Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

December 16, 1962
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Review by Timothy Lawrence

  • “And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.”

    – Ovid, Metamorphoses

    Lawrence of Arabia begins at the end of its hero’s life. It is not a heroic end. The film’s first scene depicts T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) barreling down a British country road on his motorcycle, picking up speed until, spooked by a pair of bicyclists, he swerves into a ditch and dies. The mundane randomness of Lawrence’s death hardly seems to befit a man with such an epic reputation. The film underlines this irony by cutting abruptly from the haunting image of Lawrence’s goggles, hanging from a branch in the aftermath of his accident, to a bronze bust of Lawrence at his memorial, receiving the accolade, “He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.”

    How can such an extraordinary man die such an ordinary death? In its first few minutes, the film presents the paradox that it will spend nearly four hours unraveling. On the one hand, there is the reality of Lawrence: a man like any other, frail and fallible and very mortal, killed in an unfortunate traffic accident. On the other, there is the myth of Lawrence: a hero and a messiah, almost a god, larger than life, revered in death.

    David Lean’s 1962 epic is one of the greatest films ever made, an accomplishment of nearly incomparable magnitude in its medium. To find a suitable comparison, one might have to resort to another art form altogether; one might say that Lawrence of Arabia is to the desert as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is to the sea. On the surface, both works are epic adventure stories, centering on one man’s obsessive quest to accomplish some titanic task. However, both sagas eschew conventional conclusions; both quests end in existential irresolution. Though they are separated by just over a century, both Moby-Dick and Lawrence of Arabia are sweeping studies of the modern man and the cosmos against which he must strive.

    One cannot talk about Lawrence without talking about the desert that acts as the backdrop to his exploits. As captured by Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young, the desert of Arabia both undergirds and undermines the myth of Lawrence. From wisps of sand curling over the dunes to the burning sun peeking over the horizon, the film is full of astounding, sublime images – a great setting for the story of a great man. Some of the film’s most memorable shots have a minimalist grandeur: just sky and sand, the horizon an unbroken line between them. On that horizon is a tiny black speck that could be Lawrence, very slowly growing larger as he approaches the camera.

    At times, the desert seems like a blank canvas on which Lawrence can paint his legend. At others, its expansive emptiness emphasizes his smallness and the vaporous nature of his ambitions. The film continually returns to these two intertwined enigmas: the nature of the desert and Lawrence’s place in it.

    One of Lawrence’s first acts onscreen is to extinguish a match between his bare fingers and explain to his bewildered comrades, “Certainly it hurts… The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Shortly thereafter, Dryden (Claude Rains), giving Lawrence his assignment in the Arabian desert, cautions him, “Only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me: for ordinary men, it’s a burning, fiery furnace.”

    This association between the fiery match and the “fiery furnace” of the desert is drawn out in the editing as well as the dialogue. At the end of this conversation with Dryden, Lawrence lights a match and blows it out, and in one disorienting second, the film cuts abruptly from one fire to another: from the flaming match in Lawrence’s fingers to the burning sun coming over the desert horizon. The desert and the match alike are opportunities for Lawrence to set himself apart from ordinary men – and he does this by vaunting his extraordinary appetite for pain.

    Much of the spare, pithy dialogue (by Michael Wilson and playwright Robert Bolt) reads like imagist poetry: its use of language is economic and precise. As in poetry, certain words accumulate significance through repetition. Chief among these words, perhaps, is “nothing.” Pondering Lawrence’s motives, Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) muses, “The English have a great hunger for desolate places… I think you are another of these desert-loving English… No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.” Later, Lawrence defies his Arab comrades’ belief in the divine orchestrations of fate with the blasphemous declaration, “Nothing is written.” After Lawrence has mastered the desert by rescuing a man from the scorching wasteland known as “the Sun’s Anvil,” even the pious Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) concedes, “Truly, for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”

    This “nothing” is the great terror and the great temptation of the modern soul. Having turned our backs on religion, on tradition, on anything that might limit our right to radical self-definition, we moderns have discovered the existential void – the “nothing” – that remains. If nothing is written… what a bleak and biting notion, what a dreadful and meaningless place the cosmos is! And yet, if nothing is written… a seductive thought slithers into that empty space, that God-shaped hole. If there is no meaning, we can make our own. The temptation is the same as it ever was: “Then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.” The result, too, is always the same: what sorry gods men make.

    In a crucial shot near the end of the film, Lean frames Lawrence against a painting that depicts the myth of Phaethon. As told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Phaethon is the foolish son of the sun god, Helios. In an act of hubris, Phaethon demands to drive his father’s chariot – the chariot of the sun – across the sky for one day. Unable to control the chariot, Phaethon begins to scorch the earth, and Jupiter intervenes, striking him down to prevent the world from burning. The association is apt, intuitive; Ovid’s myth layers neatly onto the contours of Lawrence’s story. Like Phaethon, Lawrence is hubristically drawn to fire. He tries to act like the god of a sun-scorched land and suffers the tragic consequences when his superiors inevitably turn on him. Even the image of Phaethon at the end of his flight, the wheels of the shattered chariot flying around him, is a sly foreshadowing of Lawrence’s ultimate fate. At the end of his life, he, too, will die because he loses control of a vehicle that he is driving too recklessly, too fast.

    We should be attentive to another parallel between the myths of Phaethon and Lawrence, though. Like many of the Greco-Roman gods, Helios is apt to father children with mortal women and then depart, leaving his progeny open to the accusation of illegitimacy. Phaethon is not motivated simply by hubris, but by the desire to prove his paternity. He demands to drive Helios’ chariot to answer the charge that he is a child of adultery – to prove that he really is half-divine. Similarly, Lawrence, fathered out of wedlock by an English nobleman, is haunted by his illegitimacy: “[My father] didn’t marry my mother,” he confesses to Ali through gritted teeth. His search for glory in Arabia is a search for the status that was denied him at birth because of his father’s abandonment. Ali, who seems to perceive this deeper motive, reframes Lawrence’s pain as an opportunity: “It seems to me that you are free to choose your own name… He for whom nothing is written may write himself a clan.” After hearing of Lawrence’s absent father, Ali commits his English clothes to the fire and attires him in Arabian robes. If he cannot be a lord of England, he can be a lord of Arabia. In the absence of his father, Lawrence can write his own story. Nonetheless, we might ask whether hubris or insecurity is the profounder motive behind Lawrence's actions. Does Lawrence make himself a god because of self-love or self-loathing? The film is full of different characters’ assessments of Lawrence, but the final word comes from a tearful Ali: “I fear him who love him. How must he fear himself who hates himself?”

    Contrary to Faisal’s statement, “no man needs nothing,” Lawrence is drawn to the desert precisely because there is nothing there – because, as he tells war reporter Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), “It’s clean.” The desert is a blank page on which he can write whatever he wants, but then again, nothing lasting can be written on sand. At the end of the film, “nothing” comes back to haunt Lawrence. He manages to install the leaders of the Arab Revolt in Damascus, only for their fledgling government to collapse in a matter of days. “This is nothing,” growls Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) as he gestures to the cavernously empty council chamber, summing up all of Lawrence’s ambitions with a sweep of his arm. When Ali tries to console Lawrence – “You have tried very hard to give us Damascus” – he replies, “It’s what I came for. And then… it would be something.” But only God can create something out of nothing, and whatever he might say to the contrary, Lawrence is only a man.

    From Alec Guinness’ elaborate formality as Faisal to Claude Rains’ arch cynicism as Dryden, the film is full of memorable performances, but all hinges on Peter O’Toole’s brilliant turn as T.E. Lawrence. O’Toole deftly embodies the double-sided enigma of the myth and the man, radiating magnetic charisma one minute and anguished self-doubt the next. It is easy to understand why his followers are swept up in the wake of his flamboyant persona: when he declares that he will work miracles, one almost believes it, and more importantly, one almost believes that he believes it. However, as the film goes on, O’Toole subtly whittles away at Lawrence’s convictions. There is something irresolute behind his blue eyes; his thin smile falters; a diffident tremor comes into his voice at inopportune moments. O’Toole plays Lawrence as a man playing a part he has written for himself, and at times, he seems agonizingly conscious of the gap between his true self and the identity he has taken such pains to fashion. Lawrence the myth obscures Lawrence the man; or, to put it another way, Lawrence the man hides behind Lawrence the myth. Dryden could be talking about Lawrence’s identity when he tells him, “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.” Who is Lawrence, really? By the end of the film, it is not clear that anyone knows, least of all the man himself.

    Near the beginning of the Lawrence myth, he mounts a daring campaign to capture the Turkish city of Aqaba for the Arabs and win his first taste of military glory. Angling for the approval of Prince Faisal, he suggests: “We can claim to ride in the name of Faisal of Mecca.” “Yes, Lieutenant Lawrence, you may claim it,” Faisal answers drily. “But in whose name do you ride?” The film cuts away before Lawrence can answer, but he does not need to. Whether it is Lawrence the myth riding to victory in Aqaba or Lawrence the man riding to his death in the English countryside, Lawrence of Arabia is the grandiose tragedy of a man who rides in no one’s name but his own.

  • Release Date
    December 16, 1962
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