Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

December 29, 2006

Before leaving town on our multi-state holiday trek, I had the chance to see for the first time what is considered one of the all-time best films in cinematic history, Lawrence of Arabia – an epic biopic from 1962 that details the life of T. E. Lawrence (a scholarly British soldier who fought to unite the various warring Arab factions into one nation during World War I). They simply don’t make films like this anymore. lawrence.jpgIt has a running time of nearly four hours and is one of those mid-twentieth century films that is so acutely aware of itself as an artform, with long musical overtures, intermissions, etc. Considering my affinity for classic films, desert landscapes, and overly ambitious artistic projects, I figured Lawrence would be a sure hit with me.

The film is directed by David Lean, a prestigious British director who worked on several important films, although I admit that this is the first one I have actually seen. The score is amazing, and the cinematography is breathtaking. The supporting cast was the best one could ask for, featuring the likes of Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif. However, the film begins and ends with the lead acting of Peter O’Toole. A virtual unknown when he took the part of Lawrence, this would become the defining role for O’Toole. Though he would still star in several other memorable roles (and he continues to act in many other less memorable roles), nothing would bring him as much recognition or acclaim as Lawrence. Other leading actors, including Albert Finney and Marlon Brando, were apparently considered for the part, but it’s difficult to imagine anybody else who could bring to the role the precise combination of eccentricity and depth that O’Toole does. 

The film opens with Lawrence’s death. After the funeral, various press members try interviewing the various attending dignitaries about the significance of Lawrence. One claims never to have known the man, another can give only a textbook-type response – followed by a disparaging remark under his breath, which another overhears and takes immediate offense to – though, he admits, he never was acquainted with Lawrence in person. This scene introduces one of the key motifs of the film – the difficulty in truly understanding T. E. Lawrence as a person. The subject comes up repeatedly throughout the film, with Westerners and Arabs alike in turns befuddled, flabbergasted, and awe-inspired by Lawrence’s persona. In many ways, Lawrence is like the romantic visionary in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”; he is inspired and set apart from the masses by a powerful vision. As in the poem, however, one must be wary of such a hero – and though Lawrence’s charisma and vision carry him far in his quest for a united Arab nation, there is likewise a self-absorbed darkside to his character that is part of the reason he ultimately fails in his quest. It is also this dual nature that leads the viewer to have a response similar lawrence2.jpgto Lawrence’s contemporaries – sometimes impressed, sometimes repulsed – as the admirable leader in the first half of the film seems to become a bloodthirsty ego-maniac in the second.

I liked this film because its great breadth made it like one of those immense Victorian novels, where the sprawling narrative allows one the time to understand every nuance of a protaganist’s character. In fact, if anything, I think the film might have benefitted from having another scene or two to help explain more explicitly the transition from the early Lawrence to the later one. It is not a film’s responsibility to explain, so much, as it is to present, and Lawrence of Arabia does a wonderful job of presenting the life of a complex and important person, as well as the beautiful region he served so devotedly.