During the turbulent 1960s, a time for drastic change within the movie industry and the world around it, David Lean managed the impressive feat of directing Lawrence of Arabia. This three-hour long epic with no major stars and set almost entirely in the desert was set to challenge the films of the French New Wave and Italian Modernist movement as a valid piece of art. On the surface, Lawrence of Arabia had the look of a bloated epic, but with a master helmer like David Lean behind the camera it managed to portray rich themes, layered performances, and one of the best epic stories of a single man ever put to celluloid.
According to The Greatest Movies Ever if Lawrence of Arabia were filmed today it would have cost over $300 million to produce. Thanks to the success of David Lean’s previous film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was an international Box Office hit and took home eight Academy Awards, Lean was given flexibility from Columbia Pictures to do what he needed. However, there is the sense that a producer from Columbia spent a lot of time in the editing room convincing Lean to let the camera linger on the ornate set pieces as long as possible. The movie feels expensive, which adds to the larger than life persona at the heart of the story.
The “Lawrence” in Lawrence of Arabia is British officer T.E. Lawrence who was a key figure in the Arab Revolt in 1916 through 1918. Despite the fact that T.E. Lawrence kept detailed accounts of his military activities, very little was known about his personal life and David Lean’s film seeks to find a psychological motivation for his actions.
The film opens with Lawrence being killed in a motorcycle crash. His funeral is widely attended and those few Englishman who actually knew the man speak of him in reverence. The film then flashes back to Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) as he prepares to go to Arabia to assist with the unorganized Arab army as they attempt to fight the Ottoman Empire. Seeking adventure for himself, rather than his country, Lawrence giddily enters the desert and quickly discovers the turmoil that exists when his guide is killed by another Arab for drinking from a well not designated for his tribe. This Arab is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) who will remain a close companion to Lawrence throughout his time in Arabia. He also works along side Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), who becomes Lawrence’s competitor for the people’s affection, and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), who represents what Lawrence finds dislikable about the Arabs – the willingness to fight for money rather than country or tribal pride. The film primarily surrounds the Lawrence-lead sieges of Aquba and Damascus.
Five years after The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean’s follow-up film could not be more different thematically. Where Kwai was about one man’s steadfast devotion to national pride to the point where he inadvertently works for the enemy, Lawrence is about one man’s utter rejection of his country’s mores. Lawrence embraces the wild, adventurous life the desert offers and rejects the expectations of an officer in polite British society. Other officers are shocked to see him donning white Arab robes and adapting to desert life so quickly.
This embrace of the wilderness can be seen as symbolic of Lawrence’s sexuality. The real T.E. Lawrence never married and was often speculated to be homosexual and Lean inexplicitly pursues that thesis. Lawrence’s close relationship with Sherif Ali often plays like a British schoolboy crush and the two become quite close by the film’s ending. Lawrence also keeps two young male servants who he treats as equals. Towards the end of the film, Lawrence is captured by a Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer) and the scene is full of homoerotic undertones. Peter O’Toole also played Lawrence with a sort of femininity as he gracefully poses for photographs on top of a conquered train like a fashion model. That moment also reflects a quotation delivered earlier in the film: “He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.”
Part of the reason that Lawrence of Arabia was successful in establishing itself as something new and different than the costume epics of the 1920s and 30s was that Lean smartly used recent filming techniques. In many interior scenes he uses deep focus photography comparable to what Orson Welles had been using successfully. He is even inspired by the French New Wave as he uses a jump cut to transition from a burning match to a rising sun. What Lean does most successfully, however, is brilliantly use the expansive openness of the desert.
The film runs three and a half hours, but its length is not due to excessive dialogue. Instead it is because David Lean wanted to show the audience the power of a speck in the desert forming into a human. In more than one shot we see foreground characters stare off into the distance at something almost invisible to someone watching on a television screen. Slowly we see a speck form and after time elapses that feels like no time at all, we meet the character that was approaching. With this Lean effectively creates a character out of the desert itself and shows us how significant a human life really is. Whether it be a larger than life personality like Lawrence or an Arab in a foreign country, that to Americans and Europeans is no more significant than a dot on a map, every life has a story that will form if you just patiently wait for the speck to create life.
Bottom Line: Lawrence of Arabia is an essential film for movie fans that earns its lengthy running time.