BY RAHUL SINGH
A flick that withstood the test of time and will continue to do so. Flawless cinematography and hauntingly complex characters never grow old.
There are a lot of ways that one can define a good movie. Some of the most popular methods are the examination of the character’s journey, the importance of the rest of the cast, the overall story and its stakes, and sometimes the above doesn’t matter if the film can provide great entertainment. In the case of late British director David Lean, his 1962 Epic Lawrence of Arabia hits all cylinders that could ever be asked of a masterpiece of cinema.
Part historical depiction of the Great War, part character study, Lawrence of Arabia explores the events of World War One through the Arab Front- a rebellion of the Arab tribes in what was at the time Arabia under the Ottoman Empire. Through the eyes of its titular character, T.E. Lawrence, a British liaison officer part of the Arab Bureau. A misfit with insolence to traditional war tactics and education gave him a different perspective on things and made him an outcast to his fellow officers.
Eager to be rid of him, he was sent to assess the prospects of the Arabs forces. Losing his Bedouin guide to Sherif Ali for violating unspoken rules of Bedouin culture, he makes it to the camp where he meets the face of the rebellion, the complex and tragic Prince Feisal. Bemused by the Englishman’s seemingly genuine devotion to the Arab cause, Feisal permits his request of 50 men to take the fortified city of Aqaba. Lawrence’s ambitions are shown to be mixed with his sense of self, striving to be larger than life in an effort to discover himself. He takes the city after gaining the aid of a powerful local tribe, the Howeitat, led by the proud Auda Abu Tayi.
Playing into his vanity and grandiosity, Lawrence secures his aid and takes the city. Setting him down a path that would involuntarily haunt him, as a means to an end by the British General Allenby, and as a figure of legend around which the Arabs will rally to a cause by Feisal. Until the end of the war in Arabia, at which point he’s deposed when his usefulness runs out. A hero to both sides but broken within, traumatized by war and frustrated with his human limitations, still feeling lost and without a place in the world.
The search for self identity and a place for oneself
The movie explores several themes through its characters. Lawrence feels spiritually lost, different than his fellow officers in so many ways, he feels out of place and resentful for being different. An illegitimate child of a nobleman who eloped, Lawrence grew up striving to one day find his place in the world. At first, these feelings are quelled as he finds a place among the Bedouin, gaining their respect and admiration through victories and nobility - he saved a man lost in the desert from death at a very near cost of his own life. They help him feel a sense of place and make his own identity. Free to choose his name, and as one Arab eloquently put it “He for whom nothing is written may write himself a clan.”. Meaning that one without a predetermined hereditary or familial identity is free to write his own story. A recurring theme as Lawrence has yet to find his place in the world, unable to be part of the Arab world truly as an Englishman, who can’t agree with many Arab customs.
Another major theme is allegiance, a part of both worlds, Lawrence finds himself torn between his loyalties to the British side. On the one hand, there is his homeland that he’s bound to, and on the other, there are the Arabs. Who has come to take him as one of their own and trust him? A mutual feeling as Lawrence has come to find a place for himself among the Arabs, a feeling of pride mixed with guilt for stringing them along in the war under what he soon learns are lies.
There is an air of grandiosity that develops around the first half of the film, following Lawrence’s rise from liaison officer to Arab leader to a hero and prominent figure in the war. Showing him as a larger than life character from the very start, with so much to prove to himself more than anyone else, a desire to rise above everything. With no bedrock, or place to fit in, he measures himself by his achievements and capabilities. This air comes crashing down around him in the second half; in disguise in an Arab town, he’s forcibly conscripted, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by a Turkish officer. His whole world shaken, brought low, Lawrence loses all confidence and strength. Let go by the Turks, he snaps at his companions in misery. Arriving back at the British headquarters in Arabia, he interrupts a conversation between Feisal and Allenby. Wherein Allenby denies the existence of the Sykes-Picot treaty, an agreement made by the French and British stating should the Arab rebellion succeed, they would be denied independence and instead be taken under the French and British empires respectively. An amused Feisal saw the ruse from the very start and left Lawrence with his countrymen, mistaking his obliviousness to the treaty’s existence for skilled lies. Stating before he leaves that Lawrence was almost an Arab, implicating his thoughts of Lawrence.
At first, Lawrence pleads for but then argues for permission to go home only to be repeatedly denied. The situation comes to a head when a wound from the encounter starts to show blood. Confronted with the reality of the situation, Allenby plays to his ego and need for validation. Playing into his fame and reputation, Allenby coerces him out again for the big push to take Damascus and end the war. Lawrence agrees, but makes it clear that when he takes it, it goes to the Arabs and not the British, Allenby doesn’t utter a word of resistance.
A changed man, Lawrence empties the British coffer to enlist an Arab army more influenced by money than the cause, rubbing his more allies the wrong way. His dark side is further shown when halfway to Damascus, they come across a Turkish column that razed a village and it’s populace whilst retreating. Taking up the cry of an Arab who got shot for wandering too close to the retreating army, Lawrence orders the Turks slaughtered to the last man, no prisoners. Jackson Bentley, the wartime reporter following Lawrence’s story, a crucial hand in gaining him his fame comes to find a darkened battleground littered with dead. His hero standing over it filled with regret and despair, looking more like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse than the liberating hero he showed the world.
Taking the city far before the British forces arrive, Lawrence takes it under the name of Feisal of Mecca and the Arab cause. But soon learns that his dream would just stay that. The Arab cause was a confederation of tribes, tribes that each have their history, conflicts, and grudges. Despite Lawrence’s best efforts, he can’t bring the tribes to let go of their rivalries and cooperate. Dejected, he resigns his dreams to the bitter truth.
The Bedouin tribes, coming to the same conclusion that cooperation is impossible, leave the cities for their home; the desert. Prince Feisal and Allenby conclude to send Lawrence home, his usefulness to both factions having come to an end. Feisal manages to retain control of the city, for now, citing political PR as a means to ensure the British stay friendly, for now.
Without a unifying cause and a figure to rally around. The old rivalries and blood of the tribes come out again, instigating old hostilities. Almost causing one of Lawrence’s oldest companions and confidants Sherif Ali, who’d been with him since the start to attack Auda. Who was among the first to abandon the cause once the war was over, cynically foreseeing what would happen once the mutual enemy was gone.
How it was made in a time without CGI and special effects
In an era without CGI, British director David Lean shows larger than life cinematography and landscapes. Capturing the environment to show the desert landscapes as empty yet at the same time enveloping everything in sight. Without the aid of animation, sets of cities and war camps, such as Auda Abu Tayi’s Wadi Rum, shown from the mountains in breathtaking panoramic view were meticulously recreated to mimic the real settlements.
A perfectionist who would wait even months to get every shot perfect; Lean was perfect to depict the complexity yet tragic nature of Lawrence of Arabia. Of a man struggling to find his place in the world, lost in a whirlwind of emotions, glory, and ambition, ultimately stopped by human nature. Showing the grandiosity through perfect sunrise and landscapes, yet also capturing tension through silence and still moving scenes.
A project that stayed on its feet, it started work with an incomplete script. With the second but primary scriptwriter Robert Bolt having to be bailed out of prison to complete it. Yet every part of it was a piece of perfection, Sir Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn, who played Prince Feisal and Auda respectively looked like mirror images of their historical counterparts. So much so that people who met the prince mistook Guinness for him, and when Quinn appeared on set in character, Lean mistook him for a local and reportedly attempted to fire Quinn to let him take the role.
The (not an actual) expert’s opinion
A masterpiece from a forgotten era of cinematography. Lawrence of Arabia shows the world one of The Great War’s most polarizing figures. Showing greatness along with darkness and vanity of one of history’s larger than life characters. Who struggles against his humanity to see just how far he can go, haunted by his actions and driven by a desire to prove himself. Lawrence of Arabia is a flick that withstood the test of time and will continue to do so so long as there is an appreciation for flawless cinematography and hauntingly complex characters.