Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

14Oct09

lawrence_of_arabia

I pray that I may never see the desert again. Hear me God – T.E. Lawrence

The Middle East has been an ongoing conflict of culture and politics, always in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Lost in this mess is its origins. After World War I and the collapse of the Turkish Empire, Britain and France carved up the Middle East to meet their needs, ignoring the pleas of Arab independence with Colonel T.E. Lawrence of the British Army as their biggest supporter. Lawrence had offered his own version of how the countries could be “aligned”, based on his significant experience working closely with the tribes during the war, but this was ignored.

The film is based on Lawrence’s memoir of the war “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, a towering accomplishment reflecting his thoughts on military strategy, the Arab people and conflicts of loyalty. The film follows Lawrence’s book closely but loosely. Some characters are composites to represent a specific view while others are made up to help move the plot along.  While the facts maybe questionable, there’s no denying the fiercely intelligent and understated dialogue, the screenplay possibly the best in film history.

The film opens with T.E. Lawrence’s funeral. Several prominent men of war are in attendance and when asked by a reporter their thoughts on Lawrence, they all offer wide ranging opinions, from a war hero to a show boat, reflecting his complexities. We then cut to the beginning of his war experience, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) shown as a bumbling, awkward map designer in Cairo during WWI. He has a deep knowledge of the terrain and history from previous experiences in the region as an archeologist. Britain and the Arabs have united to oppose the Ottoman Empire for Arab Independence but things are going badly. Lawrence persuades his commander to dispatch him to the Middle East and meet with the Arab Revolt’s leader, Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), and observe their dimming prospects.

It’s during this journey to meet Faisal that we first see the desert, splendidly shown in wide screen format, the camels tiny specks, the desert endless while Maurice Jarre’s majestic score sweeps us into grandeur. The desert looks soft and inviting, the sands golden and vast. Lawrence clearly is enjoying himself until he meets Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif), who kills his guide for drinking at his well. Ali is given a memorable introduction emerging as a mirage from the desert glare. Later, Lawrence then encounters Colonel Brighton and they arrive to Faisal’s camp, again meeting Ali, who is a high ranking solider in Faisal’s army. Though asked to keep quiet, Lawrence makes a strong impression on Faisal, noting his personal interest in Arab independence and sympathetic position with their struggle.  Lawrence then offers that they should take the port city Aqaba from the less guarded rear, from the land. Met with doubt initially, he persuades Faisal and Sherif Ali and they set march, not notifying the British in Cairo of his plans.

During this long march in which they must cross a vast desert, Lawrence earns the respect of the Bedouin he must lead, leading by example but also inheriting their customs, speaking their language fluently. They return this respect by burning his British clothes and giving him a majestic white sheik’s wardrobe, which he proudly wears. After recruiting the legendary Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), leader of the powerful Howeitat tribe, they storm Aqaba easily, the Turks completely surprised.

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Lawrence then leaves Aqaba and rides back to Cairo to let the British know of his astonishing conquest. He’s introduced to General Allenby, responsible for the British forces in the Middle East, and promoted major and given large sums of money and artillery for the Arab cause.  Lawrence explains his guerrilla warfare strategy, having the Arabs strike the Turks unexpectedly and quickly, while also strategically destroying their railways, stifling their ability to mobilize troops and supplies.

At this point, Lawrence is growing into legend among the British and the Arabs. This is magnified with the arrival of a US reporter along with the Turks placing a bounty on Lawrence’s head. Lawrence doesn’t deny the myth making but embraces his new found glory, show boating among the Arabs, his white robes flowing. Peter O’Toole was unknown prior to this film, surrounded by a cast of veteran actors supporting his novice skills, but he performs admirably, perhaps one of the greatest film performances of all time. Lawrence is quite complex as a man of action, thought and the written word, leading a group of foreign men though loyal to his own.

With winter approaching and most of his army leaving for the warmer climates, Lawrence moves north with a small legion. Scouting a city, he’s captured by Turks, though, they don’t recognize him, thinking him an army deserter. He’s beaten badly and left for dead. Ali nurses him back to health, but Lawrence’s psyche and ego are damaged. Allenby persuades him to finish the war, leading his Arab irregulars into the final march of Damascus and ending their campaign. News of British and French interests emerge at this time and Lawrence is conflicted, continuing to tell Faisal and the Arabs the British have no interest in ruling their country, though, he knows better.

Lawrence does lead the Arabs first into Damascus but ultimately, the Arabs bicker among themselves, leaving everything for the British to control. Lawrence is dejected after having fought so brilliantly for the Arab cause, only to be let down first by the British and their deception and finally the Arabs and their diplomatic shortcomings. Guilty and demoralized, he’s treated as nothing short of a war hero in which he reluctantly accepts, sent home after bringing victory.

There are many war movies in the annals of film history, several documenting war heroes, but few match the sheer ambition and scope of “Lawrence of Arabia.” The last film to be shot in 70mm print, the vast sea of the desert is magnificent. O’Toole’s acting is supported by an all world cast, launching also the career of Omar Sharif. David Lean’s direction is at its peak, never surpassing this performance with his other wonderful films. The film is a portrayal of Lawrence and less a historical abstract, the right choice made by Lean for Robert Bolt’s screenplay. In sum, all the parts that make a film, came together perfectly.

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