Lawrence of Arabia

(UK - 1962)

by Matt White

Cast: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy
Genre: Adventure/War/Drama
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson from the writings of T.E. Lawrence
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Composer: Maurice Jarre
Runtime: 216 minutes

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is an epic of A-rate proportions. Why the term A-rate? Recently, Hollywood has been backtracking to genres that once made Hollywood, well, Hollywood. With the critical success of Braveheart, and the box office successes of Titanic, Gladiator and Pearl Harbor, Hollywood wants to return to its heritage of films of the grandest scale, the one aspect that marked a Hollywood film in the '50's and '60's. However, "want" is the key word; the aforementioned films are barely hitting the ceiling of top class B-rate epics. They are not on the level with films such as William Wyler's Ben-Hur, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Seven Samurai, and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.

What separates today's Hollywood epics from their far superior predecessors? First and foremost, they are from a tradition of uncompromising directorial vision. The likes of Leone, Kurosawa, Kubrick and Lean were notorious for their one directedness on the set, regardless of bottom line, money mentality. There is no ill will towards James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but their films were made for the bottom line, products at the top of the current Hollywood assembly line. Today's "epics" are not personal. It also has to do with how the sweeping landscape of the film is utilized. The earlier films all deal with one (or in the case of Seven Samurai, seven) person's journey through the landscape and how they change from the opening credits to the ending credits. Their journey is set against a marvelous backdrop. It is grand and personal at the same time. However, films like Pearl Harbor just use the scale to make a bigger action picture, not that there is anything wrong with that, it just takes away the potential for what could have been a great film (though there was not that much potential there to begin with).

Lawrence of Arabia, along with Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) are representations of both the film's director, David Lean, and Britain's view of colonial practices at the time. Considering that Britain had several colonies around the world, it is very plausible to put films, by British directors, that deal with the relationship between Britain and her colonies as a part of British cinema because it is just as much a part of its heritage.

There is a correlation between Lean's use of international setting and British social conditions. After 1955, he would never exclusively film in Britain again. The film industry there was collapsing but rather than go to Hollywood he opted to go the independent route joining American producer Sam Spiegal to produce films. This professional and international relationship is what produced Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. When Lean exited the exclusive British cinema for international cinema, his British roots did not disappear but changed location. Britons are still the main characters in both films, but are now somewhat displaced on the British colonial landscapes of Malaysia and Arabia respectively. Both of these films then can be viewed as criticisms of British attitudes of their colonial practices and director David Lean's own fascination with international themes.

To understand both films, it would be beneficial to understand David Lean. When he was a child he had traveled around Europe with his parents to Switzerland, France and the Mediterranean on vacations. Lean himself stated that these were the happiest memories of his childhood. This led to a fascination with photography and travel to exotic locales. However, when he saw his parents separated in his teenage years he became disillusioned and self admittedly turned to his camera for solace. It seems that he felt the further he would get away from England he could be leaving his problems behind and finding a new "love" in exotic locations and travel. Since, there is no romance in both Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, these films can be seen as a "male adventure" or search for masculinity abroad.

Ironically, the film begins in England. T.E. Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. Quickly there is a shift to St. Paul's cathedral, where only England's finest are buried. There, debate develops among the attendants as to the true nature of Lawrence's character. After the debate among the characters that will recur later on in the film, the scenery changes to Egypt during World War I where the English are in battle with Germany's Turkish allies over the control of the Middle East. It is here where Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is truly introduced.

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His features are not masculine in any sense, but rather a little more feminine than many would have believed him to be (this caused a lot of outrage in England at the time of the film's release). He is given an assignment to go and assist Arab tribes in fighting the Turks. After a fatal crossing of the desert to meet the tribes he is met with hostility immediately. Even though Lawrence is an expert in Arab culture, they do not trust him or his sincerity. He comes up with a plan to cross the desert and attack the city of Aqaba, a Turk stronghold. He somehow convinces the tribes to go along with this plan. While on the journey he adopts Arab clothing, dumping his British Army uniform, and gaining acceptance with the Arabs.

The attack on Aqaba is a great success, leading the British Army to appoint Lawrence to keep in charge of the Arab forces. They then start to attack railway lines that would cut off the supply lines of the Turks. It's a this point where an American journalist (played by Arthur Kennedy), begins to chronicle Lawrence and turn him in to a celebrity in the United States, resulting in American support of the war effort. Shortly after, Lawrence is captured in a Turkish prison, and after his release becomes greatly discouraged by all the infighting of the Arab tribes. After viewing the Arab congress (what would become known as Saudi Arabia), bicker uselessly after the conclusion of the war, Lawrence gets on a jeep to travel back to England. While in the jeep, a motorcycle quickly passes by, bringing the film full circle.

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There are great performances all around in this film. Of course, Peter O'Toole is first to come to mind, but there is also Lean regular, Alec Guiness as Prince Feisal, Egyptian star, Omar Shariff as the idealistic Sherif Ali, and Anthony Quinn (no stranger to epics), as tribe leader, Auda abu Tayi. The film itself is not built on set pieces, but rather the acting and the sweeping cinematography. It was a coup that Sam Spiegal (A Pro-Israel, American Jew) was able to get permission to film in Jordan, the actual locale of where most of Lawrence's real life journey took place.

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The film does not even try to be true documentation of the "real" T.E. Lawrence. It is hard to picture Peter O'Toole, with the same person that Winston Churchill labeled "the greatest man I ever knew." The historical significance of Lawrence's actions (uniting the Arab states and practically giving Britain a monopoly of influence in the middle east) is barely even touched upon. Instead, David Lean uses the most famous British figure of twentieth century, to explore and tell a personal story of a man among a collapsing empire. This might be the first truly revisionist epic.

Bridge on the River Kwai is complementary in many ways to Lawrence of Arabia. The protagonists actively seek greatness, their desires are selfish not selfless. Both films have characters that revolve around three certain characteristics: Professionalism, idealism and pragmatism. Madness can be associated with this conflict being precipitated by moral and cultural confusion. In both films, the conflict and madness arise when there is an attempt at internationalism. The need to belong also fits in here, but it only has success when a character stays within its certain nationality rather than a crossing of cultural boundaries.

In both films there is a criticism of British colonialism usually marked by the protagonists' turn to madness and fascism. T.E. Lawrence feels a need to belong outside of the British group and with the native tribes. His madness is marked by the loss of his compass in the desert, his only sense of direction, contributing to the cultural conflict present in the film. At the conclusion, he has lost all his idealism and finds himself leaving the desert and back to Britain. Lawrence can be seen as physically a weak character, emphasizing endurance rather than strength. However, due to his strong personal tendencies of pragmatism, professionalism and idealism, internal conflict is the result leaving him imbalanced and "mad". Comparing Lawrence's exit from the desert, a parallel is drawn towards Britain's loss of being a world power.

These many aspects of characterization and social criticism make Lawrence of Arabia an A-rate epic. The recent films that have tried to use this same technique of fallen short. It is a good thing that David Lean's films are now being recognized for what they truly are: the best of what an epic can be. It is more than just grand special effects, cinematography, and endless budgets. It is about personal journey among the grandest of landscapes.

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