David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia should be the easiest film in the world to review. It is “the” epic, which is to say the most epic film perhaps ever made and the “best” epic film ever made. Or so they say. In fact, it is an epic, grand in scale, filled with lofty ambitions and shots of people of different-hued skin staring at each other as if to ponder the mysteries of the world. But it is also much more than that, and perhaps one of the most deceptive films ever produced. I suppose, as a monstrously-budgeted film with no relative unknowns in the lead roles, no romance, little action, and an implicitly homosexual main character, someone was worried about its commercial prospects in the moment, and they granted Lean the freedom to have his film express, breathe, prod, poke, and reach out in every which way that films of this nature weren’t really supposed to do. After all, if it didn’t have anything on the surface, except of course its “grandness” to appeal to audiences, it had to have something in its bones that would only be revealed once audiences were experiencing the film and having it happen to them – something that would gain critical attention for long-lasting appeal, if not immediate commercial success. That something turned out to be Lean making it one of the best films ever made.
The story sounds like a mess of grandiosity and political tensions. A British officer goes to Arabia and winds up leading a revolt over Arabs against the oppressive, domineering Turks. Heard that before? Simple, tepid, AND alight with white male savior-complex. Turns out Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson had other ideas in mind. What they essay here does follow that basic form, but it is far more, and it all starts with Lawrence himself. He’s a mass of contradictions: enigmatic, passive, passionate, dangerous, bitter, and distanced. Early on we see him as a noble leader of sorts, or at least a figure who plays one to the Arabs who come to work with him and act under him, but one need only look at his initial characterization to see something more dangerous and questioning. In England, Lawrence requests to go to the Middle East for one reason: it seems “fun”. The fact remains, he’s a man who doesn’t fit in within the British command structure and he’s looking for a walk on the wild side – to him his role in Arabia is a game, or a vacation, something he only cares about because he’s bored. In the end, it’s white men playing power-grab to pass the time and playing revolutionary abroad because they’re afraid of it in their homeland.
As the film progresses, Lawrence evolves, but not into a passionate freedom fighter. He’s a man obsessed with the image of rebellion and revolution, a conception of machismo the lanky, skinny man never at home but which he, as a white man, can have in the Middle East. For him, the democracy that the Arabs want is almost a happy accident. What he really wants is the personal thrill of action and violence, and it leads to him becoming the most violent and angry of all the revolutionaries. Beset by personal losses and difficulties, he sees a safe place far away from England when he doesn’t have to worry about punishment from his government for excessive force or wanton destruction – the man we see at the end of the film is the powerful revolutionary leader he fancied himself, but he’s also a broken, beaten, scarred man whose claim had been fulfilled on the lives and deaths of many. If Lawrence truly wanted honor in revolution, he may have achieved for himself, but he certainly didn’t for the Arabs – in the end, he’s helped free them from the Turks and all-but given them over to the British. The implicit orientalism of his dreams, the implicit Western imperialism inherent to his view of freedom, can only end in one way: being rendered concrete.
Actor Peter O’ Toole, known for his commanding, intense, and even abusive performances, brings even greater complication to the character. He brings his usual wide-eyed obsessiveness and searing inner-anger, but it’s married to a quirky amusement and fey theatricality. He doesn’t come off like a “respectable man” – early on he’s wandering through another movie, commenting on situations with a standoffish detachment, and toward the film’s conclusion he’s bitter and filled with contempt. O’ Toole brings Lawrence to life primarily through pausing, rather than acting or speaking, rendering him as far less competent at his own dreams than he wants to be, even as he’s completely sure of something he does not know a thing of.
I write so much about Lawrence for a key reason: to show the profound, deceptive intimacy of the film. For all its grand ambitions, this is a character study about a British outcast who ended up being more in-line with British austerity and elitism than his wild-man sensibilities initially dreamt. The film is about an enigma, a myth, and an attempt to render him a man. But it is also about the way in which “a man” becomes knowable to audiences only as a myth, especially when that man spent his whole life cultivating himself as nothing more than a myth. And all I’ve described here is only the half of it, as well. I still haven’t touched on the not-insignificant matter of Lawrence’s sexuality, rendered implicit in the film through subtle gestures and mannerisms. He’s clearly meant to be homosexual, but no film in 1962, let alone an epic, could render this explicit. Above all, this adds another layer to his outsider status in the UK, the nature of him looking for something more “fun” in exotic locales, and most hauntingly, his increasing desire to prove his machismo and power that leads to violence.
But the film isn’t only intimate as an exploration of TE Lawrence. Its masterstroke is using its very grandness to render images so mythically potent as to burrow straight into our eyes and tie themselves to our souls. This is one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful films ever produced, with a sense of wonder composed not through self-conscious outsizing but through painterly precision. A famous image of a mirage evokes dreamy haze like no other, and a spellbinding cut sees cheeky Lawrence blow out a match in profile, the fire burning out turning into a night-sky broken up by the sun’s rise far away – this is Lawrence’s magisterial, dreamlike image of the exotic Middle East, not any “real” depiction of it. Lean knows we as Westerners are prone to seeing the same beauty, and with Lawrence filmically creating the landscape as a trick, a fictive construct, by having it appear on-screen as he blows out the match, Lean self-consciously suggests the vista not as reality but as a mythic mirage rendered as we want it to be.
Of special note are shots with humans in the far-off background of sweeping vistas, rendering Lawrence’s attempts to tame this wide landscape futile, showcasing the very overpowering “feel” of the land he still sees as a product of his own mental and physical making. In other words, the film makes myths and deconstructs myth-making, giving us the appeal of a painterly, exotic Middle East only to force us to come to terms with how it’s all the fantasy of white men playing hero and nothing more.
Ultimately, Lean uses the “epic” as a cinematic canvas upon which to construct an enigmatic and harsh landscape that echoes and “creates” the film’s main character as much as that character desires to create or change the landscape. Lean knows the power of imagery, especially when accompanied by a transcendental score from Maurice Jarre. These images are as much the star of the film as Lawrence himself, and indeed, because they are “his” version of the Middle East, they are functionally one with him – most hauntingly so when they turn their gaze back on him. When he stares off into a desert threatening to swallow him whole, we’re aware that the two stars (Lawrence and Arabia) are mutually constitutive and engaged in a dialectic-to-the-death with each other.
Lawrence has found and lost himself in the cavernous emptiness of the desert, and he could never have one without the other. When he hands control over to the British, the desert and its plaintive beauty has a new would-be owner to deal with – an owner that may see to its unhappy ending. One would say “that’s a story for another time”, but it’s really the story of this film after all. For Lawrence was a British outsider attempting to distance himself from his home nation’s stodginess, ruthless efficiency, and class orderliness. And because he was always a part of that order even when he didn’t realize it, he could only ever end up recreating and enhancing it in the Middle East in ways he couldn’t foresee. He’s a reflection of pure dialectic tension, disguised by his own ego, and he’s the center of British cinema’s greatest self-reflexive study – a truly aching, heavingly opulent yet piercingly intimate modern Shakespearean tragedy if ever there was one.