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#7 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

by Trey Hock on July 21, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

It’s difficult to talk about #7 “Lawrence of Arabia” in any way that is either helpful or effective. Is this a biopic and adventure film? When it was first released in 1962, a number of critics gave David Lean‘s epic less than satisfactory marks for reducing the life of T.E. Lawrence down to that of a movie hero. If it’s an adventure film then it’s one of the slowest, least action packed adventure films ever made.

Is it a film about the wide thought provoking expanses of the desert, as many modern critics would have us believe? It is without a doubt that Lean understood the power of geography, specifically the desert, to evoke strong emotion, and uses it effectively. Still these critical responses seem to leave out the huge amount of time that our main characters spend inside. Some leave out our main characters all together.

I would offer that “Lawrence of Arabia” is an exploration of the sublime, and all of its facets, Lean’s use of the desert, the clash of cultures and lack of simple resolutions, the enigmatic quality of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), follow this pursuit.

I must explain that I am not using sublime in its watered down contemporary form. This isn’t a term that applies to a delicious slice of pie, or a terrible frat-rock band. Sublime in its classic sense refers to things, which are so enormous, so magnificent, or so intangible that they inspire awe, reverence, and fear.

That tingling urge to jump when you stand on the edge of a cliff or tall building, that is the sublime playing with you. The desire to stand on your porch in mid-central Kansas, and watch the storm system create funnel clouds as the sirens blare is the desire to succumb to the sublime.

Concepts that are too large, too difficult, or ever changing belong to the sublime. The sublime is often beautiful and always dangerous.

For those who have seen “Lawrence of Arabia,” it is easy to see the sublime in the long steady shots of the desert. Those beautiful 70mm shots staring into the vastness of the horizon cause eyestrain and overload as we search for the small speck that might be someone else out there amongst the desolation. The desert is easier to talk about, but what about Lawrence?

T.E. Lawrence’s Memorial
The story begins with the Lawrence’s death due to a relatively mundane motorcycle accident. As the people wander about his memorial, we realize that no one really knew this man. Lean uses this prologue to transform a man, into a concept that no one seems capable of pinning down.

The remembrances of the prologue carry us back to the beginning of the story.

During World War I, Lawrence was a young officer and scholar with a particular interest in Arab culture. Because of his knowledge of the Bedouin, Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau calls upon Lawrence to assess the prospects of Prince Feisal’s (Alec Guinness) resistance of the Turkish forces.

Lawrence Talks to Prince Feisal
Lawrence is insubordinate and seems to take a masochistic delight in pain. He is also brilliant, brash and daring. Lawrence speaks out of turn, but shows an understanding of Feisal’s world that draws in the prince.

Feisal has been asked to fall back to Yanbu, on the central coast of the Red Sea. There the British forces can offer some small fortifications and weaponry. Though prudent, this move would force Feisal to give up ground to the Turks. Lawrence, unsatisfied with the idea of giving up ground, wanders into the desert to dream up a plan.

Lawrence Comes Up with a Plan
Lawrence suggests an offensive. He and a small band will take the city of Aqaba, a key port held by Turkish forces. Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a trusted member of Feisal’s inner circle, and fifty others assemble. The only problems are that they must cross the Nefud, an impenetrable expanse of desert. Once through they will then face vastly superior numbers of Turkish soldiers.

If they can make it through the desert, Lawrence believes that other Arab tribes, impressed by their feat of courage, will join with them to oust the Turks. Many describe the plan as foolhardy or even blasphemous, but Ali and others line up to cross the desert with Lawrence.

Lawrence and Ali Cross the Desert
They strike out across the Nefud. The sequence is filled with incredible landscape cinematography, but most is easy to find and honestly a small picture on a website just mocks the grandeur.

Just as they are about to clear the Sun’s Anvil, a particularly relentless portion of the desert, Lawrence realizes that a member of their party has wandered off. In spite of Ali’s warnings, Lawrence turns back to collect the lost man.

For a slow moving sequence, this scene is unbelievably tense. Lean uses the oppressive brightness of the desert to motivate the emotion of the moment. It causes the viewer to stare into the vast void of the open desert. We can see the beauty of the desert but also is ability to utterly destroy a person.

David Lean takes a character that has been quirky and interesting up to this point, and starts to reveal his complexities through clever juxtaposition. Many look at this as moment when Lawrence, through arrogance or sheer force of will, defies the desert, but in regards to the story, Lean shows us that Lawrence and the desert are one and the same.

The desert is beautiful and dangerous, but to put it in such feeble terms is reductive and almost absurd. Lawrence too is fascinating and terrifying, but again to simplify this maddening and complex character is ridiculous. Lean instead just shows us these kindred spirits, and hopes that the comparison will bear fruit. It is a masterstroke that shows us two characters, the desert and Lawrence, which are almost impossible to describe with words, and forces us to resolve them in our own minds.

Lawrence emerges from the desert with the lost man, and is welcomed as a hero. Ali presents him with sheik’s robes and renames him El Aurens.

Lawrence Looks at Himself
It is difficult to understand Lawrence’s allegiances. He is a lieutenant in the British Army. He is also an ally and a leader of Hashemite Arabs in Arabia. He seeks to push the Turkish forces out of Arabia, but claims to do so not for Britain but for the Arabs.

The image of Lawrence in his robes is at once comical and majestic. Even he admires and laughs at himself. This is the sublime in human form. Lawrence’s character traits are in constant conflict, and we never fully resolve who he is or why he acts the way he does. One could talk about Lawrence for hours and come no closer to any satisfying conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that the discussion won’t be fun or action packed.

Ali and Lawrence meet up with Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a tribal leader working with the Turks, but convince him to join them to take Aqaba.

Lawrence and Ali Meet with Auda Abu Tayi
With the additional forces and the element of surprise, the newly formed Arab coalition storms into Aqaba and secures it for the Arabs. With Aqaba taken, Lawrence must return to Cairo to tell the British commanders of the accomplishment, in order to get additional weapons and money.
When he arrives in Cairo, he meets a world that now seems foreign to him.

Lawrence Back from Aqaba
General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), and Mr. Dryden all speculate as to whether Lawrence has “gone native.” Brighton suggests that he would if he could, but both cultural divides and something within Lawrence himself prevent it.

Allenby orders Lawrence to continue disrupting the Turkish forces, and arms him with money and guns. An American journalist, Jackson Bentley, who is searching for a hero that could ease the U.S. transition into war, finds his poster boy in Lawrence.

Lawrence Leads the Charge
The raiding continues and Lawrence’s fame grows, but his arrogance also increases. Lawrence walks into a Turkish held town because he believes that he is untouchable. Turkish soldiers quickly arrest him.

The Turkish Bey (José Ferrer) who questions him takes him for a deserter. Never once is Lawrence mistaken for an Arab, and when he returns to Ali, broken and changed from his hours of torture, Lawrence explains what keeps him from being an Arab.

Lawrence Cannot Be an Arab
When Allenby calls upon Lawrence and the Arab forces to help the British force as it moves on Damascus, Lawrence tells him that the Arabs will take and control Damascus, before the British forces can get there.

Lawrence, changed by his abuse at the hands of the Turks, hires criminals and murders to join the Arab coalition. When they come upon a column of Turkish forces marching through the desert, Lawrence, who had always been skeptical of violence, calls for the full slaughter of all of the Turkish troops.

Lawrence after the Slaughter of the Turks
Here we see the turmoil that boils within Lawrence and makes him dangerous. This shot shows Lawrence again looking at himself in his knife. Lean had his protagonist admiring himself when he first put on his white robes, but this scarred and horrific visage is a far cry from the image that made Lawrence chuckle and bow to own his shadow.

If the previous scene showed us the beauty and appealing mystery of the sublime, as represented by the character of Lawrence, then this scene shows us the sublime’s destructive power. Lawrence, and all things sublime, draw you in, but can cause you irrevocable harm.

The Arab forces do take Damascus, but bickering amongst tribes undermines the successful establishment of any coalition. Talks fall apart and Lawrence is left at the negotiation table alone.

Lawrence Alone in Damascus
Such a wonderful, intriguing and multilayered character, there is easily as much if not more to dislike about Lawrence, than to like. The things that make him appealing also make him terrible and his greatest strengths ultimately cause his downfall. Lawrence is less a man and more an amorphous ever-changing concept.

Since this is a discussion of the sublime, let’s delve into some other ridiculous figures that are hard to wrap your skull around. In 1963 at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTAs, “Lawrence of Arabia’ received a combined total of 14 award wins and an additional 7 nominations.

The top ten billed actors from “Lawrence of Arabia” have won a total of 6 Academy Awards out of 33 nominations, 5 BAFTAs from 22 nominations, and 10 Golden Globes out of 25 nominations. That gives this group of actors a mindboggling 21 awards from 80 nominations.

But we can’t have the good without the bad, right? Unfortunately we can’t.

The problem is not with the film, but its presence on AFI’s list of 100 best American films. This is not, except by a minor technicality, an American film.

Its director, David Lean, is British, and making the film through Horizon Pictures, a British production company. Most of the actors are British, and portraying characters, that are themselves British. The film was originally released in England one week before its release in the U.S. “Lawrence of Arabia” was distributed through Columbia Pictures, but as with “Bridge on the River Kwai” I have a lot of difficulty calling these films American.

I always want any excuse to revisit either of these films and “Lawrence of Arabia” is deserving of the acclaim, but to not acknowledge its country of origin seems a little backhanded.

Whether British or American, “Lawrence of Arabia” is an incredible film that everyone should try to experience on the big screen at some point.

Up next #6 “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

1 Year, 100 Movies #8 Schindler’s List (1993)

1 Year, 100 Movies #9 Vertigo (1958)

For links to #10-19, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #10 The Wizard of Oz (1939)

For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Tyler Campbell August 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Spot on review as always! My thoughts exactly on the character breakdown as Lawrence. He was fascinating to watch and to try and break down, but the process just made me more frustrated by him. I do think David Lean is a master when it comes to getting the “perfect shot” to showcase the size, scope, grandeur, and drama of locations and he just kills it with his widescreen desert shots.
I do agree that this film is award worthy and kudos to them for the number of awards they received. I also believe that it deserves to be on the AFI list. However, to be placed at #7 on the list with the qualities that this number of film should fulfill… I just don’t think think Lawrence lives up. It needs to be pulled down about 20 spots….which is still good at the end of the day. I love David Lean’s work. But I will be honest, I think as a whole Doctor Zhivago is his strongest film as a whole, even with its cliched faults.


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