When it comes to the film epic, it might be fair to say there are two kinds: Lawrence of Arabia and others. To be sure, there are plenty of films that aspire to go big — be it butt-testing running times; stories that cover years, if not decades; or spectacles on the grandest of scales. But Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a different beast altogether. Relying less on overt pomp and largely devoid of ornate sets or heightened reality, the film derives its grandeur from remarkable desert landscapes and an intensity generated not just from incident but from the inner lives of its characters. In this, the film was no doubt aided by being based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the film is also rooted in the keen sense of character and relationships that director David Lean showcased in his earlier, more modest dramas like Brief Encounter (1945). By being — or at least feeling — true to history and humanity, Lawrence of Arabia is able to take one man’s story and make it as intense and sprawling as the desert itself. (227 min.)
S. – The film delivers bigtime on two fronts, as a visual spectacle and an intriguing character study that poses some pretty uncomfortable questions. Lawrence is the ideal vehicle for a subversive take on British action (or inaction, as the case may be) in far flung regions under the banner of WWI, an outsider whose curiosity and bravado make for a soldier unlikely to toe the line. The insanity of what follows is metered out in a deftly paced narrative that truly takes you along for the ride. While some of the incident is rather heavy-handed it fits with big personalities facing-off in such a grand and unusual landscape. This is a Wild West story to the power of 10, in look, scope and intensity. In particular Peter O’Toole’s performance is masterful at bringing the audacity and drive of Lawrence to the screen. Harmonising the dramatic cinematography with these operatic characters while telling a story that manages to feel both world-changing and personal is no mean feat. I was impressed with David Lean for Brief Encounter, in Lawrence of Arabia he has something that has to be experienced to be believed.
J. – You know, I was planning to kick off my part of the discussion with the desert, because it is so dominating a force in the film. But reading what you’ve written, S., I think that would have been the wrong choice, because this film ultimately succeeds because of its characters and performances. And you are right on when saying that O’Toole really brings it with regard to Lawrence’s audacity and drive, but I think that only presents half of the character and the performance. O’Toole’s Lawrence is an intensely driven individual, but he is also an oddball and a man whose fey, intellectual demeanor plays at strong odds to his man of action status. Lawrence is an effeminate man controlling intensely macho scenarios, and that adds a compelling twist to the typical depiction of a hero — humanizing the character and making him feel deeply real. As it happens, I have read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab revolt, and it is remarkable how well O’Toole was able to grasp the feel of Lawrence’s internal voice — a man of such contradictions that he jauntily refused to comply with an editor’s request to give standardized spellings to Arab place names in his own book. And this film really puts Lawrence through the ringer, having him face stigmatization among his own people, alienation in the desert, torture, loss, and the horror of his own bloodlust. It is a remarkable thing that O’Toole was able to bring such clear-eyed intensity to the performance without ever losing control or flying into theatrics.
I don’t think any of the other performances in the film are as strong as O’Toole’s, but the ensemble packaged together for Lawrence of Arabia is truly exceptional. The big standout performance among supporting characters comes from Omar Sharif, who serves as the moral center of the film and brings a quiet passion to his scenes. His Sherif Ali is a man of principle — principles he sees violated at every turn, and Sharif plays the roll as a tightly coiled character, eager for justice but always on the edge of pouncing. It was rightfully a star-making turn for the Egyptian-born actor. However, I have some reservations about the two other main Arab characters in the film: Prince Feisal and Auda Abu Tayi. I know it was a common feature of older films, but there is something quite disturbing about these parts being played by a Brit and Mexican, respectively. A shame too because I feel that both Alec Guiness (as Feisal) and Anthony Quinn (as Auda) deliver terrific performances.
S. – I love that this film, while celebrating the heroic acts of Lawrence, is not afraid to repeatedly place his morality in question. Particularly when measured against the behaviour of Ali. Both are men of action and intellect but the conceit of Lawrence in assuming he knows better than his Arab counterpart is a weakness the viewer can clearly see. Omar Sharif brings substance and charisma to a pivotal role, if Lawrence is lauded for his success in rallying the locals to his side it is in no small part due to the guidance exerted, both overtly and at times more subtly, by the respected Ali. The internal conflicts of both characters are expertly played out. For Lawrence often dramatically so as he battles his own ego, for Ali the struggle is quieter but deeper as he tries to find a way to bring about victory that is meaningful for the people he feels responsible for. I agree that Alec Guiness is also marvellous as Feisal, the British certainly don’t have a monopoly on politics and the wily Prince is a force to be reckoned with. Every scene he is in throws a twist into the plot. Despite this raft of talent it is a shame that there is an absence of Arab actors in the leading cast, it does undermine the authenticity of the film to a degree, especially since part of the appeal comes from the three-dimensional representation of the non-English characters. But we do have to talk about the desert, J., as Lean has made it the biggest character of all.
J. – The desert landscapes of Lawrence of Arabia are beyond remarkable, and not just for the scenery itself but for the way that Lean chose to film them. The movie isn’t afraid of space and distance, frequently pulling back to focus on the sheer immensity of the landscape. In some scenes camels and men are reduced to mere blips in an ocean of rock and sand. This is a fantastic choice by Lean, because it presents an opportunity to highlight the beauty of the desert but also the harsh inhospitality of the environment — the sense that it is not a place in which man is meant to dwell. This firm establishment of the environment allows for Lean to play up the narrative tension of many scenes, the most famous being the introduction of Ali out of the mirages on the horizon. Though this scene is early in the film, Lean has already established the environment through massive desert shots, and by stretching out the slow approach of the black-clad Ali the viewer gets a sense that even though this stranger is distant, there is no escape.
I first saw Lawrence of Arabia when I was about 13 on my family’s tiny little TV, and boy was I cheated. Some movies are custom made to be experienced on the big screen — Lawrence of Arabia is not one of those films; it goes way further than that. It will kill your dog and burn your house down (metaphorically) if you don’t watch it in a theater. So it is with superhuman jealousy, S., that I reflect on the fact that you have only seen this movie on the big, big screen of the Astor Theatre. I mean, imagine watching this film for the first time on a screen so small that it looked pretty much like this:
S. – The mega Astor screen seemed barely able to contain Lean’s desert, it was a joy to view it large. At times it is almost an alien landscape that is at it’s most beautiful when the humans are out of the picture. To a degree the scale of the environment made the human concerns seem trivial and transient but the vitality of the characters was still able to draw me into the personal and political struggles that unfolded. Part of the appeal was the treatment given to the British military campaign. This was not a case of the mighty empire sweeping in to save the locals from themselves, while Lawrence has heroic tendencies his bravado is sympathetic largely because of how it contrasts with the shallow and callous power he is representing. The fact that as an individual he so clearly struggled with his role in the conflict was an indictment of the British military strategy. There are also flaws aplenty on the Arab side. Rather than this being a narrative of the good team versus the bad it is more a study of the corrupting potential of power and a delivers a frank appraisal of the horse-trading that occurs in war, far away from the fighting. The story is complex, wonderfully told and spectacular to watch. There are many reasons that Lawrence of Arabia is difficult to forget.
J. – The politics of this film are indeed interesting — particularly the sharply critical appraisal of British imperialism. There is a great danger in films like Lawrence of Arabia — namely the idea of a white man who becomes like the indigenous people and in doing so becomes their savior against white aggressors (see barf-fests like Dances With Wolves or Avatar). To be fair, Lawrence of Arabia does tread in dangerous waters on this front, particularly in the casting of some of the “Arab” roles. But I think it generally skirts this problem in a number of ways. For one thing, the British, while rapacious and racist, are led by two particularly charismatic actors — Jack Hawkins and (hell yeah!) Claude Raines. These performances are not overbearing warmongers, but rather cultured political animals who win through savvy and cool subterfuge. For another, the Arabs are not idealized as “noble savages” nor are they depicted as brutes. The Arab leaders are put forward as earnest and determined (Omar Sharif); ruthless and boorish (Anthony Quinn); and incisive and politically astute (Alec Guiness) — the sheer variety of attitudes and aptitudes on display makes it impossible for the Arabs to be pigeonholed, and it is a great strength of the film.
Indeed, complexity is a hallmark of the film as it explores politics and policy, war and strategy, race relations, imperialism, sexuality, the ability (or lack thereof) of people to engage across cultures, what it means to be of a particular people, honor, the thrill and revulsion of violence, and much more. In the ancient Near East it was the desert to which people fled to seek truth — leaving the world to understand it better. Lawrence of Arabia does much the same, using a largely forgotten conflict in the sands — a side show of a side show, as the film puts it — to seek truths about larger issues, the biggest issues. And that it can do so in an accessible, engaging adventure film is at least a petite miracle — manna for the cinematic soul.