Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean. Cast: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy, Anthony Quayle, José Ferrer, Donald Wolfit. Screenplay: Robert Bolt (adapted from the book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and other writings by T.E. Lawrence).

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia opens, almost perversely, with the death and funeral of its protagonist, many years after the incidents which brought him enough notoriety to be buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. On the steps of the building, a reporter asks several of the funeral attendees for their impressions of T.E. Lawrence. One man—a war correspondent named Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy—reels off an admirable list of heroic qualities. Once off the record, however, he admits that Lawrence was also "the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey." A by-stander scuffs Bentley on the shoulder, stating "I overheard your last remark and take the gravest exception; he was a very great man."

I recount these incidents so specifically because they suggest early and concisely what is both magnificent about Lawrence of Arabia and what is ultimately maddening about it. Much like the image of Lawrence he presents, Lean is a director of grand ideas and relentless conviction; he throws himself into this picture as fully and committedly as T.E. Lawrence did into the siege of Aqaba, or the crossing of the Sinai Peninsula. By this juncture in his career, however, following a long period in which he was known for intimate and pensive personal dramas like 1946's Brief Encounter and 1955's Summertime, Lean had also emerged as one of the most shameless exhibitionists since...well, if you believe Mr. Bentley, since T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia is majestic and ambitious, a 3-hour and 45-minute picture about a somewhat esoteric campaign (at least in Western eyes) of World War I that is nonetheless high-spirited, rousing, and almost hypnotically beautiful. There is a great deal to be said in favor of the picture, and yet Lean, screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), and their colleagues afford themselves two luxuries they cannot afford. One is the absence of any concrete or sustained point of view; the other, somewhat of a corollary to the first, is the avoidance of any real statement about who T.E. Lawrence was or why he did what he did. Lawrence, both the man and the movie, are treated with a detached reverence that keep them essentially unknowable: inspiring in the way that the Pyramids are inspiring, and as glorious but inscrutable as the dunes.

Bolt's script, adapted from Colonel Lawrence's autobiography, introduces the character in flashback, dating to when he was Lieutenant Lawrence and held a quite literally basement-level position coloring in maps of the desert. We immediately perceive this occupation to be a horrible waste—not only because Lawrence is fluent in Arabic and both knows and cares much about the plight of the Arab people against the Germany-allied Turks, but for the simpler reason that Lawrence is played by Peter O'Toole, in a raffish, witty, enormously appealing debut performance. We hate to see O'Toole's quick bilingual tongue or his baby blue peepers droning away in such gloomy surroundings, so we are thrilled to see him sprung by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), an English diplomat who requests that Lawrence be relieved to undertake a vaguely described, three-month mission assessing the mood (i.e., the potential for revolt) among the affronted Bedouins of Arabia. Glad enough to be rid of the rascal, Lawrence's superiors approve the assignment and ship him off into the subcontinent.

Whatever its other virtues or faults, Lawrence of Arabia will always be remembered as the film that made the desert seem like the perfect earthly paradise. Freddie Young's Oscar-winning photography can't get enough of shimmering suns and curvaceous crests of sand, and here in the picture's beginning, though such is not always the case, these resplendent images actually cohere with the dramatic content of the scenes. Young gives us some context for Lawrence's wonderment at his new arena, his simultaneous sense of how impossibly grand the desert is, but also of how virginal, how seemingly untouched, and how ready it is for him to make his own mark. Lawrence, as he freely admits, is a perpetual outsider, "different" from other Englishmen or from other soldiers, and we suspect he yearns for a proving-ground where he may demonstrate his own unique virtues. The freshly-shifted sands give Lawrence the impression that no Westerner has ever made footprints where he now walks; the canyons and outcroppings receive the idle singing with which he passes his travel time and magnify them into splendid, stentorian reverberations. He's hooked.

Not everything in the desert is so friendly, however, and one of Lawrence's earliest scenes is also one of its darkest and best: the appearance of Sherif Ali, played by Omar Sharif in another first-time performance. Ali is a sort of buccaneer on a camel, one who shoots Lawrence's guide for drinking from his well, then antagonizes the Englishman for believing he can survive in the desert, much less gain access to Feisal, the leader of Ali's tribe and the man whom Dryden most wanted Lawrence to meet. Lawrence belittles Ali's territorialism and casual violence, asserting that the Arabs will remain "a little people, a silly people, barbarous and cruel" until they learn to cooperate with those who could help them, including their neighbor tribes. The scene has a spare, Beckett-like quality, dropping all concern with visual splendor or historical events to capture, however briefly, the birth of both respect and rivalry between these two men.

Of course, none of the individual tribes of Bedouins think of "the Arabs" as anything but a specious moniker devised by the West to broadly describe (and therefore marginalize) a huge diversity of communities, each with their own leadership, traditions, and beliefs. That point is first made clear to Lawrence when he finally obtains an audience with Feisal, played by Lean favorite Alec Guinness with customary dignity, but in a transparent regime of "ethnicizing" makeup and accent that recall all those white British Thespians who at different times have fancied themselves Othellos. In any event, something in Lawrence responds to Feisal and his predicament, and he devises a plan by which Feisal's men, if they are willing both to cross the allegedly impassable Nefud desert and to forge at least a temporary alliance with another Bedouin tribe, may take the port of Aqaba back from the Turkish invaders , thus exerting their own force toward claiming official sovereignty over their own Arab land.

What follows is a cross between the great Hollywood war films of the 1940's and the DeMille-produced religious epics of the 1950's. Not only do the scale of Lean's vision and his geographic setting recall those Ten Commandments-type pictures, so do the improbable gaggle of international actors recruited to the project, ranging from the Irish O'Toole and American Kennedy to the Mexican-born Anthony Quinn as a sheik and the erstwhile Frenchman José Ferrer as a Turk. The acting styles of the cast members are as wide-ranging as their nationalities, though Quinn's blazing machismo and Rains' reliable drollery are perhaps showcased to best effect. Sharif is a riveting presence to watch, but Ali is rarely written as more than just the sort of fiery, untempered "prince of darkness" stereotype which Lawrence of Arabia pretends to dispell around Arabian men.

This ambivalent approach to Sharif's character emblematizes the major problem with Lawrence of Arabia, a nagging refusal to pick one position or perspective and stick with it. The post-funeral opening and flashback segue of the beginning imply that Lawrence will be a memory picture, a subjective and perhaps unreliable image of the man culled from many men's disparate recollections. The fact that we do not return to the funeral at the picture's end, however, proves how little interest Bolt or Lean had in that device, and how decidedly un-subjective the tone of the picture really is. Lean studies Lawrence rather than adopting Lawrence's own perspective; he follows several characters, particularly those of Guinness and Sharif, as they regard Lawrence, but the film doesn't assume their perspectives either. In a signature moment during the taking of Aqaba, the camera retreats from Lawrence and his comrades, withdrawing entirely from the city until the zoom-out has placed us all the way atop a rocky cliff overlooking the city. Young's cinematography here is great if you're a postcard-printer, but it robs us of any notion of what Aqaba looks like during the battle, of how the siege is conducted, or of what Lawrence, Ali, or anyone else is feeling as the Arabs and Turks go hand to hand.

The only inference we can draw is that Lawrence of Arabia has, by the time of this scene, assumed the vantage point of History, as if an unbiased, conglomerate, unimpeachable perspective of What Really Happened can be achieved in film (or in academics, for that matter). Not only is the claim impossible to support, but it leaves us without crucial information about the characters' experiences which later sequences demand we possess. For example, when he returns to Cairo to announce the capture of Aqaba, Lawrence is haunted by the memories of having killed two men in his troop, one a member of Guinness' tribe who stole from a member of Quinn's, the other a boy guide drowned in a sinkhole during the trek across the Sinai. O'Toole does a fine job of approximating Lawrence's horror at their deaths, but what about all the Turks he killed in the siege? Did he kill any? How did he do it? We need this information not only for the Cairo scene, but to make sense of the entire final hour of the movie, where Lawrence seeks to abandon Arabia out of horror at the blood that has been shed around him. Why does that particular misgiving afflict him at the particularly moment it does? Unfortunately, Lean and Young were too busy filming their desert panoramas in the picture's first half to construct more solid foundations for their characters.

Additionally, Young is not above fudging details to give a shot more gratuitous visual impact. During the crossing of the Nefud, he gives a close-up of a Bedouin traveller's bare foot gingerly navigating a sharp sea of what look like basalt deposits, though in all of the previous shots during the crossing, every man in the party wore sandals. Again, Young and Lean have conspicuously gone for style over substance, visceral imagery over narrative consistency.

But worse than all of these tendencies—or perhaps just the gravest extension of the very same pattern—is the script's refusal to flesh out the character of Lawrence more fully than it does. Occasionally, we receive a tidbit of character background, as in his admission to Ali that his mother and father never married, or his avowal that selfish motives have motivated his decision to lead the Arabs into Damascus: "The best of them won't do it for money, but they'll do it for me!" There is even a strange and disturbing sequence of torture in Ferrer's headquarters that suggests Lawrence may have been sexually assaulted by his captors, but Lean is out of practice with the craft of subtlety; the sequence ends abruptly and is never fully explained. Most often, Lawrence is kept instead at a considerable distance, often rendered as a literal shadow on the sand, silhouette against the sunrise, or a murky image behind dusty, obfuscating glass.

A parallel figure from a later film is the depiction of Oskar Schindler in Spielberg's Schindler's List, but the enigma of Schindler arose in that film from our difficulty in reconciling different impulses (toward womanizing, toward war profiteering, toward the saving of Jewish lives) that the man himself could not make sense of. The Lawrence of Lean's film, by contrast, is often shown as an introspective and self-analyzing type; it's just that his thoughts are frustratingly and rather arbirtrarily kept secret from us, in the interest I suppose of perpetuating the mystery of a man whom one funeral attendee asserted "no one really knew." Many films have concluded that their characters defied understanding, that the disparate components of their personalities—private, public, or both—could not be reconciled. Most, however, at least attempt to cast some light on such protagonists, but Lean and Bolt throw the towel in on that project before the film has even started. Cryptic, melodramatic declarations, such as Lawrence's announcement that "a man can do whatever he wants, but he cannot want whatever he wants," do nothing to resolve our confusion.

In the end, as its title implies, Lawrence of Arabia dodges the issue of filling out the character by consistently analogizing him to the scene of his triumphs. Person and place become to the filmmakers synonymous. The ceaseless attention to the desert's magnificence is Lean and Young's cue for us to see Lawrence as equally magnificent, a lofty estimation that nothing in the film, particularly in terms of character or motivation, ever really substantiates. O'Toole at least makes Lawrence creditably larger than life, but what saves the movie from total pomposity—indeed, what makes the film electric and involving, at least while it's still playing—is the undeniable "cinematicness" of the story it tells. No other medium could have communicated the sensory grandness of the desert, and thus conveyed to us why Lawrence could not really leave it, even after his goals had become unclear and the alliances among his colleagues uneasy at best.

Lawrence of Arabia makes the point, like Nanook of the North before it and The Piano later on, that the fact of where a person is can have everything to do with how he acts, whom he trusts, and what he thinks. Perhaps T.E. Lawrence was grand because, even more than the Arabs he encountered, he dared to see such a vast, inhospitable territory as a macrocosmic stage, not just for his brilliant tactical maneuvers and strategies, but for his own ongoing project of realizing his potential, for himself and all the world to see. The "impossible" crossing of the Nefud, the attempt at an Arab National Conference—perhaps Lawrence devised (and usually met) such outlandish goals because they alone were appropriate to such an extreme, outlandish locale. One cannot help but wish that the smaller, more studious David Lean of Brief Encounter and Summertime could have added his two cents to this panoramic project; if so, I might not depend so fully on "perhaps" clauses in mining Lawrence for meaning. Its failures notwithstanding, however, Lawrence of Arabia is a laudable achievement and a rewarding mystery, an invitation to spend four hours with a man in the land he called home, and still leave the picture with a bounty of questions and a renewed appreciation for the places a movie can take you. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: David Lean
Best Actor: Peter O'Toole
Best Supporting Actor: Omar Sharif
Best Adapted Screenplay: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Best Supporting
Best Cinematography (Color): Freddie Young
Best Art Direction (Color): John Box; John Stoll & Dario Simoni
Best Film Editing: Anne V. Coates
Best Original Score: Maurice Jarre
Best Sound: John Cox

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: David Lean
Best Actor (Drama): Peter O'Toole
Best Actor (Drama): Anthony Quinn
Best Supporting Actor: Omar Sharif
Best Cinematography (Color): Freddie Young
Best Original Score: Maurice Jarre

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Director

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