Lawrence of Arabia
(SPOILERS) Sometimes, just sometimes, Oscar gets it right. Lawrence of Arabia isn’t only on a whole other level to its fellow Best Picture nominees that year, but also to most films – of that or any year. As a piece of mesmerising, wholly immersive filmmaking, it’s the zenith of the artform. If Oscar got it wrong in any conspicuous categories that year, it was rewarding Gregory Peck over Peter O’Toole – who would remain ever the bridesmaid, or Florence of Arabia, as Noël Coward wittily described him – and Horton Foote over Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson for Best Adapted Screenplay (in both cases, To Kill a Mockingbird being the beneficiary).
In Which Lie Did I Tell? William Goldman recalled an anecdote of the director viewing a fresh print – most likely the re-release, of which, he observed it was that “not far off a sort of movie opera” – whereby “Lean said he was surprised how brave he was, holding so many shots for so long”. But it isn’t just holding the shots – Lean apparently studied The Searchers as a reference – it’s sustaining a movie that, in its currently available form, clocks in at three- and three-quarter hours. Sure, you could tell it in half that time, and a modern moviemaker maybe would, but with quadruple the number of shots.
Lean was a master at beckoning the viewer into a wholly realised world, though, from startling, shimmering vistas to the constant, insistent sense of building towards something. Even in his pictures that fail – Ryan’s Daughter being the most obvious – you can witness that power. Not for nothing was Lawrence of Arabia an inspiration for Dune. Look at the sequence where Lawrence turns back into the Nefud Desert to go after the lost Gasim (IS Johar). It’s an absolute masterclass in slow-burn tension.
For all that O’Toole, front-and-centre, is fundamental to its success, a key to the picture’s ability to command one’s attention is the way in which, Lean – and Robert Bolt, working from Michael Wilson’s draft, though Bolt disputed his claim on the screenplay – structures it around a succession of entirely electric encounters. Understandably, visuals instantly come to mind when the film is mentioned: Lawrence out in the desert at night, or holding up his knife to reflect his dandy sultan duds, or the camel walking along the seashore. But the meat of interaction is essential throughout.
Each time Lawrence encounters a new character – or reencounters an old one – Lean furnishes O’Toole with all the necessary materials to fashion a performance for the ages, just as Bolt ensures the scene carries the requisite sustenance, be that from a plot or character perspective. At the outset, there’s the Arab Bureau’s Dryden, played by Claude Rains (his pre-penultimate film role, but as sharp and cool as ever in his seventies). He’s on Lawrence’s side, but like everything here, that position is only contingent on interests being served.
Alec Guinness’s Prince Faisal is the politically-fluent figurehead of revolt against the Turks, seeing the spark in Lawrence that Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) initially attempts to extinguish. Anthony Quinn’s Auda abu Tayi, in contrast, leads with his emotions – and mercurial sense – hence Lawrence’s crafty brokering of his involvement in attacking Aqaba: “He will come because it is his pleasure”. Quinn, in particular, very nearly wrests the film from all contenders. Neither performance would garner endorsement today, with the makeup and brown-face, but both are sterling efforts (twenty years later, Guinness’ Indian in A Passage to India wouldn’t get nearly the same free pass, and it’s probably as well Lean never got to make Gandhi with him).
The scenes between Jack Hawkins as General Allenby (whose family were very vocal critics of this characterisation) and Lawrence are especially impressive. Far from the dismissive tone of his predecessor General Murray (Donald Wolfit), Allenby recognises Lawrence’s distinctive acumen and has both empathy for him and his own eyes fixed on the prize. Such that he has no qualms in manipulating him towards the desired outcome. Arthur Kennedy’s Jackson Bentley comes in properly in Part II, the cynical journo also serving as an identification point, once Lawrence drifts from aspirational eccentricity into delusional zeal.
It has been charged that Lawrence of Arabia is short on historical framework, but it isn’t designed as a history lesson; it isn’t even really a biographical study. Rather, it’s a dissection of a legend. And, in examining that legend, foisting its own legend of the legend upon it, one that has, due to the picture’s vast success, inevitably overshadowed the preceding one. This has understandably grated with those closest to the principals, those who value the “truth” or those who disapprove of Lawrence being reduced in motive or achievement.
Further, the underlying machinations at play may be seen outside of a mere historical context. Jay Dyer, in the chapter Hollywood Terror Dialectics in his first volume of Esoteric Hollywood, pointed to the film for “the revelation of the origins of modern terror states” by way of an “endless, eternal war on terror” strategy: “… the Middle East must constantly be broken up, destabilised and reorganised into ‘micro-nations’ more amenable to Washington’s corporate and ideological expansionist domination”. Consequently, while the film’s Arab Revolt ostensibly held within it the drive toward a united independent Arab state (and thus, in the longer term, one might construe an incremental inching towards the globalist one), such autonomy was not within the western game plan.
The picture doesn’t disguise this calculation, but it may legitimately be accused of softening it with regard to its protagonist’s complicity. Lawrence is presented as being as hoodwinked as the Arab forces with regard to his superiors’ ultimate intentions; the reality was that, working for British Intelligence, he knew exactly the score. He was, however, conflicted over it. As Kevin Brownlow notes in David Lean: “the film maintains that Lawrence knew nothing of the Sykes-Picot agreement… when so much of his mental turmoil was caused by the fact that he did”.
Lawrence hoped that, if he succeeded, and the Arabs emerged victorious over the Turks and united, then Britain and France would have no choice; per Brownlow, they “could hardly overlook their moral claims”. Wilson, who had collaborated with Lean so successfully on The Bridge on the River Kwai, put it thus: “In trying to serve two masters, Lawrence betrayed them both… Did he not serve to introduce to the Arab world the very evils from which he had fled?” Brownlow believes the essential lack of romanticism in Wilson’s treatment ultimately led to its rejection, whereby “the image he conveys is a sordid one, the story of a cold-hearted opportunist who uses the desert revolt… to play his own melody”. When Bolt came aboard, the decision was made to alter history for dramatic purposes.
Thus Bolt “regarded Lawrence as a romantic fascist and made him a more flamboyant character in every respect”. We see this in the central relationship, between Lawrence with Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali. Ali, who is introduced with both the most famous, or second most famous sequence in the film, swiftly positions himself at loggerheads with Lawrence’s, and our, sensibilities, when he kills his guide. But then, and for the rest of the proceedings, he moves into the role of moral core, contrasted with those who are more extreme, be it in ambition or ruthlessness: often Lawrence himself.
Pauline Kael, who praised O’Toole before having a dig (“he seems to be doing Lord Jim”) suggested Sharif’s Ali is the more compelling character, a simpler “old-fashioned kind of movie hero, [who] was more at home in what, despite all the literacy, was a big action movie”. Well, of course, he was. But it’s the contrast that serves to make Lawrence so compelling. He doesn’t fit, and yet he is there.
O’Toole, whose copious drinking was noted by Guinness, would undoubtedly make a thing of the slightly effete aristocrat over his subsequent career, but every laurel bestowed on him for Lawrence is deserved. It’s truly one of movies’ greatest performances, and when Peck, on winning the statuette, commented “I’m not falsely modest about it. I think I was good in that picture”, that’s an accurate reflection of the slightly stolid, upright, respectable reserve of To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole (The Secret History of Hollywood's Academy Awards also notes that Ed Begley was “a surprise winner” over Shariff, while Brownlow suggests that, by this point, O’ Toole “had forfeited David [Lean]’s sympathy – and perhaps that of the Academy – by his drunken appearances on television shows”).
Kael, naturally, was a contrarian in the face of Lawrence of Arabia’s general laudation. With any unalloyed classic, there are obligatory dissenters of the “Well, it’s not as good as all that, really”. But Lawrence really is, really. Taking issue with it for inaccuracy is fair game, if one sees that as paramount, but that isn’t what the film – or indeed most films – is striving for. As The History of the Movies noted, “Far from being an objective analysis of Lawrence the film projects his legend, his contradictions and tortured soul as a subjective Homeric adventure. The film is arranged as a continuous mirage, showing Lawrence’s self-delusion as an almost biblical hero – if not a god – who achieves the impossible and has power over life and death”.
O’Toole told it that he suggested Bolt to work on the film after describing the initial script as “the most beautiful adventure story”; Lean responded “That bad?” It’s said Bolt, in his revisions, focussed more on Lawrence than the history of the region (per Michael Wilson). Kael sought to reduce the movie to the kind of basics – of providing such a potted history – it comprehensively resists: “audiences hadn’t the remotest idea of what the Arabs and Turks were doing in World War I… can complex historical events and a complex hero function in an expensive spectacle? Fortunately, for Lawrence of Arabia, audiences seemed to be satisfied with the explanation that the Turks were crueller than the Arabs, and although the movie Lawrence became cruel, too, there was warm-hearted Ali to take over”.
There’s a wilfully petulant reductivity on display in that assessment, since the kind of broad-stroke surmisal Kael reaches is exactly one the picture doesn’t invite, or one any discerning viewer would conclude. If your takeaway is that it “failed to give an acceptable interpretation of Lawrence and failed to keep its action clear and intelligible”, you’ve rather missed the wood for the trees.
Yes, one could opt for a vanilla version that gives a safe, endorsed account of the character, dotting every I and crossing every T(E) with regard to the history of the region, the sequence of events and the participants, but it would likely be as stodgily forgotten as most historical epics of the era. Kael considered those enjoying the film were victim to what, today, would be the equivalent of your standard action blockbuster: “Admit that you went to see Lawrence of Arabia under the delusion that it was going to be about TE Lawrence, but you stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the sense that a huge movie epic can provide…” There’s no doubt Lawrence of Arabia has vistas in spades, but it’s baffling that she (said she) felt she was underserved on the character front, of the exploration of a man who, going in, is announced as an enigma. Even unto himself. That (it seems) she would have preferred the formulaic, bland biopic version.
The accuracy of Lean’s illustration of Lawrence (his sexuality, his ego, his psychological downfall) has been thoroughly interrogated over the years, not least by his Brother AW, who regretted selling the rights to adapt Seven Pillars of Wisdom – he refused use of the title – and found it “pretentious and false” while failing to recognise his brother. Brian Case in Time Out suggested Lean’s Lawrence was “An extraordinary mixture of narcissist, mystic and masochist, a Nietzschean with whimpering cries of confidence, half Man of Destiny, half borne under by the tides of nationalism harness”.
A bit florid, perhaps, but the sense of that is all in the film. His sexuality is hinted at throughout (albeit Henry Williamson, of Tarka the Otter fame, insisted he was “terribly hypersensitive” but not homosexual). Early on, Lawrence announces “I’m different” and proceeds to illustrate as much, be it as a man apart or a false god. “The trick, William, is not minding it hurts” he instructs of burning himself with a match; “I enjoyed it” he admits of executing Gasim. His love for his boys, his masochism, his unrequited friendship with Ali – which Lean compared to Brief Encounter -– and his torture (illustrated in the play Ross as rape by Bey). The masochism part was later confirmed by a private who delivered ritual floggings at Lawrence’s request over a nine-year period.
Lawrence’s hubris is painstakingly charted in Part II wherein, having allowed himself “the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnham and Bailey” he is wooed by others impression of him. “He lied. He is not perfect” observes Abu of the absence of promised gold at Aqaba. (“They think he’s a kind of prophet”). “Do you think I’m just anybody?” he charges Ali. “I’ve come to the end of myself” he announces, before being persuaded, once again, to weave his fading magic. Lawrence goes from hero to superhero when he is given a matching costume to wear, but by the time of the march on Damascus, he has surrounded himself with bodyguards. As The History of the Movies suggested, this is the tale of “Lawrence… destroyed by his own legend”.
Of course, there might be an argument that, rather than an artistic rumination on Lean’s part, Lawrence of Arabia served as an express takedown of the legend. That, in the way movies tend to become the prevailing account of a historical figure, even when we know they’re inaccurate, something of this ilk was required to subsume a figure the public saw as an unalloyed hero. To that end, it has been suggested Lawrence was actually murdered, on Churchill’s instruction, because he was planning to broker a peace between England and Germany; he was on his way to visit Williamson at the time, who was going to arrange a meeting with Hitler.
The History of the Movies took the view that Lawrence was consistent with Lean’s protagonists, “compulsive fantasists and fanatics” who challenge barriers (class, discipline, values, moral complacency) yet remain indomitable. Lean’s was “a deeply pessimistic vision”, in its view. You might then, be surprised to read Kael’s verdict that he was “a very literal-minded director”. Perhaps she got confused with “literary”? Lean might be conceived as literal in a formal sense (which is why the match cut in Lawrence of Arabia stands out), but regardless, his is a literal-mindedness most can only fantasise about. “What makes David Lean spectacle uninteresting finally is that it’s in such goddamn good taste. It’s all so ploddingly intelligent and controlled, so ‘distinguished’”. Again, would there was more such literal, goddam good taste in cinema (Kael’s view was borne, of all things, by comparing Lean to depraved John Huston’s untamed impulses in The Bible. You can have both you know. I’d find it hard to pick between Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would be King, chalk and cheese as they are).
Lean was a director who, even when he stumbled (Ryan’s Daughter) was transportive. And at his best, he conveyed his canvas, characters and content to another level, something so very few did or do (Kubrick was another). The Time Out review, on the occasion of the re-release – which I caught in the cinema around late 1990/early 1991 – suggested “the passage of time has only proved how difficult it is to run ideas, history, characterisation and landscape in harness on this sort of scale”. One might argue of Lean that his infidelity to “the record”, be it the Arab Revolt or the historical Lawrence, is in its way more authentic. Or less inauthentic. That the more scrupulous one becomes, the closer one scrutinises, the more one will be confronted with the fallibility of the official account, of getting to the root of it all. A rumination on the legend is, in that sense, arguably more honest, when announced as such: “No, I didn’t know him well, you know”.