Lawrence of Arabia: David Lean’s magnum opus is an astounding mix of cinema-art and popular entertainment, with Peter O’Toole giving one of the greatest screen performances ever

Lawrence of Arabia(1962) is the great British director, David Lean’s magnum opus, and features Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence, along with a great supporting cast of Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins. The film, based on Lawrence’s autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, depicts Lawrence’s adventures during WW I ,when he lead the Arabs against Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.

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. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.

Jackson Bentley

He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew

Colonel Brighton

No, i didn’t know him well you know

General Allenby

Knew him?, never knew him. he had some minor function on my staff in Cairo

General Murray

Year: 1935

Location: St Paul’s Cathedral, London

Occasion: T. E. Lawrence’s memorial service

The great British soldier and archaeologist, Thomas Edward Lawrence, has just passed away in a motorcycle accident. All his friends and acquaintances have gathered together at St. Paul’s cathedral to pay their respects. A reporter is running around the premises of the cathedral, noting down insights on Lawrence from the men who knew him. And as quoted above, he gets widely varying and contradictory views on this enigmatic man. This is how British director, David Lean’s masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia”, based on T. E. Lawrence’s life, begins. This opening narrative framing is directly inspired from Orson Welles’ masterpiece, “Citizen Kane”- the death of the protagonist followed by the attempts of journalists to unearth the man behind the legend. But unlike the slam-bang opening of “Kane”, where strange camera angles and editing cuts are employed, Lean, a classical filmmaker in all its purity, uses long takes and measured editing for this opening. And like “Kane”, this film also will be narrated in a flashback, but unlike “Kane”, where the narration was chopped up into different episodes from the subjective POV of Kane’s acquaintances, Lean follows a linear, third-person narrative, in which he would try to reconcile the various POVs on Lawrence; though in the end, like the reporter at the cathedral, he himself couldn’t unravel much about the contradictory emotions and intentions that drive Lawrence. Like an adventurous desert odyssey, the beauty of the film lies in in this enchanting journey to explore Lawrence’s character, rather than in the end results of that quest. And what an extraordinary cinematic journey it is!. David Lean, with the help of his collaborators, screenwriters, Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, Cinematographer extraordinaire, Freddie Young, production designer, John Box, editor, Anne V. Coates, music composer, Maurice Jarre and a talented group of international actors, has conjured up a cinematic miracle- a film that scores 10 out of 10 in every department; whether it’s direction, acting, screenplay, music, editing, sound design or photography, it’s perfection all around; it set benchmarks in cinema that has rarely ever been transcended. The film is mounted on a scale that’s unparalleled in movie history- costing about $15 million(in 1962 money, when an average cost of a film was around 1\3rd of that), the film was shot for 285 days over a period of 2 years in the blistering deserts of Morocco, Jordan and Spain, with the cast and crew literally living the same life as Lawrence and his Bedouin allies did. Lean brilliantly mixes the aesthetics of British theater- rooted in strong, interesting characters,, lively character interactions and sophisticated, witty dialogue- with the aesthetics of a lavish, Hollywood epic- massive sets, cast of thousands, exotic locations, big battle sequences- to come up with a unique film, that’s at once a profound character study as well as a spectacular war epic (biopic).

After General Murray(Donald Wolfit) makes that observation about Lawrence doing some minor work in Cairo, the film directly (jump) cuts to Cairo, circa 1915, where we see a young Lawrence making maps in a “dark little room”. He’s a disgruntled soldier pining for the bright vistas of the desert rather than being cooked up in that nasty darkness. Lawrence soon gets his wish, when the cunning beauracrat, Mr. Dryden(Claude Rains), manipulates General Murray into seconding Lawrence to the “Arab Bureau”. The Arabs are at war with Turkey for their independence, and the British intends to use them for their own war-efforts. Lawrence is to meet up with the leader of the Arabs, Prince Faisal(Alec Guinness), understand his motives, assess the situation and report back to Dryden; he’s in no way to provide any military assistance. An overjoyed Lawrence jumps headlong into the mission, but once in the desert, and in the company of Faisal, he disregards his orders and openly moves against his superior in the Bureau, Col. Brighton(Anthony Quayle). Brighton wants the tribal Arab army- besieged by the modern Turkish army- to fall back on Yanbu, but Lawrence proposes, and then with the help of Sherif Ali(Omar Sharif), embarks upon a daring mission to cross the Nefud desert and take the port city of Aqaba from the Turks. The two part mission: first, to cross the Nefud- “the worst place god created”-and then the capture of Aqaba, turns out to be, not only an important event in the British middle-eastern campaign, but a life-altering one for Lawrence, as he transforms from an ordinary soldier into an invincible god- both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the Bedouins, who starts calling him El Aurence and dress him up in royal Arabic robes.

The existential and sadomasochistic aspect of Lawrence, which we had witnessed in the opening Cairo section- Lawrence extinguishing a burning matchstick with his fingers and espousing his philosophy “the trick is not *minding* that it hurts” comes to full bloom in the blistering Nefud desert, when he decides to go back and save Ghazim(I. S. Johar)-who had accidentally fallen of his camel. He denounces the other Bedouins who claim that “Ghazim’s time has come, It’s written”, with his own “Nothing is written”. He goes back to do the impossible, and succeeds in saving Ghazim and bringing him back to safety. Thus he proves that he’s someone who can write his own destiny-as Ali tells him “for some men, nothing is written until they write it”;, who can do whatever he wants if he sets his *mind* to it. His body and his destiny are slaves to his whim, and therefore he starts believing in is own godliness. It’s further amplified when he manages to de even more impossible things- like getting the wild and lusty Sheikh Auda Abu Tayi of the “Howeitat” tribe to join hands with Ali’s forces to mount an attack on Aqaba. Though Auda is on Turk’s payroll, Lawrence manages to turn him to their side with the promise of a big box of gold in Aqaba. But before they could march on Aqaba, a delicate problem arises that threatens to breakup the newfound Arab unity- one member of Auda’s tribe has been killed by a member of Ali’s tribe in a blood-feud. Lawrence volunteers to shoot the culprit to keep the peace between the tribes, but to his shock it turns out to be Ghazim, whom he had saved from the Nefud. Still, Lawrence goes ahead and executes him with Ali’s pistol (which by the way was Lawrence’s pistol, Lawrence gifted it to his guide, Tafas, on their way to meet Faisal, and Ali took it from him when he killed Tafas. Both these incidents are a reminder that how much Lawrence tries to help the Arabs, he’s bound to hurt them in the end). The problem solved, The united Arab army is successful in capturing Aqaba. Now Lawrence has reached the zenith of his success, and Lean shoots him as a god bathed in golden twilight atop his camel on the seashore.

But his decline also begins immediately, as an enraged Auda realizes that Lawrence has lied about the gold box in Aqaba. Lawrence is no more perfect in his eyes, but Lawrence hasn’t given up on himself. He decides to go to Cairo, tell the generals of his magnificent victory at Aqaba, and return with guns and gold. He takes the two Arab boys, Farraj and Dawood along for the journey, promising them that they will sleep in beds with sheets once they reach Cairo. Alas, Lawrence egotism gets the better of him, as even after losing his compass (a nod towards him losing his own moral compass, as he gets more and more lost in his own glory) he relentlessly pushes on towards the Suez, and in turn sacrifices Dawood in a quicksand. Before he started out for Cairo, he had imagined himself to be ‘Moses’: crossing Sinai with his followers, and whipping up a “pillar of fire” from desert-dust. Dawood’s death comes as a shock to Lawrence’s ego and vanity- he realizes that he isn’t god and is much disturbed on account of it, almost becoming a walking Ghost in a hellish landscape. Finally, they hit the Suez Canal, and they’re encountered by a motorcyclist, who repeats the same question the reporter was asking in the film’s prologue, “Who are You” (And the voice we hear is that of director David Lean, you cant get a more ‘meta’ moment than this: the director coming out and posing the question to the lead character, whose answer he’s searching for the whole film).

At British Headquarters in Cairo, Lawrence, covered in sand and dressed in Arab robes, is first mistaken for an Arab, but when he recounts his adventures, Col. Brighton is stunned, and he takes Lawrence to the new commanding officer, the cunning and unscrupulous, General Allenby(Jack Hawkins),who’s more suited for Lawrence. Though at first a little angry at Lawrence for his transgressive action, he’s impressed by his initiative and soldiering and promotes him from Lieutenant to Major. Lawrence resists, saying he has no desire to go back, as the recent events has exposed the chinks in his godly armor- but most important of all, he realized that he enjoys killing and is ashamed of it. But Allenby knows how to manipulate Lawrence, and continuously works on him and gets him to agree to go back to the desert to “continue his good work”. He promises him everything: guns, money, explosives, armored cars, and even artillery. But once Lawrence agrees to return, Allenby reneges on his promise for artillery; because as Dryden correctly argues, if you give the Arabs artillery, you have made them independent. That’s not keeping in with British interests. This is the intermission point of the film.

The second part of the film deals with the building of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s’ mythology by American journalist, Jackson Bentley(Arthur Kennedy)- who’s looking for a hero to present to the American public. At Faisal’s recommendation, Bentley joins Lawrence and the Arab army who are busy destroying the Turkish railways. During one of these military operations, Lawrence jumps on top of an overturned train and poses godlike for Bentley’s camera- dressed in flowing white robes, which will become more and more transparent until he becomes a reflection in British uniform- and his blonde locks almost melting into the golden desert, the tall Lawrence cuts a gigantic figure amidst the more diminutive Arabs, who appears to worship him. But as it’s revealed soon, this is more of a façade, because once the Arabs had accumulated enough wealth by plundering and looting during these military maneuvers, they all go home, leaving Lawrence to carry on the Arab-revolt all alone, except for the ever loyal Ali, who has become almost like his brother. Lawrence, who considers himself invisible and invincible, decides to go into the garrisoned city of Deraa all alone. But he’s soon caught by Turkish soldiers, who are suspicious of his blue-eyed Caucasian appearance and brings him to the sadistic (and maybe bisexual) Turkish Bey(Jose Ferrer). Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. Then, for striking out at the Bey, he is severely flogged (and maybe gang raped) before he is thrown into the street. The experience leaves Lawrence shaken. He realizes that he’s no god; he’s just an ordinary man, and his mind has no control over his body, because during the torture, the pain was so unbearable, he was about to reveal everything about himself. He abandons his Arab comrades and escapes to Jerusalem to meet up with Allenby to request him to release him from Arabia.

But Allenby is already planning an operation to capture Damascus from the Turks, and Lawrence’s Arab army is an important part of it. Lawrence protests violently, especially when he comes to know that the French and British has decided to split up the entire Turkish empire – including Arabia- after the war. But Allenby has now become an expert at handling the temperamental Lawrence, and he once again manipulates his ego and vanity to get him to go back and prepare the Arabs for the “big push” on Damascus. Lawrence goes back and literally buys an army- all his godly pretensions have vanished, he’s now very much a political soldier, who’s now surrounded by bodyguards -hired from among the most wanted criminals in the region- and is not above using his army for his personal vengeance: on their way to Damascus, the Arab army encounters a column of retreating Turkish soldiers, who had just destroyed an Arab village. Despite Ali’s pleas to go around the column and straight to Damascus, Lawrence orders a bloody assault on the Turks, with the clarion call “No Prisoners”. The result is an all-out slaughter in which Lawrence himself participates. He then regrets his actions after Ali reprimands him. Bentley is shocked to see the massacre, and even though he doesn’t admire his subject anymore- calling Lawrence “a rotten man”- he doesn’t mind selling his stories & pictures to the rotten bloody newspapers. It has to be remembered that when Lawrence and Ali met for the first time, Ali came across as a bloodthirsty tribal chieftain who has just killed Lawrence’s guide for drinking water from his well. Lawrence had refused his help calling him a murderer, and “Barbarous and cruel”. Now the tables are turned; Ali is now more of a pacifist and Lawrence is the bloodthirsty one; their contrasting character arcs are one of the most thought-provoking elements of the film.

Once they reach Damascus, Lawrence sets up the Arab national council, under the banner of Prince Faisal, to rule the city. But soon, infighting breaks out between different Arab tribes; Worse, they prove unfit to handle public utilities like the telephones and pumping plants in a modern city like Damascus. Seeing the situation is hopeless, Lawrence gives up, as the Arabs soon abandon most of the city to the British. Lawrence is promoted to colonel and immediately ordered back to Britain, as his usefulness to both Faisal and the British is at an end- he’s a sword with two edges and had to be gotten rid of before the Arabs and British bicker about the future of Arabia. David Lean ends the film with a hypnotic sequence that brings together Lawrence’s past, present and future in one perfectly crafted moment: As he leaves the city, Lawrence notices a caravan of Bedouins riding far away, he looks out to see if he knows anyone; Nope! they’re all strangers to him- now belonging to a distant past. As of now he’s “going home”, and as his driver repeats the words “Home”, Lawrence’s automobile is passed by a motorcyclist, who leaves a trail of dust in his wake in which Lawrence disappears- an image that foretells Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident. Thus, after 220 plus minutes of some of the grandest, most powerful, emotionally-wrenching, thought-provoking, rousing, and visually vivid & majestic moments, David Lean’s magnum opus comes to an end.

“Lawrence of Arabia” exists in such a hallowed space in the movie pantheon that every bit of outlandish praise and every grand epithet thrown at the film is justified; and every bit of criticism aimed at the film can be aggressively countered. Even taken purely as a technically accomplished audio-visual experience, the film is unparalleled in movie history, where everything was done ‘real for real’; every sand dune, every camel, every horse, every train derailed, everyone of the cast of thousands, every inch of its 70MM screen is real and possess a verisimilitude that wasn’t felt even then- a lot of the tough outdoor shooting was done by using back-projection on studio soundstages; and obviously will never be done now or in the future because there’s CGI. David Lean created a film that’s at once a path breaking exercise in mainstream film art as well as an entertaining, engrossing and enlightening popular blockbuster. The desert scenes he captured in collaboration with Cinematographer, Young, is both stark and aesthetically rich- It shows that Desert is a tough place for humans to survive, at the same time you never tire of watching it because Lean shows the desert in its varied hues; it’s not just golden sand everywhere, but also consists of red, black and white terrain, either plain or rocky. The way Lean marries natural elements like light, darkness, wind, dust, sandstorms, mirages, quicksand, etc. into the narrative can only be achieved by a director, who, apart from being a great visual artist, is also a poet and a naturalist.

The screenplay, rewritten by the great British playwright, Robert Bolt into a more character-driven piece (after original writer, Michael Wilson turned in a broad political-historical document) is truly a marvel of plot-construction, character development, dramatic power and brilliant dialogue- dripping with wit and sarcasm. Though the visuals of the film are its life, the dialogues are its soul; It’s hard to say what we takeaway more from the film: the images or the dialogues, or the unique symbiosis between images and dialogue that the film achieves; are the sequences of Lawrence staying up all night like a madman- walking the windswept desert- thinking of a plan to get to Aqaba more memorable, or is it the lines he tells Ali later (after he had got the plan) that “Aqaba is over there, it’s just a matter of going“, Ali retorts with “You are mad.” ; or take the long sequence in which Lawrence treks through Sinai like a ghost (after the death of Dawood), and then suddenly comes across the Suez- in a striking sequence in which a ship seems to be floating through the desert, and later the conversation he has with Allenby in which he confesses “He enjoyed it:- meaning killing the two Arabs. The cumulative effect of those fantastic visuals bookended by those great conversations is phenomenal. But undoubtedly, the greatest image Lean and Young has created for the film is the “mirage sequence” in which Omar Sharif’s Ali is introduced: Ali first appears out of a mirage as a spec of dust, as he slowly inches towards Lawrence and his guide. The drawn out entrance creates unbearable suspense and tension, as to whether the man, dressed from head to toe in black, is a friend or a foe?. That question is quickly answered when Ali pulls out a gun and kills Lawrence’s guide. Ali eventually turns out to be a friend to Lawrence, but he explains that the guide was drinking water from his well without permission, and hence, had to be killed. In this brief moment, you learn so much about the characters, and the fact that Lawrence is in the middle of a complex conflict that he barely understands. This three minute (almost)wordless sequence is the apex of pure (widescreen) cinema.

Like everything else in the film, the performances are also of a very high caliber: Alec Guinness’ casting as Prince Faisal might raise eyebrows today, but there’s no getting around the brilliance of his smooth, sardonic and majestic turn as a monarch waiting for his kingdom. Interestingly, Guinness based his performance on Omar Sharif, especially his accent. Jack Hawkins, another David lean regular like Guinness, plays the manipulative Allenby to perfection; Perfect is Claude Rains too, as the supercool beauracrat pulling the strings from behind the stage. His line-delivery is particularly amusing- “It seems that we are to have a British Waterworks with an Arab flag on it” or the very final dialogue of the film “on the whole, i wish i had stayed at Tunbridge wells” never fails to crack me up. Anthony Quinn as Auda is the larger-than-life figure here , and he plays him loud and broad as some character from the Arabian Nights- Phyllis Dalton’s wild and exotic costumes definitely compliments that portrayal. Omar Sharif won an Oscar nomination for this debut English Language film performance; though i felt he tend to be too overdramatic at times. Obviously, the star of the show is Peter O’Toole, who appears in almost every scene in this mammoth film. Despite the fact that he is a good feet taller than the original Lawrence, O’Toole, with his piercing blue eyes, theatrical body language and musical line delivery, effectively conveys the the obsession, the megalomania and the moral and emotional conflicts that beset the great young British warrior. O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated performance frequently tops the list of greatest screen performances ever. “Lawrence of Arabia” was nominated for ten Oscars and won a richly deserved seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lean. The film consistently appears on the top ten list of greatest films ever made, and has been a huge influence on future films and filmmakers;  Steven Spielberg- who refers to the film as “miracle”- considers this his favorite film of all time and the one that inspired him to become a filmmaker. The full film was considered lost for a while, after it was heavily edited down by its producer Sam Spiegel for wide theatrical release, but after an extensive restoration undertaken by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten under the supervision of director David Lean- with assistance from Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, the film was restored to its original length and full audio-visual glory.

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