Lawrence of Arabia is precisely what my blog is all about: it typifies the epic movie genre and that’s precisely what I envisioned watching as I embarked on the challenge. For someone like me, it takes a faceless horde of followers to pressure me into sitting still for 222 minutes at one time (I still didn’t quite manage it though, nearly fainting from hunger in the attempt. A brief recess of half a day was called).
Lawrence of Arabia delivers wonderfully as an epic film, with director David Lean offering the viewer astounding long shots of the Jordan desert in all its breathtaking natural beauty. At least, this is what Maurice Jarre’s physically powerful soundtrack encourages us to feel - to me it all looks morosely arid. Even better, there are numerous battle scenes, each conveying notably different ideas on war. Aside from loving all the “meaning”, I couldn’t suppress adding my own ‘Aie! Aie!’ to the dramatic cavalry charges.
The plot follows the life of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British officer whose involvement in the Arab revolution against their Ottoman oppressors during WW1 is the stuff of legend. The drama, intrigue and personalities which the film attempts to portray, courageously I might add, fills many a volume of history. Stepping out with this interpretation of Lawrence’s legend is therefore a significantly bold move on the part of producer Sam Spiegel and director David Lean. Unfortunately for them, historians and biographers the world over have questioned the historicity of Lawrence of Arabia the film. As you’re probably aware by now, I’m more concerned with the ideas and emotions a movie explores than the plot itself, so I won’t bore you with an investigation into Lawrence of Arabia’s historical accuracy, you’ll be pleased to hear.
Like I said before, the battles are far from uniform in tone. In the taking of Aqaba, Lawrence’s first victory at the head of an the Arab charge, we’re gifted an extraordinary long shot of the storming. Watch from 1.30 and you get an idea of how the victory is Romanticised:
But then compare that with the defeat of the retreating Turks later on in the film (start from about 1.00):
Where’s the line? What makes one a glorious victory and the other a massacre?
These scenes show that the film doesn’t just plunge forward, ticking off points on the storyboard. Instead, Spiegel and Lean were much more interested in the complexities of Lawrence himself. O’Toole was previously relatively unknown to the public audience, and yet his performance gives the much needed depth which this character requires. At times an insufferable egotist, at others weighed down by crises of confidence, alternatively compassionate, daring, bloodthirsty, British officer and Arab army commander, Lawrence is an enigmatic hero. Of course, this humanity and mystery all lends itself to the legendary aspect of his character, but it can be tiring to follow.
It appears to be tiring for Lawrence as well, what with all the blank-faced staring into the distance. This usually follows a traumatic experience, the most powerful example of this being when he stares blankly over the Suez Canal after having lost his servant in the desert. But, the focus is switched from the grizzly death back onto the question of Lawrence’s identity, as a British soldier cries repeatedly over the water ‘Who are you?’. Between his loyalties to his Arab friends and his British patriotism, he doesn’t seem to know. I suppose that’s what makes this film stand out, and what redeems its worrying portrayal of Arabs: its nuanced exploration of Lawrence as a less-than-average hero. Starting the film with his infamously pointless death emphasises his mortality, a focus which Spiegel and Lean maintain by repeatedly smashing his pedestal to pieces.
Basically? Watch this film if you’re not a pedant about history, not easily offended by racial stereotypes, do like a multi-faceted hero and fancy a bit of desert bloodlust.