Lawrence of Arabia, a movie known for its great entrances, starts with a great exit.
Peter O’Toole, in his first major role as the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence, crashes his motorcycle on a country road. Cut to his funeral where the important men of England recall the British soldier who led the Arab world against the Turks during the first World War.
Their praise registered, a cynical American reporter (Arthur Kennedy) is then asked his opinion. He muses that Lawrence was indeed an extraordinary man, a poet and a philosopher, but also “the most shameless exhibitionist since P. T. Barnum.”
That wry accent marks the end of Lawrence’s eulogy, and the film’s real beginning. Director David Lean takes the challenge set out in the opening scenes to sharpen the blurred image of legend into something more specific. The result is unabashed hero-worship, but of a kind so sweeping and elegant that the idolatry is as appealing as mythology.
This affecting movie (based on T. E. Lawrence’s own book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”) was first released in 1962 and then emerged again in the late ’80s in a restored “director’s cut,” a 216-minute epic that improved on the original.
Through Ordeal, a Hero Emerges
A favorite of many, “Lawrence of Arabia” fulfills a common male fantasy of realizing oneself through an ordeal and then turning the hardship into glorious advantage. Certainly not a day-dream reserved for men, but in the context of the setting and period, “Lawrence of Arabia” resounds in very masculine ways.
It’s not a coincidence that Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt eschew female characters; you can’t find one here, not even on the periphery. Lawrence’s world is like a secret society with no distracting influences–whether in the confines of the military or in the endless expanse of desert, the bonds he creates are based on the challenges generated by the male ego, a powerful touchstone in this film.
Lawrence’s ego is the movie’s magnet. At the outset, he seems little more than an eccentric nobody (a cartographer working in Arabia) waiting for the chance event that will set his destiny in motion. Lawrence is full of himself, and in these early scenes, spouting quotes from ancient philosophers or impressing his pals with tricks of bravery, we see a wanly charismatic man searching for distinction.
When he’s given a military assignment to study the Arabs’ fight with the Turks, a fight the Arabs are losing miserably, Lawrence instinctively knows his time has arrived. He secures leadership by embracing his submerged megalomania, and by not condescending to the men he leads–Lawrence becomes an Arab, dressing in their traditional garb and assimilating their culture, including their fanaticism. He’s a messiah armed to the teeth.
A Desert Entrance to Remember
Lean also raises other heroes in his idealization of the rival Arab sheiks that come to follow Lawrence. In the movie’s greatest entrance, cinematographer Freddie A. Young locates a distant speck in the desert that grows as Lawrence and his Bedouin guide watch. Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), dressed in black and on a black horse, finally appears and then murders the guide because he drank from the well of Ali’s tribe.
The scene is so beautifully composed that its gracefulness infuses the flash of violence and charged connection between Lawrence and Ali with a visual lyricism.
The second great entrance comes when Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), another powerful Arab ruler, arrives and observes Lawrence dancing blithely after ceremoniously receiving the robes of a sheik. Anne Coates’ seamless editing and Young’s camera work add a veneer of irony to Lawrence by emphasizing both his displacement and joy in an unfamiliar society, and the threat of danger in the imposing form of Tayi.
Even when Lean lets the momentum stall, as with a disturbing encounter between Lawrence and a sadistic Turkish commander (Jose Ferrer), we see that he’s raising questions about the nature of Lawrence’s obsessions and his intimate relationship with Sherif Ali.
Not Without its Critics
Later, Lean shows how Lawrence’s weakness resides with his strength. His power manifests in savage ways, and the unflinching sequences of Lawrence exhorting his men to butcher a fleeing Turkish brigade are revealing. What makes men great is also what can destroy them.
Although now considered one of the best films of all time, “Lawrence of Arabia” was not unanimously cheered when it first appeared. The production values have been criticized as elephantine by some, and the handsome O’Toole was considered miscast as Lawrence, who was actually a small, ordinary-looking man.
Bull. Lean’s approach is deliberate but encompassing; his control makes this a personal vision, and a visionary spectacle. As for O’Toole, he’s brilliantly cast: with his air of aloneness and vaguely effeminate aura, he’s a pristine metaphor for the contradictions that often define our heroes.
Director’s cue: If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in new looks at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Casablanca.