LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, 1962
Directed by David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn
Review by Tom Coatsworth
Based on a true story, the film follows the exploits of T.E. Lawrence during World War I. He rises from the rank of lieutenant to lead the Arab Revolt in the desert. The dream of Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire crumbles even with victory as the British and French move in for the spoils.
Lawrence's real life brother hated it -- he couldn't recognize his siblings character in the film. The script is shot to pieces with historical inaccuracies, spawned many law suits. It has a more mid-century existential feel to it -- modern man divided against himself and protocol, looking for his identity. The original Lawrence was a far simpler and more remarkable being -- no less a military man touched with genius than a prose stylist of the first rank, who ended his days anonymously as a common soldier. Yet the movie was a huge hit at the box office and with critics -- winning 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Today it is generally regarded as one of the ten best films ever made. Steven Spielberg called it "a miracle".
The score by Maurice Jarre is one reason. The contentious script by Robert Bolt another. The story starts in England, 1935, at Lawrence's death by motorcycle accident. From there we route back to Cairo, Egypt, 1916. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) cuts a handsome, bumbling, bookish figure at British Head Quarters. (Noel Coward said if O'Toole had been any prettier they would have called it: 'Florence Of Arabia') He doesn't fit the strict military mold and they are happy to send him off to the desert to observe the Arab Revolt. There he thrives and meets Prince Feisal (Guinness).
The prince's forces are in disarray and morale is low. Lawrence persuades the prince to give him 50 men and camels and with these he will cross the desert and attack Aqaba from the land side where there is no artillery to resist them. It seems a suicide mission but, despite incredible odds, Lawrence leads the men through the desert, forges an alliance with another tribe, and takes the port city -- a stunning success. I've often wondered which town doubled as Aqaba in the movie -- in fact they constructed the entire town on an empty river bed. (Peter O'Toole nearly died in the charge when he fell from his camel. But the beast stood over him and prevented the charging horses from trampling.)
Lawrence intones: "So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people -- greedy, barbarous and cruel." Bolt's Lawrence bares a striking resemblance to Joseph Conrad's Kurtz: a civilized man who goes off into the wilderness, tries to civilize it, and ends up being transformed into something wilder and more primitive than he could imagine. The road changes him. He is captured by the Turks and tortured -- he escapes. On the march to Damascus his army encounters a Turkish column that has just decimated a village. Lawrence orders: "Take no prisoners!" And 2000 Turks are massacred. Utterly true -- but the real Lawrence in writing about it seems more matter of fact whereas our screen Lawrence is on the verge of madness.
Success follows success to Damascus where Lawrence and his followers are outwitted by time and the bookkeepers. The Turks are defeated and the Revolt collapses in victory -- the British bureaucrats take over. Lawrence visits a Turkish hospital -- there is no water, no medicine, no doctors -- there are thousands dying: the flies -- greed , barbarism and cruelty -- have won. He leaves in disillusion. (A very late sixties moment for an early sixties film -- a very 2008 moment, as far as that goes -- prescient and timeless.)
David Lean directed which is like saying da Vinci painted -- one of the great directors: this is his masterpiece. It works best on a big screen; it was shot on 70 mm film -- the visuals are stunning. There are no women: that is all I can fault it for. It is the greatest movie ever made without women. You sometimes wonder: for what were these men fighting? There is much hinting in the movie that Lawrence was gay -- his real life friends insist loyally that he was asexual.
No matter. It is a wise, penetrating portrait into the clockwork of power: inside an empire's grappling's, inside the torment of a gifted man's genius -- history be damned, it's a great great movie.