Lawrence of Arabia
Directed by David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains
Director David Lean (ironically known for making exhaustingly long films), helmed what many film historians consider the quintessential epic with Lawrence of Arabia. The “epic” genre was a style of film popularized in the 1950s and ’60s for being overlong event films that used the ultra widescreen “Cinerama” technology in order to compete with television. Though originally shot via three, 35mm-cameras, Cinerama transitioned to a more-lush-yet-streamlined film stock called Ultra Panavision 70mm. Many cinematographers consider Lawrence of Arabia to be the peak use of this film type–its majestic views brought to vivid reality no matter the screen size. More modern examples of the epic genre include Titanic, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and Dune.
Lawrence of Arabia boasts a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, a perfect 100/100 on Metacritic, and an IMDb score of 8.3/10, putting it in the website’s top 250 movies. Sight & Sound’s 2022 Directors’ List (as opposed to critics) ranks Lawrence of Arabia at #69 for the greatest movie of all time.
I originally saw Lawrence of Arabia in high school for a history class. The class was a little over an hour long, so we watched it in five sittings. I was sick on one of those days, so, to make up the class, my teacher told me to rent the movie from the library and finish it at home. This posed two problems. Firstly, I was visiting relatives in rural North Dakota that weekend, so I had to watch the missing piece in the truck on the way there. Secondly, the library only had a VHS copy of the movie, so I had to dig up my parents’ portable, black-and-white TV/VCR player and shove it in between the front seats. I watched it begrudgingly, and got an “A” in the class.
Recently, I was talking to my friends (the married couple who had me watch Midsommar), hating on Lawrence of Arabia. The husband of the couple remarked that he’d never seen it and wondered if it was as bad as his wife and I claimed it was. Once I recounted my experience, I realized that, perhaps, watching a four-hour movie in pieces over five days, out of order, and partially in black-and-white may not have been the filmmaker’s original intention.
I agreed to rewatch the movie with my friends because not only does Lawrence of Arabia qualify for this month’s theme of…
…but it also gives me a chance to cover LGBTQ+ representation because its main character is gay… or is he? Either way, this post counts as…
T.E. Lawrence, a highly educated British soldier with a speciality in Arabian culture, enters the desert on assignment from Arab Bureau member Mr. Dryden and General Murray to help rein in “a sideshow of a sideshow.” His mission is to help unite various desert tribes in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire.
After his guide is killed, Lawrence realizes that the deep cultural divides are keeping the desert people’s power buried. Lawrence then makes his way to the camp of Prince Faisal. There, he wrangles a force of the Prince’s men to cross “The Sun’s Anvil,” an unforgiving wasteland, in order to reach the sea port of Aqaba. In the process, Lawrence’s party comes upon Auda Abu Tayi, a local leader and mercenary. Tayi agrees to help take Aqaba in a show of unprecedented pan-tribal coordination.
The city is miraculously taken, and Lawrence returns to Cairo exhausted but victorious. The British military promotes him and the various Arabic tribes begin lionizing him as a hero. Dryden and General Murray’s replacement, General Allenby, worry that they’ve been caught in a whirlwind without any idea of where they’ll end up.
Part Two begins with Jackson Bentley, a sensationalist American journalist, looking for Lawrence. After interviewing Prince Faisal, Bentley finds Lawrence blowing up a Turkish train. Lawrence, high on celebrity, begins showboating, but gets shot by a wounded enemy soldier.
Still oblivious to his sore-thumb status, Lawrence scouts out the enemy city of Deraa. Immediately spotted due to his glow-in-the-dark shade of white skin, Lawrence becomes prisoner to the Turkish Bey, a sadistic general who gets off on sexual and physical abuse of his prisoners. Lawrence, shaken by the experience, asks to be relieved of duty. General Allenby, seeing the fall of Jerusalem and Damascus in sight, encourages Lawrence to don his celebrity persona one last time to lead the campaign.
Lawrence, now intimately familiar with the cruelty of the Turkish military, hires gruesome mercenaries to lead the charge to Damascus. They take it, leaving no survivors– to the horror of Lawrence’s original allies.
The Pan-Arabic army, with two days until the British Army’s arrival, must prove their various factions and tribes can run the city lest the U.K. take over, furthering their political agenda in the Middle East. Unfortunately, ancient wounds tear the new council apart with Prince Faisal barely salvaging his people’s dignity. Lawrence, meanwhile, gets promoted to Colonel, but sidelined due to his anti-British agenda. The film ends with Lawrence being shipped home, viewing one last group of desert dwellers with fondness before leaving the continent forever.
It’s exhaustive in its length, no doubt. At 3 hours and 42 minutes, my friend and I had to set aside most of the day just to fit it in. Coincidentally, I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon, so our intermission was 90 minutes, not the 10 minutes built into the rental.
Coincidence or not, I’m glad my friend and I experienced Lawrence of Arabia this way. Having time to digest the first half gave me appreciation for the different tone of the second half. Consequently, I felt like I was watching a double feature: Lawrence of Arabia Part I and Part II. This experience also meant that neither half felt too long.
The daunting length now manageable, I became enthralled with the layered political web in which T.E. Lawrence found himself. As such, though he’d spent his whole life studying Arabia, Lawrence has to prove himself, navigate minute cultural differences for which he could’ve never have been prepared, tame his own desire for celebrity, reckon with his skin color and privilege, all while keeping Britain’s imperialistic jaws away from a burgeoning union.
Peter O’Toole’s performance is magnificent (though he understandably lost the Oscar that year to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird), and Omar Sharif’s performance rightfully launched him to international fame. Claude Rains also deserves praise as the slithery politician Dryden, his machinations cleverly showing the audience exposition they may have missed while revealing his thorough read on Lawrence’s situation.
I haven’t even mentioned the supreme cinematography, nor the nuanced, still-relevant take on Middle Eastern politics. Really, Lawrence of Arabia‘s got it all–good thing too because, for its length, it had better.
I’ve talked previously about modern audiences catching onto concepts faster, reducing the need to repeatedly show concepts on screen. Lawrence of Arabia is no exception; the film could be 45-60 minutes shorter. That said, I still think the average adult definitely would enjoy the movie. I don’t think, however, that I personally would’ve had the life experience and maturity to truly appreciate Lawrence of Arabia until I was 25 years old. If a 16-year-old wunderkind is reading this post and thinking, “I just saw it and found it to be marvelous,” then bully for you. My primitive brain just wouldn’t have appreciated the measured pace, depth of political nuance, or detailed character interplay until I got notices for my 10-year high-school reunion.
Speaking of high school, what was my history teacher thinking? There was NO way any of my classmates were going to enjoy this experience. Master and Commander, Elizabeth, and The Pianist would all have been better contemporary choices. While I don’t think Lawrence of Arabia is hard to follow, the character arcs, themes, and breathtaking vistas don’t exactly play well in 40-minute chunks on a roll-out TV.
Was that a dated reference? Not as dated as our next topic…
Lawrence of Arabia is 60 years old. Unfortunately, that means this film is a prime example of “whitewashing,” the practice of casting white actors in roles where they depict people of color. I’ve touched on the harmful effects of whitewashing before, but this movie features it front and center. Not one, but two major dignitary roles in the movie went to old-guard British actors.
To be fair to Lawrence of Arabia, Alec Guinness met directly with family members of Prince Faisal, the character he portrayed, and claimed that, upon showing them makeup tests, some of those family members commented that Guinness was Prince Faisal’s ghost. This anecdote puts this portrayal above deserved punching bags like John Wayne in The Conquerer, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Lawrence Oliver in Othello.
Then again, the couple with whom I watched Lawrence of Arabia was aghast at the portrayal, the wife retorting, “If Lawrence of Arabia isn’t that bad, then why does Alec Guinness look like he’s wearing shoe polish?” Both things, then, I believe to be true: Alec Guinness turns in a stellar performance as Prince Faisal, but he had no business playing the role. Surely Omar Sharif wasn’t the only talented Middle-Eastern actor of his time; the movie could’ve filled that role easily and appropriately.
Apparently not–according to T.E. Lawrence’s own writings and his biographers’ opinions, the man was likely asexual. Though Lawrence had effeminate mannerisms and was close to a couple of young men, his correspondences weren’t sexual. Additionally, he witnessed homosexual acts during his time in the desert, acknowledging them but finding the practice too unclean for his taste.
Separately, when Lawrence recalls being beaten at the hands of the Turkish Bey, he admits that he became aroused by the experience–or what he assumed was arousal. Later in life, Lawrence engaged in masochistic play, hiring a Royal Air Force Corpsman to whip him in a similar fashion. To be clear, I’m not inferring that there is a tie between asexuality and masochism. I’m merely pointing out that this ONE historical figure received gratification from practices other than physical intimacy.
I imagine, however, that the assumption of Lawrence’s sexuality as gay stems from an outdated understanding of sexual orientation. In the 1960s, if queer people were acknowledged and treated without contempt, LGBTQ+ folks were lumped into the other half of a false “non-straight” binary.
Lawrence of Arabia, however, sidesteps much of this speculation by never addressing it directly. Other characters make snide comments, and Lawrence is keenly aware of his personal quirks (Peter O’Toole puts in a well-studied performance), but the film its much more interested in the nature of Lawrence’s public persona and celebrity. Paradoxically, by playing coy with its protagonist’s orientation, Lawrence of Arabia still feels like fresh, thoughtful representation (in this area only, Alec Guinness!)
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