This is not a movie about Islam, but it is very much about the long struggle of Muslim Arabs to oppose the claims of Western colonial powers on their ancestral lands. The deep appeal in the character of T.E. Lawrence is in his two-sided nature. He is a fully educated British military man on the one hand, and a compassionate advocate of Bedouin independence on the other hand. I have tried on this website to keep my movie reviews to bare essentials. Plot details can always be found in Wikipedia. But occasionally, I feel it necessary to give full treatment to a movie that, to my mind, captures a milestone moment in the broad sweep of human history.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Watched the DVD of this film at the end of 2002, forty years after seeing it for the first time, and found it to be not one bit less dramatically powerful and cinematically spectacular. Directed by David Lean, it opens with the death of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) by motorcycle accident in his native England. At the funeral, an American journalist comments outside of the cathedral that in addition to his exemplary qualities, Lawrence was “the most shameful exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.” The scene jumps to British Headquarters in Cairo during World War I. Immediately we join the British power elite in the familiar exercise of sitting in well-appointed rooms discussing the fate of people to whom they clearly feel superior. Here the job is to protect the interests of the British Empire in the Middle East. The immediate concern is the rival Ottoman Empire (the Turks), with whom there is no declared war. Because young Lawrence has shown an interest in working with the Arabs (and little interest in working at headquarters), he is sent into Arabia with a single Bedouin guide to “appreciate the situation.”
Suddenly the film opens out to vast panoramas of the majestic desert, shot mostly in Jordan, and also Morocco. The two travelers run into a tribal chieftain, Omar Sharif, and the guide is shot dead. Momentarily unhinged, Lawrence rants that these people are silly and barbarous, and that if they cannot eschew tribal warfare, they will remain so. After some difficulty (he is a glutton for travail), he finds his way to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), whose Bedouin encampment is under attack by two biplanes. Sharif has managed to stay with O’Toole and will continue at his side throughout the film. They seem to be in the general area of Medina. Lawrence advances his agenda for aligning the English and the Arabs against the Ottoman occupation. The local British commander (Anthony Quayle) has joined the meeting but is less tolerant of Lawrence’s ideas than is the more subtle-minded Faisal. Lawrence, who shows a marked tendency toward insubordination to his superiors, has a deep capacity for identification with the Arab tribesmen.
Lawrence helps to lead a raiding party across a forbidding desert expanse to Turkish-held Aqaba, on the sea. Along the way, Lawrence is made one of the tribe, and given his own Arab garb. Yet another tribal chieftain, the fierce Anthony Quinn, with a most remarkable putty nose, confronts them at a well and threatens a blood feud. He is a powerful leader, and hosts the party at his tent, providing food and intense conversation. They join forces and become a mighty Arab army headed for Aqaba. The specter of blood feud arises again when a man of one tribe murders a man of the other group. Lawrence must execute the murderer, whom he had only recently saved from death in the desert. They swarm into Aqaba and claim complete victory over the Turkish garrison. Lawrence travels across the Sinai to report to Cairo. General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) is now in command, and Lawrence gets a better hearing. He is promoted to Major, but is loath to return to the Arab front, confiding his fears that what killing he had to do he enjoyed too much.
An American journalist named Bentley follows in Lawrence’s wake, “looking for a hero.” The Arabs do not like his camera, but Lawrence loves it. The Arabs are intent on winning their freedom from foreign domination, and they see Lawrence as their savior. The British generals worry that Lawrence has “gone native.” The campaign in the desert grows more difficult, and the forces joined with Lawrence grow smaller. Somewhat desperate, Lawrence enters a Turkish-held town, and is arrested. He is tormented by a Turkish officer (Jose Ferrer), and it is intimated that he was sexually abused. He never recovers from this incident and pleads with headquarters to assign him to regular duty. Allenby is now in Jerusalem. Lawrence goes there and learns that there is a treaty stating that France and England will share the collapsed Turkish Empire. In a confrontation with Allenby, he decides to go back and lead the Arabs in an assault on Damascus. It is his agenda to get there first and subvert the treaty by establishing Arab self-rule. He assembles a great army and rides at the head, like a messiah. On the way to Damascus, he leads a massacre against the Turks. He has descended into blood-lust, and become uncivilized. When Allenby arrives at Damascus, Lawrence is there, setting up an Arab republic. The tribes have gathered in a senate building. The tide of blood feud is rising. Lawrence attempts to unite them, in vain. They ride back into the desert. Things fall apart. Lawrence is promoted to Colonel, and leaves for home in an attempt at anonymity. King Faisal sits down to negotiate an “old man’s” accommodation with the British. The End.
The issue here is the British view of barbarism as the opposite of Civilization. Lawrence’s fragile sanity becomes a metaphor of the thin veil that separates the two sides. A contender for the greatest film of the century, this work employs O’Toole’s talents to perfection. The second half of the film fails to deliver the public its hero, or to redeem the movie from its ambivalence. This is as it should be.
Steven Spielberg was involved with the restoration on the DVD and speaks in the Special Features of his admiration for the film. He watches three of Lean’s films for inspiration: Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence, and Dr. Zhivago. His favorite is Lawrence. “Maybe the greatest screenplay ever written for the motion picture medium.” It was written by Robert Bolt (his first), who later did Doctor Zhivago.
A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1998)
This is a very fine film, beginning after the Armistice of 1918, following the efforts of the now-famous T.E. Lawrence to broker the independence of the Arabs with an Arab state in the Middle East. The Emir Feisal, King of Syria, has come to London and Paris to further these interests with the help of his old ally, Lawrence. The Big Three: England, France, and the US (Wilson) are all involved but it is England that is pulling the strings. Lawrence is a passionate and deeply conflicted man, who is discovering that his idealism is lost on the powerful men who run the Empire. When it is learned that oil has been found in the Persian Gulf, the fate of Lawrence and Feisal is sealed. Ralph Fiennes does an admirable job of delivering a post O’Toole portrait of Lawrence. This film was made for TV in Britain and is not listed in Maltin or Ebert.