat the performance, about the masochistic trick:

Potter: Oh, it damn well hurts.
Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Potter: Well, what's the trick, then?
Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau proposes to General Murray (Donald Wolfit) that the scholarly (educated at Oxfordshire), dedicated, knowledgeable (about Arabian affairs) but undisciplined Lawrence be assigned to special duty with a transfer to Arabia. "He's of no use here in Cairo. He might be in Arabia. He knows his stuff." Murray contemptuously notes the "insubordinate," unmanly manner of Lawrence's nature - a subtle hint of his fabled homosexuality. The mission to Arabia may "make a man" of Lawrence, hardening him into a courageous, heroic leader:

Murray: I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
Lawrence: I have the same problem sir.
Murray: ...You're the kind of creature I can't stand, Lawrence. But I suppose I could be wrong. All right, Dryden. You can have him for six weeks. Who knows? Might even make a man of him.

With subtle persuasion, Dryden negotiates for a longer stay of three months. Lawrence is enthusiastic about his arduous mission to Arabia: "Of course I'm the man for the job," he tells Dryden. But then: "What is the job, by the way?" Lawrence's dangerous mission is to "find Prince Feisal" (Alec Guinness), try to acquire Feisal's support, and serve as an emissary/liasion between the British and the Arabs. In Dryden's office, decorated with artifacts including an alabaster Egyptian cat statue and a painting of a golden sunrise, Dryden explains Lawrence's task.

He is to investigate the progress of the Arab Revolt against Constantinople (Turkey) and to appraise the strength of the fragmented Arab tribes for the British Political Bureau, at Prince Feisal's encampment. [The primary goal of the British was to keep the Turks - allied with the Germans in WWI - from gaining control of the Suez Canal.]:

Dryden: Find out what kind of man he is [Prince Feisal]. And find out what his intentions are. I don't mean his immediate intentions. That's Colonel Brighton's business, not yours. I mean, his intentions in Arabia all together...
Lawrence: Where are they now?
Dryden: Anywhere within three hundred miles of Medina. They are Hashimite Bedouins. They can cross sixty miles of desert in a day.
Lawrence: Oh thanks, Dryden. This is going to be fun.
Dryden: Lawrence. Only two kinds of creatures get fun in the desert. Bedouins and gods, and you are neither. Take it from me. For ordinary men, it's a burning, fiery furnace.
Lawrence (as he lights Dryden's cigar with a match): No, Dryden. It's going to be fun.
Dryden: It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.

This time, after having received permission to go into Arabia, Lawrence exhibitionistically extinguishes the match by blowing it out rather than painfully snuffing it between his fingers. The next tangerine-colored scene - a long-shot view of the burning hot Arabian desert at sunrise - is juxtaposed to the previous scene by an abrupt cut, presenting the idea that Lawrence's pleasurable masochism will now be displaced into the heated political/military situation in Arabia. That "burning, fiery furnace" of the desert will now be a far bigger challenge to control and master than the flame of a match.

Accompanied by the film's majestically sweeping score, the next scene begins with an endless horizon above which the golden desert sun slowly rises, first seen as a growing sliver of bright light. On camelback for many days, Lawrence is led across sweeping desert sand dunes by a nomadic Bedouin guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin). He slowly learns Bedouin ways and how to swiftly ride on his camel. During his camel-riding lesson, he is taught how to spur his camel forward. Lawrence impulsively makes the camel run fast, and is promptly thrown from the camel. (This is a reference to his addiction to speed in the prologue, and just like the motorcycle, he is thrown off -- a deadly premonition of his own death.) His golden hair and tan clothing blending into the natural sand-colored surroundings. At night under a sparkling, star-studded sky, he assures Tafas that although he is from England, he is unique and not fat like most English-speaking people: "I am different."

En route at a Harith well at Masruh (belonging to a rival Bedouin tribe), Tafas draws up water at the start of one of the longest, most memorable screen entrances in film history. A dust cloud and then a tiny speck appear through shimmering, mirage-like heat waves on the desert horizon - Lawrence fears it is "Turks." The ominous image, more mirage than real, steadily enlarges and grows into a human being as it comes closer and closer. Tafas, Lawrence's escort, is shot down in cold-blood by the black-robed Bedouin for drinking at the well owned by a rival tribe. Through this ugly, ferocious act of ancient Bedouin tribal warfare, a fearless Lawrence is introduced to Sheik Sherif Ali Ibn el Kharish (Omar Sharif) - (uncharacteristic for an eminently cultured man who was educated in Cairo and appears polite and graceful throughout) [Note: Lawrence develop bloodlusts as the film progresses, while Sherif Ali becomes more pacifistic]:

Sherif: He is dead.
Lawrence: Yes. WHY?
Sherif: This is my well.
Lawrence: I have drunk from it.
Sherif: You are welcome.
Lawrence: He was my friend.
Sherif: That!
Lawrence: Yes. That.
Sherif: ...You are angry, English. He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasimi may not drink at our wells. He knew that. Sa'lam.
Lawrence: Sherif Ali, so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.
Sherif: Come, I will take you to Feisal.
Lawrence: I do not want your company, Sherif.
Sherif: Wadi Safra is another day from here. You will not find it. And not finding it, you will die.
Lawrence: I will find it, with this. (He holds up his compass which Sherif snags with his camel stick.)
Sherif: Good Army compass. How if I take it?
Lawrence: Then you would be a thief.
Sherif: Have you no fear, English?
Lawrence: My fear is my concern.
Sherif: Truly. God be with you, English.

Lawrence rides off alone, singing before a rock surface and humorously listening for the echo [the compass is returned]:

...You could hear the girls declare. He must be a millionaire. You can rumpty-tumpty-tumpty-tum. Te-tuttle-e-tum-te-tum-te-tum. I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.

On a rock ledge above him, Lawrence receives echoing applause for his song from British Colonel Harry Brighton (Anthony Quayle), who has been notified by Prince Feisal that he was expected. According to Lawrence, his mission is to "appreciate the situation." Colonel Brighton, Lawrence's ranking officer in the desert, briefs him about the disarray among the demoralized Arab tribes:

Lawrence: I have been seconded to the Arab Bureau.
Brighton: Oh. What are you to do for the Arab Bureau?
Lawrence: It's rather vague sir. I'm to 'appreciate' the situation.
Brighton: Well, that won't be difficult. The situation's bloody awful. The morale, if anybody had any, which I doubt, the Turks knocked out of them in front of Medina with howitzers. They're fading away by dozens every night. What I want to say to you is this, that whatever you are, and whoever you're with, you're a British-serving officer and here's an order. When we get into that camp, you're to keep your mouth shut. Do you understand what I'm saying?

Feisel's camp is under attack from the Turks. They are interrupted by the sounds of explosions and Turkish bi-planes flying overhead in an air-raid bombing attack on the camp. Obviously indifferent to the needs of the Arabs, Brighton explains why the primitive Arabs are so vulnerable and how they ignored his suggestion to move south:

They simply will not understand what modern weapons do.

Out of the billowing black smoke, Lawrence appears almost as an answer to the Prince's prayers. Demoralized and feeling defeated, Feisal realizes his sword, and other long-standing, archaic Arab methods of warfare, are powerless against the modern weaponry from the air.

You understand, Lieutenant Lawrence, my people are unused to explosives and machines. First the guns and now this.

The thousands of Bedouins are amassed and moved further south for protection.

In a technically-accomplished scene in Feisal's tent, Sherif Ali appears (viewed first from the waist down), where Lawrence and British Colonel Brighton discuss with the wise and prophet-like Prince Feisal how the British may help absorb the Arabs into the British campaign. The primary objective of the British, however, is to protect their interests at the Suez Canal, and not to divert their attention toward assisting in the defense of the Arabs and defeating the Turks at Aqaba:

Brighton: I want a decision, sir.
Feisal: You want me to fall back on the Yenbo.
Brighton: Well, you're not doing much good here, sir. I'm sorry to rub it in, sir, but we can't supply you here.
Feisal: You could supply us through Aqaba.
Brighton: Aqaba? (laughs) Well, if you can get a hold of Aqaba sir, of course we can supply you. But you can't.
Feisal: You could.
Brighton: You mean the Navy? The Turks have 12 inch guns at Aqaba, sir. Can you imagine what that means?
Feisal: Yes, I can imagine.
Brighton: Put that out of your mind, sir. The Navy's got other things to do.
Feisal (perceptively): Oh yes. Protecting the Suez Canal.
Brighton: The one essential sector of this front is and must be the Canal. You can see that, sir, surely.
Feisal: I see that the Canal is an essential British interest. It is of little consequence to us.
Brighton: I must ask you not to speak like that, sir. British and Arab interests are one and the same.
Feisal: Possibly.
Sherif: Ha! Ha!

Brighton believes the Arab guerrilla tribes should retreat to Yenbo because they need discipline, training by European officers (and ultimately absorption into the regular British forces), and equipment: "a modern rifle for every man." Instead, Feisel demands "guns like the Turkish guns at Medina." Brighton insists that the English must first teach the Bedouin to "fight a modern, mechanized army." Although silenced by his military superior for being a disloyal "traitor," young Lawrence is sympathetic with Feisal's views and will not remain quiet. He is allowed to speak his personal opinions in "Feisal's tent," expressing a "passionate" appreciation of the vastness of the desert and the independent fighting spirit of the Arab tribes:

Lawrence: I think your book is right. The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped. And on this ocean, the Bedouin go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedouin has always fought. You are famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now.
Brighton: I don't know.
Lawrence: I'm sorry sir, but you're wrong. Fall back on Yenbo, sir, and the Arab uprising becomes one poor unit in the British army.

Lawrence remains with the soft-spoken Feisal after Brighton and Sherif Ali leave the tent, and as they speak about the Arab destiny in the face of Western warfare, the masts of the tent creak as the wind blows. All too well, Prince Feisal understands the imperialistic English hunger for Arab lands. "Desert-loving" Lawrence has his own personal hungers for "desolate places":

Feisal: Colonel Brighton means to put my men under European officers, does he not?
Lawrence: In effect my lord, yes.
Feisal: And I must do it because the Turks have European guns. But I fear to do it. Upon my soul I do. The English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia.
Lawrence: Then you must deny it to them.
Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?
Lawrence: To England, and to other things.
Feisal: To England and Arabia both? And is that possible? (He walks right up close and looks into Lawrence's eyes.) I think you are another of these desert-loving English...No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with because we are a little people? A silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel? What do you know, Lieutenant. In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village...
Lawrence: Yes, you were great.
Feisal: ..nine centuries ago...
Lawrence: Time to be great again, my Lord.
Feisal: ...which is why my father made this war upon the Turks. My father, Mr. Lawrence, not the English. Now my father is old. And I, I long for the vanished gardens of Cordova. However, before the gardens must come fighting. To be great again, it seems that we need the English or...
Lawrence: ...or?...
Feisal: ...what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence. We need a miracle!

The camera follows Lawrence's footprints on the ripples of the blowing desert dunes. As he wanders through the night and into the morning light, he contemplates whether he will be the messianic, god-like, miraculous savior of the Arabs. He announces his decision to capture the Turkish garrison at the port of Aqaba:

Aqaba. Aqaba, from the land.


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