Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite films, and the main reason for this is because no matter how many times I watch it (which admittedly has only been three so far) I still can’t quite figure out the main character. I can watch it and come to conclusions, but I’m never completely sure about this guy. It’s kind of like Citizen Kane in that way, except without the clear cut ending that explains everything.
T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a British lieutenant stationed in Cairo during WWI. He is chosen for a special mission and takes it even though he doesn’t know what it is because he wants to be doing more exciting things than drawing maps in a “nasty dark little room.” He has to go into the desert and track down Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness) to find out what his plans are. As usual, the English are just trying to gain control over more areas and wouldn’t mind getting Arabia from the Turks when WWI is over. The General is not too excited about letting him go, because Lawrence is kind of weird and not very military-like, but Dryden (Claude Rains) thinks it might work so he lets him. Lawrence is excited, thinking that the desert is “going to be fun.”
He gets a guide and they set out across the desert on camel. (It’s awesome how many camels are in this film.) He is immediately determined not to drink more water or take it any easier on the journey than his guide is. I’m guessing he feels he has to prove himself here; that he’s as tough as any of these guys who live in the desert full-time and not just a whimpy white guy. His desire to prove himself is intensified when his guide is killed by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking at his tribe’s (the Harith) well. They are very territorial about their wells in Arabia, and obviously with good reason. This is the first example of why the tribes of Arabia cannot make much headway against the Turks; they consider themselves separate tribes and will not work together. One of Lawrence’s personal missions (that the English government and military does not give him) is to unite the tribes together into one nation of Arabia. Whether this is actually a feasible idea or just evidence of a eurocentric view that assumes people of such different backgrounds can unite together because they “savages” that live in the same desert is an interesting question, and another aspect that I enjoy about the film. Ali offers to become Lawrence’s guide, but he refuses seemingly because Ali killed his friend. Whether he refuses because of this reason, or because Ali contradicted Lawrence’s view of Arabia, because he simply wanted to go alone as more proof of how tough he is, or some combination of these is still unclear to me.
He makes it to Prince Faisal’s camp on his own without a guide. He meets his superior officer there: Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle). They then go to talk to Faisal, and while Lawrence doesn’t make too good of an impression on Brighton here he does impress Faisal with his knowledge of the Quran and his concern for the interests of the Arabs. He speaks out of turn and Brighton is totally shut out of the conversation. He is trying to convince Faisal to retreat back to Yenbo, but Lawrence contends that will merely subjugate the Arabs to the English even further. What they need to do, he argues, is fight the way Arabs have always fought, not with artillery but stealth, across the desert. Faisal cannot quite figure out why this English guy seems to be so frank with him, when he is clearly supposed to be backing up Brighton. Lawrence goes off on his own and thinks about it for awhile, and decides the best thing to do is cross the Nefud desert which is considered impossible. Then they can take Aqaba by surprise with the help of the Howeitat tribe; they do not have to worry about the Turks’ artillery because the guns only face the water and cannot turn around. He thinks that the hostile Howeitat will be convinced to join them, knowing they have accomplished the impossible.
That’s basically how it goes down too, but there are a couple of bumps in the road. Two young outcasts who want to be Lawrence’s servants (they’re kind of like groupies actually) sneak along with the group and are eventually discovered. They are about to be punished for disobeying, but Lawrence takes them on as servants thereby saving them. When they offered before, he declined, but once some sort of saving component comes in, he goes for it. I think if he had taken them on before, he would have felt that they were the ones helping him, instead of the other way around. They are illegitimate, and later we find out Lawrence is as well. This adds another dimension to his helping them; not only do they share a common social stigma but they are in a more needy position than previously supposed.
They are able to cross the desert, and when they have almost reached the well on the other side (belonging to the Howeitat) Lawrence turns back to help a man who has fallen off his camel and is now stranded in the desert. Ali is furious at him for leaving the group, but does it anyway and succeeds in saving the man. Later, after they have joined the Howeitat (which took some convincing) the same man murders one of them presumably because of a “blood feud or theft, it makes no difference.” The Howeitat are then obligated to avenge the death of their fellow tribeman, and one of the Harith will have to kill a Howeitat guy and so on and so on. Lawrence puts himself in the middle to end it, and thereby kills the same man he rode back into the desert to save. Ali and Auda (the leader of the Howeitat, played by Anthony Quinn) agree that this shows that Lawrence should have left him there in the first place. “It was written, then” that the man was going to die. The interesting thing is that it is Lawrence that takes charge of his fate both times; it’s like he has complete power over this man.
They are then able to take Aqaba, and Lawrence rides back with his servants to Cairo to tell the General of what they have accomplished. They have to cross another desert that is considered difficult, but that doesn’t stop Lawrence: if “Moses did” it, then he can too. He loses one of the boys in a sandstorm, but the he and the other make it back to Cairo. This is my favorite moment in the film: the Arab boy and Lawrence dressed as an Arab walk into the officer’s bar even though Arabs are not supposed to be in there. He just walks in and demands lemonade of all things, and tell them “we’ve taken Aqaba.” Everyone is stunned, and Dryden says “before he did it, I’d have said it couldn’t be done.” Lawrence is shaken up by all of these events, but General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) promotes him and convinces him to go back out there anyway. He decides to use gorilla warfare against the Turks to great success, and is followed by a journalist (Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy) looking to use him to encourage America to join the war.
This is where Lawrence starts to get really full of himself. Not that he was the pinnacle of modesty before, but here it gets out of hand. He literally thinks he can get away with anything, and honestly after all he has accomplished who can blame him. Well obviously you should still blame him of course, because he gets to be a bit of jerkface here instead of the quirky slightly overconfident but somehow still lovable guy that he formally was. He expects everybody to follow him just because of who he is even if he is asking the impossible. He’s riding for a fall, and a really big one. It’s impossible not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him when it comes. He goes back to Cairo to ask to be sent home, but no way is Allenby going to send him home when he can move this ferocious fighting force all across the desert. He convinces Lawrence that he is, after all, “extraordinary” and that no one can unite the Arabs as he has done. All he has to do is go back out there, but it seems the only way he can get himself to do this is by being an even bigger egotistical jerkface.
He hires a bunch of thugs as his personal guards, summons all of the tribes, and then rides off to Damascus. They massacre some Turks on the way, and Lawrence doesn’t feel to great about that but does it anyway of course. Everyone criticizes him afterward, but it’s not like they weren’t murdering people either. They get there before the Brits, just as Lawrence had promised. The Arabs set up a governing body taking control over the city, but they are fighting so much between the various tribes that they cannot get anything done. Once the Brits show up, they figure all they have to do is wait for all of the Arabs to go home, which is exactly what happens. So in the end, Lawrence fails to unite the Arabs for any meaningful purpose other than to help out the English and basically gets nothing in return.
As I said before, the main reason I love this film is because Lawrence is such a fascinating character and the story allows him and the audience to discover him as it progresses on. I feel like the main issue here is basically that he sees himself as one thing, but is actually something else that simply wants to be the thing he sees himself is. At the beginning he believes that he is the person who will unite the Arabs, do impossible things, and help them get their freedom. But after awhile he figures out that he wants to be the freedom-granter more than he wants the Arabs to have their freedom. You can tell this when he comes back after the intermission and instead of talking about “smashing railways” and such he says “they’re fighting for their freedom. And I’m going to give it to them.” He’s broadened his goals considerably and also his own role in them, but he is not yet self-aware enough to realize that he is playing a self-important role. Once he discovers this, he questions his position in the Arab army and whether he should really be doing any of these things. He feels he should go back to England because that’s who he is; much to his dismay he is not an Arab. That’s just one way of looking at it though, and it happens to be the one I saw the last time I watched it. The first time I had no clue what was going on, to be honest. The second time I used Heart of Darkness to help me understand it, but that’s slightly complicated I think because that involves two people discovering each other and themselves, but it was still useful as an intermediary step. Even though I just saw it, I can’t wait to watch it again and see something else.
The story and Lawrence’s character are the most compelling elements of the film for me, but those are certainly not the only good things about the film. I also love the score; it’s fantastically memorable and sounds like I’d expect Arabia to sound. I’ve already mentioned how there are so many camels in this movie, and that’s because there are a bunch of people needing them to ride on in this movie. The scope is huge; we’re talking epic, Ben-Hur level here. It was shot entirely on location (I believe) and it’s beautiful. I’ve been meaning to pay more attention to Lean’s direction which I’m sure is fantastic and all but I never can focus on it because I’m too busy paying attention to all the other awesomeness going on (I’m laying the groundwork for a sequel here). While I was researching the film, I did read this cool story about how Peter O’Toole almost got killed when the were filming the Aqaba part. He fell off his camel but luckily it stood over him, protecting him from the other charging camels that could have trampled him.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest films I have ever seen, ever. I don’t just love it because it’s big and important, but also because it’s just such an engrossing story. Most of the people that I have made watch it haven’t liked it, so I guess I will have to concede that it’s not for everybody but it immerses me completely every time I watch it. It seems like one of those classics that you have to have a PhD to understand, which might be true, but it still affects me in a way that most films can’t. The Academy certainly recognized it in 1962, nominating it for ten awards and giving it seven. It was nominated for best art direction, best cinematography, best director, editing, original score, best picture, best sound, best actor (O’Toole), best supporting actor (Sharif), and best adapted screenplay. It won the first seven. I’m still mad that Peter O’Toole didn’t win best actor, because let’s face it this film is what he’s primarily remembered for. In fact, he’s never won an Oscar unless you count those honorary lifetime ones. He is the most nominated actor without a win; he was nominated eight times. However, Gregory Peck won that year for his performance as Atticus Finch and to be honest he deserved it too. Ah well.
“Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars