Without clocking in at 3 hours and 50 minutes, including a 7 minute overture, the story of T.E. Lawrence would lose its impact. Lawrence of Arabia, “another David Lean epic,” took two years of work and was cut from a fabled 5 hours to somewhere over 3. It apparently took longer to make this film than it did for the real Lawrence to be promoted from Lieutenant to Colonel. This epic is a sprawling combination of the “sword and sandal” and the war epic, set in the Middle East during WWI. George Stevens, Jr. writes of Lean’s work, in particular Lawrence: “Lean’s stunning vistas and breathtaking spectacles are etched in our memories, yet the true power of his work comes from his characters… He presents us with breathtaking exteriors, yet it is the interior lives of people revealed in intimate moments that engage us and move us.”
T.E. Lawrence was born out of wedlock to an English lord and governess, in Wales. He was educated in Oxfordshire and traveled to the Middle Eastas an archaeologist. His underwent an officers’ training course and served in the British Army, initially using his skills as a archaeologist. After leading the Arab revolt against the Turks in 1916-18, Lawrence worked for the Foreign Office. Always restless, he turned to writing. He wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom on his time inArabia, and several other works on strategy, Middle Eastern geography, and various memoirs. He died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 46.
David Lean’s epic attempts to tell the story of the incidents that changed Lawrence’s life. Lean wanted to tell the story of a “journey,” and indeed, Lawrence’s experiences in the Middle East could not help but shape him. He gets lost in the desert with no water three times in the first hour of the film alone. That’s before any fighting or torturing has even begun. Taking Stevens Jr.’s thought that the key to Lean’s success was this juxtaposition of an intimate, human story against a sprawling background, I attempt to trace Lawrence’s story, through the landscape and through his sarcasm. I can quote the film and talk about inflection, but when I come to tracing how the landscape mirrors Lawrence’s journey, screen captures will have to do.
Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, relatively unknown to moviegoers at that time, is famously introduced extinguishing a match. He pinches the flame between his thumb and forefinger, to the amazement of his companion. “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts,” he tosses over his shoulder as he bounds out to see his commanding officer. He is content to draw maps in Arabia, rather than be in the trenches ofFrance, but he is bored. He is a dashing and vibrant young man, but his darkness is immediately visible in his extinguishing of the match. One might even call such behavior masochistic, or at least indicative of masochistic tendencies (both of which Lawrence’s biographers have said of him). But, while he is presented as a young man full of youth at the beginning, we see hints of what will be his later, darker self.
The meeting with his superior officer, General Murray and Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), gives Lawrence another chance to be clever and mouth-off. “I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted,” General Murray says in frustration to Lawrence’s flippant answers. “I have the same problem, sir,” Lawrence counters. O’Toole’s timing is spot-on. He is quick, but somehow manages to throw off these remarks as if he really doesn’t care. “It’s my manner, sir,” he explains. “It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really.” He’s really enjoying himself through this scene. He positively sparkles. He agrees to take on the challenge of reporting to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and “assessing” the situation. He must cross the desert (albeit one of the smaller ones), across which unfriendly Bedouin tribes are skirting. His guide, in fact, is killed during the journey. Lawrence is aware of these initial risks, but he is delighted to take on this task. If anything, he’ll get to stretch his legs a little.
When he arrives at Prince Faisal’s camp, he is still disinterested. He isn’t fully aware of the Arab-Turk situation, nor does he care much. He’s had something of a holiday, albeit a rough one, but he’s crossed the desert and reached his destination. The British officer already there is something of an idiot, but Lawrence doesn’t really care. But, in a serious conversation with Prince Faisal, he begins to think seriously for the first time about the oppression of the Arabs. He quotes from the Koran, impressing Faisal.Lawrencegoes off by himself to think.
His energies having direction for the first time, he uses his cleverness and comes up with a brilliant strategy: attack Aqaba by land, instead of by sea, and the Turks will not be able to fend them off with their sea-facing guns. The only problem is crossing the Nefud, a much larger and deadlier desert. Lawrence takes on the project with enthusiasm. He throws some retorts at Sharif Ali (played by Omar Sharif) and off they go.
The battle of Aqaba, for Lawrence, begins the evening before. A Bedouin whom Lawrence saved in the Nefud kills another Bedouin, of a different tribe. By law, he must be put to death, and Lawrence must do it. The next day, they ride into a victory. Lawrence stumbles away with his Bedouin servant, to notify the British authorities.
His encounter with the British (after another lost-in-the-desert experience, this time without camels), begins with some of his old spark. Upon walking into a British bar with his Bedouin servant, the bartender informs him “This is a bar for British officers!” “That’s alright,” Lawrence responds. “We’re not particular.” While it has less than his usual zing because they are exhausted and dehydrated, it is still the upbeat, wry Lawrence. But, in reporting, Lawrence’s defense of wit begins to break down. He says, “We killed some; too many really. I’ll manage it better next time.” His last line, while earlier he would have said jauntily, without care, is heavy. He is trying to lighten up the mood, but he cannot bring himself to commit fully to mocking himself this time. He has been scarred and changed by his first encounter with killing. He opens the door a little more when he confesses, “I had to execute him with my pistol. There was something about it I didn’t like… I enjoyed it.” Previously, Lawrence’s wit and devil-may-care attitude were protecting him from emotional involvement. He was probably popular with his schoolmates, but had no close friends. He was witty and wry, definitely smarter than you, but no one was allowed close to him. His defenses begin to break down when he realizes true horror: of battle, of killing, of facing death.
Lawrence and Ali become friends through their campaign for the Arabs. Lawrence allows Ali to become close to him, because he finds his old method of handling emotional stress, sarcasm, is failing him. He takes Ali into his confidence. But friendship can only sustain him so far. When he is captured on a scouting mission and beaten by the Turks (some biographers also say he was sexually abused during this time, but the film only vaguely alludes to it), Lawrence comes back a changed man. He is thrown out into the mud, and Ali rushes to his side. Lawrence responds to Ali’s hand on his shoulder by rolling his face deeper into the mud. Lawrence refuses to eat, sleep, or speak for the next several days, and when he finally does, he announces he is leaving. He knows his decision is selfish, and he fights with Ali. He returns to the British post in Jerusalem, determined to be transferred somewhere else.
He tries desperately to fit in at the British post, commenting that the addition of the squash courts is “jolly good,” in complete seriousness. Before, he might have tossed this off as a joke. But, he has changed back into his British uniform, when before he had been wearing Bedouin robes since the battle of Aqaba. His appears before the new general, General Allenby and Mr. Dryden. They tell him of a treaty that will give Britaincontrol of Arabia after the war, thereby destroying the Arab freedom Lawrencehas been fighting for. “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians,” he says in utter disgust. In this scene, Lawrencehas the usual number of his clever one-liners, but the delivery is exactly opposite of the earlier scene with General Murray. That scene was light, fast-paced. Lawrencewas quick and wry. Here he is the picture of disgust and betrayal. His line, “And if you don’t mind, I’d rather not go mad.” When read on a page, is humorous. Just that dry British humor, you’d think. But when Peter O’Toole delivers it, it breaks your heart because he is quite literally afraid of becoming insane. Lawrence, through his horrific experiences, has lost his innocence, his energy, his resilience. He has become cynical, thinking he can now see the world as it is. General Allenby convinces him to go back and to take Damascus with the Arabs, and Lawrence sneers at Allenby, “What’s fair got to do with it? It’s happening.” It’s a sneer that’s almost a snarl. He worked so hard to put up blockades against the effect of bloodshed: first in the form of wit, the second in the form of friendship. Here he accepts and embraces the hardening the bloodshed has given him.
“Alright, so I’m extraordinary. What of it?”Lawrencesays in a moment of desperation. This phrase encapsulates his journey. He knows in the beginning he is something special. He knows he is smarter than everyone around him. He knows he has potential to make a difference. But, he is unprepared for it. His emotional defenses are no match for the horrors of war and bloodshed. He succumbs to them, unfortunately another hallmark of an extraordinary man. His circumstances were extraordinary and demanding, and the film followedLawrencedown into the thick of them. His clever words changed their tone after he was tortured: the desert changed as well. We can hear and see a Lawrence descends into chaos.