Last Sunday I had the pleasure to attend a very special screening of David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962) alongside my good pal Brandie from True Classics and here at The Moviola, and my husband Thomas.Brandie has already written about the screening here. Please make sure to head on over and check it out.
Here’s a Classic Film Confession for you:
Until last Sunday, I had never seen it. But before you get up in arms, let me explain…
I actually own the movie on DVD and have held out for years waiting for a chance to see Lawrence of Arabia in a theatre, on a big screen, with a respectful audience. I had been told that it’s the one film that demands such a viewing, at least for the first time. After my experience at The Fox Theatre, I couldn’t agree more.
Stationed in Cairo during WWI, British officer Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is recruited by the head of the Arab Bureau Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) to reach out to the head of the Arab Revolt Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) for an independent take on the situation. Lawrence’s superior officer doesn’t believe he’s the man for the job, but after much persuasion by Mr. Dryden, agrees to send Lawrence to Arabia for a three month mission.
Lawrence is accompanied by a guide, a Bedouin, who not only leads him in the right direction, but teaches him about surviving in the harsh desert conditions. Lawrence learns how to ride a camel (they can can really haul ass!) and efficiently ration water. Soon he and his guide become friends, and we see a first glimpse of Lawrence’s skill at earning the loyalty of those he meets. During a stop at one of the few man-made wells found in the desert, Lawrence and his guide see a black spot far off on the horizon.
And the black spot gets closer…
…and before we see the man’s face, a shot is fired, and the guide is dead. Lawrence is shocked when he sees his friend’s blood spilled on the desert sand. Unfortunately, it will not be last time he sees blood soaked up by the thirsty desert.
The man who fired the shot is Sherif Ali, owner of the well Lawrence and his guide were drinking from. Sherif explains that he killed Lawrence’s guide because he was of a different Bedouin tribe, and his kind are not permitted to drink from his well. Sherif offers to lead Lawrence to his destination, but Lawrence declines, as he obviously mistrusts Sherif. The two have the following exchange:
Sherif Ali: What is your name?
Lawrence: My name is for my friends. None of my friends is a murderer!
Lawrence manages to navigate the desert with the help of his army issue compass and meets with Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle). The two ride in to meet Prince Feisal, the leader of the Arab nation, to discuss the Revolt against the Turks. COL Brighton orders Lawrence to remain silent during their meeting, but once Lawrence assesses the situation, he decides he must speak up. It is at this moment that Sherif Ali arrives, and Lawrence realizes that he is a prominent figure in the Arab Revolt.
During his first night at Prince Faisal’s camp, Lawrence meanders off into the darkness. After spending most of the night sitting at the end of a sand dune, Lawrence has an epiphany. In one of the most beautiful sequences shot in the film, Lawrence, clutching a rock, utters the word “Aqaba” (also one of Peter O’Toole’s favorite scenes in the film). We soon learn that Aqaba will be the first major attack the Revolt will make against the Turks. Armed with just 50 men from Prince Faisal’s army, Lawrence and Sherif Ali lead them into the most desolate, remote regions of the desert.
Although Lawrence is effectively leading his men, he has yet to win their respect–save for two young orphans, who become Lawrence’s servants. After many grueling days of travel in the heat, one of the men falls behind. Lawrence makes the decision to go back and rescue him, which could be certain death for both men. When he is triumphant, all of the men finally welcome Lawrence as one of their own, including the cold Sherif Ali. As a sign of friendship and loyalty, Lawrence is presented with a traditional white robe and headpiece.
In a “Word of Mouth” interview with Peter O’Toole for TCM, O’Toole provides an interesting anecdote about the filming of the scene where Lawrence first wears the robe:
As O’Toole points out in the video, a young man would want to see himself in a mirror. Perhaps to adjust the headpiece, smile, or just admire his stature. This sequence is one of the few light moments in the film, and makes the superhuman Lawrence feel a bit more down to Earth. Also, the Lawrence we see here has yet to see battle or take a life.
After success in battle at Aqaba, Lawrence is not only seen as a hero, but as a god amongst men. He sees himself as this, too. A newspaper reporter from America, Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) is traveling alongside Lawrence and his men, sharing Lawrence’s story all over the world. Lawrence’s arrogance sustains him in the harsh desert. At one point he even says he thrives in the desert, which is funny because Prince Feisal remarks how Arabs hate the desert. His arrogance reaches its peak when he and Ali go into Duraa, which is occupied by the Turks. When Lawrence sees a large puddle of water, he jokingly tries to walk on it. It is in Duraa that Lawrence is captured, tortured, and raped (at least it is implied) by the Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer). Ali hides in the shadows hoping his friend will be released. When the Bey orders Lawrence’s release, the guards throw him out in a puddle just like the one he tried to walk across.
After his horrendous ordeal, Lawrence is not the same. Although he has been accepted as one of the Arabs, he knows that ultimately he is a white man who cannot continue to fight their war. He returns to Cairo and begs for reassignment. His commanding officers and Mr. Dryden have other ideas. They convince Lawrence to head back to the desert to keep fighting the Arab Revolt, but not for the honorable reasons Lawrence thinks it’s for.
Once Lawrence returns to the desert, he assembles a group of mercenaries to fight against the Turks. Although Ali begs Lawrence to reconsider his battle tactics, Lawrence has a blood lust in his eyes. Perhaps it’s the result of what happened to him at the hands of the Turkish Bey. Or maybe the desert has finally driven him mad. Lawrence shouts “No prisoners!” and slaughters every moving thing in sight. Rampaging with blood on his face and hands, he accidentally catches a glimpse of himself in his dagger. Very unlike the young man he once was.
Lawrence of Arabia is big…on spectacle, on themes, and on heartbreak. While Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif are undoubtedly the stars of the film, the supporting cast shine through when they are on screen. Alec Guinness in his portrayal of Prince Feisal is phenomenal. In his fourth film with director David Lean, Guinness’s role is small, but essential to the overall themes in the film and the purpose of Lawrence’s quest. At the end of the film when Lawrence is finally spent, Guinness’s Feisal sums it up best:
There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.