- Director: David Lean
- Writers: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
- Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, and Claude Rains
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#7), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#61), Voted Best British Film of All Time by 2004 Daily Telegraph poll of directors, 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – David Lean, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Peter O’Toole, Best Supporting Actor – Omar Sharif, Best Adapted Screenplay)
- Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
Living in COVID-world, where it’s not 100% clear that theatergoing will ever exist in quite the same way again, brings a few things into focus. One of the less important things is that the single biggest regret of my movie-going life, to date, is that I have never seen (or, as far as I can recall, had the opportunity to see) Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen. It isn’t my number one all-time favorite movie, but if I could choose one movie to see on a huge screen in a huge theater tomorrow, it would be this one. One reason for this is that, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, I think this is the only one where some scenes straight up don’t work on a TV screen because the screen is too small. The objects we’re supposed to be looking at are so small in relation to the size of the frame that they become invisible. We wonder why characters are staring at things we can’t see, because the scope of this movie is too big.
Roger Ebert once wrote that, for everything else that went into it, Lawrence of Arabia exists because director David Lean could imagine what it would feel like “to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being.” Lean is considered by many to be the greatest maker of “epic” films ever, and, though The Bridge On the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago each have many passionate and deserved admirers, you won’t find many who won’t argue that Lawrence is his masterpiece. I am someone with a weakness for huge, sweeping stories. All of my dogs are named after characters from Lord of the Rings. Every time I’ve seen this movie, I feel stirring inside my heart, and I’m not alone. No less a film icon than Steven Spielberg has repeatedly identified this as his favorite movie.
That said, this is, for good or ill, also a deeply weird movie, which sometimes gets lost amidst its status as an all-time classic. Lawrence as a character himself, especially as portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the role that made him famous, is enigmatic and deeply contradictory, much more complicated than the usual epic hero. More problematic than that is the fact that two most prominent actual Arabic historical figures in the movie are played by white guys. Alec Guinness plays Prince Faisal and Anthony Quinn plays the headstrong tribal leader Auda abu Tayi. For record, I’m calling Quinn a white dude because Hollywood seemed to think of him that way, but he was Mexican-American and his birth name was Manuel Oaxaca. But the point is, not an Arabic guy.
Oh, and not only does it not pass the Bechdel Test, there is not a single line spoken by a woman in the movie’s three and three-quarters hours running time. It is one of only two of the sound movies on the most recent AFI Top 100 with no lines for women whatsoever, though of course there are many that are totally dominated by men. The other, perhaps unsurprisingly, is 12 Angry Men, which takes place almost entirely in one room. It is kind of the exact opposite of this movie in that sense. It is perhaps surprising that there’s no romance whatsoever in a movie like this, but less so when you come to the realization that the actual Lawrence had none in his own life. Historians continue to intensely debate whether Lawrence was actually homosexual or not, but this movie seems to think that he was, if you’re willing to read between the lines that are between the other lines.
On a more basic filmmaking level, it is also a weird movie because of its structure, or lack thereof. There’s no big quest, as in so many epics. As Martin Scorsese noted (while talking about how much he loved this movie), it basically doesn’t have an ending, or a climax, or anything like that. The movie opens, in a move that still sort of fascinates me, with Lawrence’s death, years later in England in a motorcycle accident. Then we spend the rest of the first half of the movie watching Lawrence’s gradual rise to prominence as a British outsider (though Lawrence is a British officer, he always seems to pretty much do whatever he wants) who tries to get the native Arabs to rise up against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Then, after the intermission, we spend the last hour and a half watching Lawrence’s slide into, first, delusions of grandeur, and then, finally, utter disillusionment. Lawrence’s brief attempt at an Arab coalition falls apart in two days, the British and French move in, and Lawrence rides off in a jeep, looking depressed. The end. It’s sort of revolutionary for this big of a movie.
In the meantime, though, this movie! There was no CGI, so they really were out in the middle of the Jordanian desert, over a hundred miles from the nearest well. The characters spend hours on camels trudging over sand dunes, dunes that had to be completely swept by hundreds of men to wipe away the footprints before every take. When the Arabic rebellion rides through the town of Aqaba in one battle, we see the line of them, all on horses, sweeping through the streets from a tall tower. All of that happened.
In another scene Lawrence blows up a train and then leads a line of men stretching out to the horizon over the top of a dune to attack. Both the exploded train and all of the men are actually there. The train is apparently still there, lying on its side in the middle of the desert (I found pictures of tourists standing on top of it, mimicking Lawrence’s poses). Some special effects age, but if anything this movie is more mind-blowing watching it today than it must have been in 1962. Behind all of this Maurice Jarre’s score, which is one of the all-time great ones. You know it, even if you don’t know that you do. Few movie scores have more deserved an overture than this one, and yeah, there is one.
And in the middle of that is this weird guy, with blond hair and piercing blue eyes. O’Toole is in the vast majority of the two hundred plus minutes of this movie, and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. It is honestly one of my favorite performances of all time, especially considering that it was mostly given out in the middle of desert while everybody went insane. This was O’Toole’s first major role, and he received the first of his eight Oscar nominations. It is the most by any actor who never actually won (he lost in 1962 to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird). He did receive a Honorary Oscar in 2012.
Though, as was basically par for the course for 1962, some of the prominent Arabic roles were played by white dudes, many of them were, in fact, played by Middle Eastern actors. Most prominent among these was Omar Sharif, an Egyptian actor in his first English-language role. Sharif plays Sherif Ali, who is apparently a composite of a few historical figures. He only got the part after it turned out that French star Alain Delon couldn’t stand wearing brown contact lenses. Large swathes of this movie basically play like a buddy action movie between Lawrence and Ali, and it all works. Sharif also gets the grand entrance that is maybe the most famous scene in the movie, where he watch him ride out of the shimming desert horizon for what feels like forever, as Lawrence and his native guide wonder whether he’s friend or foe. Sharif went on to have a big and pioneering Hollywood career, mostly playing various mysterious foreigners, but also playing Barbara Streisand’s love interest in Funny Girl and the big romantic lead in another Lean epic, Doctor Zhivago. He and Streisand dated off-screen, too, which very nearly lost Sharif his Egyptian citizenship for dating a Jewish girl.
Another reason that I tend to forgive this film its shortcomings in the area of race, when it could easily stray into “white savior” territory, is that Lawrence’s super-power, as the movie sees it, is that he sees the Arabs as human beings. After another British military advisor expresses his frustration at how hard it is to get through to Prince Faisal, Lawrence immediately gets Faisal’s attention when he shows he can quote the Quran. And though in the end he can’t quite hold together his loose coalition, Lawrence’s real external conflict is with his superiors, who use racial slurs against Arabs in almost every scene they’re in. In the end, he doesn’t get the happy ending, and the problem isn’t that he can’t save the “barbarous” natives, it’s that he can’t stop his own side from coming in and pitting them against each other, to keep them from growing too powerful. The Middle East remains divided, and it’s the fault of Lawrence’s ostensible bosses.
One might say “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” and, well, nobody else ever did, really, but Lawrence has also been heavily influential on basically every big movie ever since. For one thing, the desert scenes in Star Wars definitely wouldn’t exist except for this movie. That shot of Luke standing in front of twin suns is basically a direct quote from this movie, except with an extra sun. And not just movies: are you going to tell me that it’s a coincidence that Dune came out three years after this movie, and is about warring desert tribes uniting behind an outsider against an epic backdrop in a rebellion against overlords that think of them as less than human? It’s basically the same story but with a happier ending.
In the end, though, Lawrence of Arabia will always be singular, an “epic of epics,” so big you can’t even watch it right on a TV, and unlike any other movie anyone’s ever made, no matter how much they might try.
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