Back Catalog Review: Lawrence of Arabia

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The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all of the films I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films.

Oh, so this is what Lawrence of Arabia is. I feel a perverse sense of accomplishment for having made it three decades into my life without seeing it. For the past 10 years or so I was just waiting for it to play on a big screen somewhere near me (it never did) and then for the past few years I was waiting until I had the time and the inclination to actually watch it. Luckily we had a snow day yesterday and I was home alone with about four hours to spare. So here we are. Of course I saw where some of my favorite movies got their inspiration (Indiana Jones particularly) and I was amazed at just how well constructed the whole thing is (only one shot stood out to me as weird, and I can’t even remember it a day later). But what I was most impressed with was what David Lean was doing with his time.

The first half hour or so of this movie is perfect. The breakneck (sorry) ride through the English country feels so modern, so immediate, that I was instantly drawn into the movie. But that’s not all. There’s also Peter O’Toole’s wry smile and amazingly blue eyes as he races down the winding roads. Aha, a daredevil. He speeds faster and faster, the camera getting closer and closer and I’m there. Oh no! Bikes! Swerve, POV tumble, cut to a bust of the deceased man, recently entombed. It’s an impressive bit of editing, one that will be topped a few scenes later with one of the best cuts of all time. But first, we need a point. What’s this movie about? We find out from the conversation of the funeral attendees: nobody can quite agree on who T.E. Lawrence was. Even people who knew him well have varying opinions, often conflicting with themselves. So it’ll be our task to figure out who he is. It’s a surprisingly small scale question for such a large movie. Even more remarkable is how Lean marries that intimacy to the grandiose settings and adventures that Lawrence moves in for much of the movie without ever answering his central question outright.

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The film flashes back to the beginning of Lawrence’s Arabian quest. It’s the middle of WWI and he’s in Cairo, painting a map. In a conversation with the head of the British army in Egypt, we add another shade to his character. He’s not particularly interested in patriotism. He’ll go on a mission, sure, but it’s more about leaving the stuffy basement he’s trapped in than a sense of duty to his country. His mission, funnily enough, matches our own. He must appraise Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness, who’s great even though he’s in brownface) and then return to British command with his appraisal. That he doesn’t do this is no shock to anybody paying attention so far. But that’s for later.

Next is the best sequence in the film. Lawrence and Tafas, his guide, cross the desert in search of Prince Faisal. Lawrence shows off his fortitude by only drinking when Tafas drinks, which happens once at a well. Here the most famous scene of the film happens. Off in the vast open land there’s a speck. It’s hard to tell if it’s really there or part of the mirage that happens because of the intense heat. In a series of perfect shots that indicate Lawrence’s attention to the speck and the speck’s growth within the frame, we soon see that it’s a man clad in black robes who eventually arrives and shoots Tafas dead for drinking from his well. What an introduction! This is Sherif Ali, played by the only brown man in a major role, Omar Sharif, and he’s immediately skeptical of Lawrence. He leaves Lawrence to find Feisal on his own and incites the last of the amazing opening scenes. Lawrence rides his camel through a valley of sorts and finds that his singing to himself echoes throughout the hard rock channel and delights in making a racket. Another British officer, Anthony Quayle’s Colonel Brighton, has been waiting for Lawrence to arrive and claps in sarcastic approval of Lawrence’s boisterousness. He brings Lawrence to meet Faisal, with whom Brighton has been liaising for Britain and the rest of the movie begins from there.

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Now, that’s a lot of recapping of a few well-made but perhaps unnecessary? No, not unnecessary. Indeed, these are the scenes that I will remember from the film. These are the foundation of what comes next and they tell us almost everything we need to know about Lawrence. The rest of the movie just reiterates these points and then, eventually, shows us the dark side of them. Lawrence’s trick to snuff out a match isn’t some supernatural ability to extinguish flame with his fingers. No, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” So we know Lawrence takes some pleasure in pain, but we also know that he is dedicate to his friends, as demonstrated in his disgust at Sherif Ali’s murdering Tafas for a minor insult. That Lawrence soon comes to feel towards Ali the way he felt towards Tafas is only indicative of how quickly Lawrence can make friends and turn a bad situation to his advantage. We know Lawrence can talk his way into and out of whatever he needs, and we know that he likes to be the center of attention, even if he’s the only audience member, as in the echoing scene. His ambition drives him, and that can be for the good (his rescue of the man who fell of his camel during a grueling trek across an inhospitable desert) or the ill (his attempts to do everything by and for himself later in the film). Lawrence is a hero in that he achieved what Britain wanted him to achieve and more. For that he gets a hero’s burial after his early demise. But he’s not a good guy, he’s got half a devil in him too.

What stood out to me most in this first viewing of Lawrence of Arabia was how critical David Lean was of Lawrence and the British. Lawrence’s refusal to follow any law but his own, his glee in killing enemies and allies alike, and his unquenchable thirst for outdoing everybody else in a game they aren’t even playing are all classic symptoms of toxic masculinity. Lean doesn’t shy away from showing either the empowerment Lawrence feels from embracing these aspects nor the way that others start to become wary of him for it. Toxic masculinity, the desire to hold ever more power and conquer everything in your sight is intoxicating. You can practice it and feel like a king. You’ll likely be showered with accolades, too, as Lawrence is. But there’s only so far you can go. Soon people will realize what you’re doing and the dangers inherent in your actions. Lawrence’s decision to go back into the desert to save the fallen soldier is admirable in one sense and supremely dumb in another. Lean is aware of both of these sides of the coin.

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He’s also aware of the problems of imperialism. We know that the English were still in the thrall of trying to become the rulers of everything. Lawrence knows it too, and often only goes along with his superiors’ plans so far as to get into a position where he can turn the situation to his advantage. He claims to desire a unification of the disparate tribes in Arabia so that they can repel the British on their own, but by the end he’s in charge of the self-governing Arabian council and doing a bad job of it. When Lawrence returns to the Cairo base at the end of the first half of the movie, the palatial setting and the decadence of the amenities are overwhelming in their ostentation. Lawrence lies to those he’s ostensibly helping in order to manipulate them into doing what he wants. He rejects the trappings of imperialism but delights in the power his position gives him over both the underestimated Arabian characters and the clueless British examples. We, too, delight in his rejection of the British prime directive, at least until we see that he’s just a smaller scale version of the empire, only interested in carving out a place and a legacy for himself. There are talks of Lawrence “going native” in the deserts of Arabia but that’s an incorrect sentiment. Lawrence doesn’t change at all in Arabia, Arabia just shows him (and us) who he was all along, an imperialist of a different variety and a man dripping with toxic masculinity

Lawrence of Arabia is a deceptively complicated movie. None of it is hard to grasp, the action flows easily and the motivations (outside of Lawrence’s) are straightforward and comprehensible. The filmmaking isn’t challenging either. Everything is perfectly composed in a classical style and, even though it is as long as this review, the pacing is never so slow that I tuned out. I can only imagine how much more impressive it would be on a big screen in its full 70mm glory. I was already feeling the heat and the acrid wind hitting my face. Only the aforementioned brownface detracted from the experience. There were obviously actors available from the locations (and surrounding countries) the film takes place in, they fill out the background and secondary supporting characters. Omar Sharif is spectacular in his role. So why brown-up Alec Guinness and the like? It’s an unfortunate decision that blemishes an otherwise spectacular movie. But I’ll return to Lawrence of Arabia again and again, whether to watch it in full or in part or just to have it on in the background while I read or write. It’s a movie so transporting that even cleaning to it would be a delight. And it’s a deep, complex movie too. That’s even more special.


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