Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, directed by David Lean
The Story: T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a minor British officer stationed in Cairo during World War I, is sent into the Arabian desert to “assess” the state of the Arabs’ revolt against the Turks. The revolt is a mess, but instead of reporting back, Lawrence himself leads a band of Arabs through the harshest sectors of the desert into victory against the Turks. Astonished and delighted, his superiors give him free reign and so T.E. becomes “Lawrence of Arabia,” an enigmatic, brilliant, and narcissistic guerrilla leader whose genius and bravado is matched only by his eccentricity and insecurity.
Lawrence of Arabia begins in surprisingly humdrum fashion. A British gentleman, unidentified and unengaged with the viewer (he does not speak at all) takes his motorcycle out for a spin, and the camera speeds along a little English road, decorated with shrubs and village homes. We are far away from any vast and sweltering desert. Suddenly, the gentleman must swerve to avoid some bicyclists, and his own cycle shoots off the road, the wheel left spinning in a ditch, the goggles hanging from a branch, and the image of our living hero replaced by a bust to commemorate his death. The bust doesn’t tell us much more about Lawrence (for he was the motorcyclist) than the man did in the previous scene, and the comments of his admirers and acquaintances as they leave the funeral don’t help much either.
Even those who remember Lawrence are forced to acknowledge that they didn’t really know the man well, while General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), his commander in the desert campaign, issues a pompous official statement which only tells us what we already know, and trivializes the truth to boot: the dead man’s actions played a decisive role in the Arab revolt during the war. Yawn. A little more illuminating is the American newsman, who after recounting Lawrence’s larger-than-life virtues to a scurrying reporter turns to a friend and mutters, with a grin, “he was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.”
Bit by bit, the prosaic gives way to the intriguing. From the Lawrenceless-Britain (our only glimpse of the motherland for the entire four-hour film) we flash back to Cairo, but we’re still ensconced in civilization. The Lawrence we see is impeccably odd, and we’re led to believe it’s partly a function of an innate sense of superiority (American audiences may misidentify his mannerisms as gay, but they seem intended to express intellectual superiority, comical boredom, and mild subversion). The young lieutenant works alongside complacent middle-class soldiers and is ordered around by doltish stuffed shirts, but he himself is brilliant, sensitive, and strange. Few recognize these qualities, though a diplomat named Dryden (Claude Rains) seems to share an unspoken conspiracy with Lawrence: their knowing nonverbal exchanges and sophisticated conversations betray intelligence and superiority to their milieu.
Dryden convinces Lawrence’s blustering superior officer to send the young man on his excursion to Arabia, and there the fun begins. Dryden himself sees the desert as a desolate, miserable location – one in which Lawrence will have a chance to prove his capabilities and perhaps initiate an involvement with the loftier, more clever world of British politics (rather than the workaday bullheadedness of the military). But it certainly will not be “fun,” a word Lawrence insists on using twice as he eagerly anticipates his adventure. Dryden watches keenly as the young man, holding a match between his fingertips, rolls up his sleeve, ready to extinguish the burning flame with the fingers of his other hand. Observing the preparations for this masochistic display (something Lawrence has demonstrated earlier, noting “The trick is not minding that it hurts”), Dryden’s eyebrows arch as he issues what could be the movie’s manifesto: “It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.”
Lawrence just smiles and blows out the match.
And then comes one of the great cuts in cinema history: from the close-up of Lawrence’s enigmatic expression, surrounded by the exotic but subdued setting of Cairo headquarters, a flickering match the only wild element onscreen…to the dark, sharp plain of the desert, topped with the glowing embers of a morning sky. Just as one small flame is extinguished, a far greater torch is lit: the sun cracks above the horizon, rising along with Maurice Jarre’s score. (Overpowering orchestration has been avoided till now, save for the long overture under a black screen, during which latecomers to the theater stumbled, injured themselves and got lost before the Columbia logo finally came on the screen, to thunderous applause). The music tinkles and grows and swells until it reaches a crescendo with the cosmic passage of the sunrise. And then we see the rolling desert in all its glory, a breathtaking vista with dots (men on camels) surmounting one of the vast dunes that loom before us.
Words can only go so far in summoning the image:
Yet even this demonstration is a faint echo of the effect on the big screen. The film builds patiently and cleverly to this point: it’s an epic that paces itself, not to appear drawn-out but to ensure maximum effect for the big reveal. It’s a moment director David Lean had been working toward for his entire career. One character tells Lawrence, “The English have a great hunger for desolate places.” Some Englishmen in the film disprove his thesis, with their dreams of fly-fishing their retirement away along a quiet little brook, but Lawrence represents one long, ringing confirmation, and his enthusiasm is echoed by Lean’s. Lean hungers not just for desolate places, but for the vast, the exotic, the transcendent. He is that figure standing romantically atop the craggy peak in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, lifting himself above the haze to contemplate creation in its epic glory.
Lean’s career began as a film editor in the thirties and he worked his way up to director during World War II, with the patriotic film In Which We Serve. Immediately following the war, Lean cemented his reputation with luminous black-and-white films, filled with yearning, adventure, character, and an eye for dramatic compositions and romantically charged imagery. He collaborated with playwright Noel Coward on a series of films, most notably Brief Encounter, which is perhaps the quintessential doomed romance of the twentieth century. Its heroine (Celia Johnson) is a dowdy housewife who finds forbidden love outside the confines of her comfy bourgeois home. The film’s train station rendezvous emphasize the desire to escape and in one unforgettable sequence the woman daydreams about fleeing her mundane life with her lover: we see them (in hazy, evocative but unattainable images) moving further and further from home: Paris, Venice, the tropics…
The housewife will not escape, but Lean will. His Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, up the ante with exciting, bustling worlds (the former film’s title and theme could serve as an epitaph for this phase of Lean’s career) and in the mid-fifties his Summertime finally grants the Celia Johnson character an escape: now a spinsterish American on her first trip abroad, played by Katherine Hepburn, the quintessential dreamer gets a chance at romance in an exotic locale. Taking place in Venice, Summertime is like the last stop on an express train out of civilization.
The Bridge on the River Kwai takes us into the jungle, trading the yearning female romantic for the robust male adventurer, but it’s in Lawrence that Lean truly reaches his destination: the dreamer’s dream has made itself reality, and the consequences are as frightening as they are exhilarating. The desert is not just vast and exotic, it is desolate, and this desolation contains the essential germ of its appeal – a loss of identity, a subsuming of character to Nature – an explosion and/or expansion of the Ego. Lawrence seeks this creative obliteration, and at the time of the movie’s release, some critics grumbled that he achieved it too readily – that Lean’s infatuation with the desert and the trappings of epic filmmaking rendered the main character a cipher.
The critic Pauline Kael wrote, “If you went to see it under the delusion that it was going to be about T.E. Lawrence, you probably stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasure of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide.” Though more hostile, her rival Andrew Sarris concurred with her dismissive tone, sniping, “Perhaps I am just plain tired of all these ‘serious’ moral films with no women in the cast.” (And indeed, I counted about a dozen shots in the entire film which contained images of females; in most, the women are veiled and/or otherwise hidden from view, in one, they are frumpish middle-aged nurses climbing out of a truck. Lean had certainly come a long way from identification with Celia Johnson and Katherine Hepburn.) More to the point, Sarris grumbled that the movie was “dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal.”
Of course, these two critics, even the more favorable Kael, are wrong. In Lawrence, it is not the historical drama, nor even the dramatic vistas which carry the picture, but the personal psychodrama which the other elements fold into. The emphasis, if not on Lawrence exclusively, is on Lawrence and Arabia, not just Arabia. And Arabia is itself seen through the prism of Lawrence’s expanding consciousness and heightened sense of heroism – it provides a roadmap of his psyche as he discovers his own potential, challenges the limits of his endurance, and wanders the desolate vistas of his own struggle for identity.
It is a recurring theme of biography that the character of great men can be elusive. Personality is strong, but identity is not so easy to pin down; identity is the luxury of modest souls who find their niche in life and then burrow away. Lawrence never seems to know who he is, which allows him the luxury of inventing a new persona, but also opens up a terror of dissolution, of failure, and especially of isolation, which normal men do not share. When a humiliating act of sodomy (he is captured and raped by a Turk) brings him crashing down to earth, he desperately grasps for some form of normality, but he’s gone too far and no one will let him stumble home again. He returns to the battlefield, his previously fabulous arrogance now replaced by a hard, brittle, angry narcissism, a self-glorification in which he surrounds himself with ruthless cutthroats and gnarls his face into fearsome, cruel contortions.
The violence in this film is mild by modern graphic standards, but it’s so much more shocking. There is a hard-to-pin-down cruelty to death in Lawrence of Arabia, and every act of violence contains a sexual charge. This is perhaps where onlookers detect a sado-masochism (often paired with homosexuality) in Lawrence’s character, but in truth it’s more the former than the latter – the symbolic obliteration of death is celebrated over the sexual charge of pain. Death is quick, but nasty. Lawrence tries to subsume his attraction to violence, and honor his genuine horror at it, by cultivating a reputation for mercy. However, he admits to having enjoyed the execution of an Arab and later orders the ruthless massacre of a retreating Turkish column, into whose midst he leaps, firing his revolver and eventually dipping his dagger in the enemy’s blood.
Yet it is not only Lawrence’s violence which contains the sadistic erotic charge, an eroticism which seems to grow from the victim’s helplessness and the killer’s power (especially when that killer is the desert itself). The screenplay and the direction attach us to characters, and then dispatch them instantaneously and mercilessly, simultaneously upsetting and impressing both us and Lawrence (a friendly tribesman is shot dead for the petty crime of drinking from a well; quicksand cruelly swallow up an adolescent as his friends look on, helplessly; a man must be killed not long after his daring rescue, as if his fate was unavoidable). In noting how Lean influenced another director’s work and vision, the Spielberg biographer John Baxter characterized Lawrence’s reaction to violence (along with that of Zhivago in Lean’s follow-up film, Doctor Zhivago, and controversially, Schindler in Schindler’s List) as orgasmic.
This of course corresponds to the voyeuristic, cathartic sensibility with which film audiences have increasingly responded to death and mayhem, and by crystallizing this response into its most elemental form, Lawrence of Arabia seems to observe the attraction of death with the utmost clarity and intensity. Furthermore, the film allows its hero to share the audience’s slightly ashamed awe. This shared reaction – something other characters, more inured to violence, seem to be indifferent to – is the beginning of our attachment to Lawrence; his fascination with the desert, yet another element that only he seems to appreciate, furthers the identification. However, the desert – and with it the triumph of the movie itself – does not sink its claws into us right away.
Indeed, even after that breathtaking sunrise, the film continues to build and to hold off its greatness until it can most overwhelm the audience. While Lawrence’s trek to the camp of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) introduces many of the visual elements which will be fulfilled throughout the film (figures isolated in a vast vista; dark, cold nights with the wind blowing across the dunes; a figure emerging from the hazy mirage), this romanticism is submerged when the adventurer arrives at his destination. The scenes in Faisal’s camp often feel like standard epic filmmaking: medium-shot interactions in an exotic, but enclosed set (here, Faisal’s tent), lots of exposition, set pieces with swarming crowds and costumes and camels. Cecil B. DeMille did this sort of thing in his sleep, and it’s not until Lawrence departs from the camp that the film finally hits its stride with a gusto that will never let up.
By this point, apparently, some critics had already drawn their conclusions about the movie, but their patience would have been rewarded if they’d indulged it. Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt are wise to wait before introducing us to Lawrence, first from the outside, then (slowly) from the inside. And they are even wiser to illuminate the desert’s charms step by step, letting its draw take ahold of us slowly until suddenly we are pulled into its world of death, grandeur, and mystery, as if by quicksand. They flirt with conventional biography, historical chamber drama, and conventional epic spectacle, before – in Lawrence’s voyage across the silent, sweltering sands of Arabia – unleashing something far greater than all of these forms: an epic spectacle of the psyche which is both resolutely exterior and subtly interior – the desert outside and inside all of us.
By film’s end, Lawrence has long ago surrendered himself to the desert, but he is now in retreat, exhausted and weary. His Arab friends tell him that he cannot deny his new identity, Prince Faisal writes him off as a Brit tired of playacting in the Middle East, and the British officers regard him with bemusement which is slowly shading into indifference as they settle down to carve up their new empire (an empire which Lawrence has inadvertently created for them). The subject of this concern or lack thereof insists that he’s a spent force; he retreats from the theater of war to write his memoirs and contemplate his own myth.
Already, the legend has been born, thanks in no small part to the Chicago reporter/photographer (Arthur Kennedy) who cynically builds Lawrence up, hoping to make the war appealing to U.S. readers on the verge of intervention. In their interviews together, the white-robed warrior regards the grungy journalist with barely-concealed scorn and diffidence, and it’s a useful reminder of Lawrence’s Englishness; an ironic one as well, because in many senses his eccentricities are particularly American. There’s the sense that he can shape his own identity and destiny, free from constrictions of British class and order; an attraction to the wilderness, where he feels that he will discover his true worth and remake himself in his own image; and finally, a hubris which tells him he’s “leading” a people to victory but allows him to look the other way while his fellow officers suggest they have other intentions for Arabia.
Ultimately, Lawrence is neither fully British, “American,” nor Arab. As a jeep drives Lawrence away from Damascus, the camels and tribesmen now relegated to the side of a dusty road as the car barrels along, the driver remarks to Lawrence, with pride and envy, “Goin’ ‘ome, sir.” Lawrence remains uncomfortably silent, while the desert hurtles into the distance behind him and the song of a passing convoy fades into the last stirrings of Jaffe’s romantic score. He knows that he’s leaving the only home he ever truly experienced; a home based on dislocation and exultation rather than comfort and familiarity, virtues he will never know. His hero’s journey is ending without any true catharsis; the self-discoveries born along the way discarded like snakeskins in the desert sun. Only an empty shell of a man rides on.
Lawrence of Arabia opens with Lawrence’s motorcycle accident, but by now we realize that his death scene (the least affecting in the film) was superfluous; his true spiritual demise came far earlier when, tired and dazed, he retreated from the heights and descended back into the sea of fog, his wandering closed for all time.
*A quick note on the performances: they are all thoroughly excellent. Famous actors disappear into their parts; Hawkins becomes Allenby, Rains astonishingly creates an independent Dryden out of his own familiarly juicy amoralism – while O’Toole embodies Lawrence so thoroughly that, while discussing the excellence of his performance in this piece, I have not mentioned his name once until now. The actors playing the major Arab characters are uniformly good (only one of them has any Arab blood, incidentally). That said, I came to miss the disapproving big brother/senior mentor quality displayed by Omar Sherif until his character goes gaga for Lawrence. Anthony Quinn manages to transform his own flamboyance into the character’s, and Guinness, with his knowing resignation and delicate sauciness, is perfect as Faisal. He also gets some of the best lines in the movie. My favorite?
“Yes, with Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge for yourself which motive is the more reliable.”
[Originally this post provided a link to my piece, which was first posted on the Examiner. As of 1/29/10, it has been moved here in its entirety.]