This is the story of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole). This is a man who has been branded as saviour to charlatan to freedom fighter, to a traitor who became a soldier under an assumed name, Lawrence of Arabia. The story recounts his death at the young age of forty-six in a motorbike accident and flashbacks to his adventures in the East, which start in Cairo in 1916 and subsequently take him to Saudi Arabia to put down the Turks revolt in World War I. During the course of the Great War, he leads guerrilla raids on the Turks and eventually leads an army northward to help the British destroy the power of the Ottoman Empire… or replace it.
Lawrence of Arabia is on numerous ‘Best Films of All Time’ lists including those of the American Film Instituite (AFI). From the picturesque sands of the East via great cinematography (Freddie Young) to O’Toole’s career-defining performance to pre-CGI battles, this film is a hard act to follow. It’s one of the great epics. Though, Joseph L. Mankiewicz arrived the following year with Cleopatra starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He knocked it out of the ballpark with the film being nominated for nine Oscars, winning four. Lawrence of Arabia is a landmark feature. It’s an epic film, both in genre and in quality, and honestly, it’s a timeless classic.
This film says a lot about morality and human behaviour. The characterisation and storytelling enforce moral ambiguity and inconsistency behind our behaviour. Human behaviour is never clean, and it can be unpredictable. Often, it is a bloody axe that gets stuck in pieces of flesh and it’s not always a clean cut. These very human, behavioural tropes are on exhibition in wartime. It’s a contrast between the niceties of the safe secluded island of Britain and the war-torn lands in the East. And what’s more, the film doesn’t force viewers to have swallowed a history textbook to get it. We don’t need to know about middle-eastern politics. Just listen to the dialogue and understand.
Retrospectively, this film is abhorrently racist, often depicting Muslims as ‘demons’ who are savages in the eyes of the British. Having recently studied Edward Said’s ‘Us and Them’ from his book Orientalism, regardless of this film being a landmark in film history, it is a testament to the time it was made and subsequently, it is racist. Whilst it tries to show the Muslim world with respect, three of the Muslim characters are white actors in face paint, one of whom is Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai). It enforces this ideology of the West putting whiteness on a pedestal. “I’m going to give them Damascus.” The white saviour is there and an ideology as old as time.
This is the story of a man who tries to singlehandedly win the independence of the Arabs during the First World War. I do not like his character one bit, but O’Toole’s performance is great. That said, Lawrence is egotistic and self-centred. He’s a product of his time: a white, British male who is convinced of his superiority over other cultures. They were masters of colonialism and Lawrence falls in line with this. Hook, line and bloody sinker. Yet, people rate this film so highly (as film) because it is brilliant piece of cinema. We will never see its like again. Morals and ethics aside, this is a fine example of filmmaking for art for art’s sake. It’s genius and wonderful to look at.
This is a character study of T. E. Lawrence (O’Toole) and how he “went native” to ‘free’ the ‘primitive’ people of Arabia from the Ottomans. We see Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal who is Lawrence’s first point of contact in hope of uniting the various Arab factions. He became a warlord who’s neautral presence united the tribes. From a film standpoint, this rogue Englishman battled his own demons, culture clashes and mercenaries in order to achieve glory for the great British Empire. Though, he’s constantly in conflict of which side he is on. He’s convinced himself he’s an Arab but he’s also in allegiance to the British. It’s battle of do or die. Liberate or conquer?
I’m not excusing the blatant racist leanings of this film, but for film’s sake, it is a brilliant achievement. With excellent performances, wonderful cinematography and a musical score that can really dismiss you, David Lean’s Arabian epic is a timeless classic. There’s no doubt about it.