Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia - Movie Review

Lawrence of Arabia is about power, posturing, politics, pride, and pettiness. And spectacle. Big-screen epic spectacle. 

If there’s one thing that provides that spectacle, it’s the sweeping panorama of the barren desert. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film which so fully impressed on me the vastness of it, and the corresponding inconsequentiality of a man on a camel, with only a water-skin between him and death.

It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? And this film lives and breathes irony, placing characters in so many incongruous situations that it gets a little ridiculous.  

The first is a placard on a peaceful country road marked “DANGER.”

It’s not much of a spoiler that Lawrence dies an ignominious death—thrown from his motorcycle into a clump of bushes—in the first five minutes of the film. For a while, I was confused as to why the filmmakers chose to start us here. I recognized the heavy contrast of cutting from a motorcycle accident in verdant Dorset to conversation in the halls of a British colonial outpost to the barren, utterly foreign desert, but I felt it sucked the uncertainty from Lawrence’s story—we knew he lived, so what suspense was there?  (Spoilers below)

But I was looking for the wrong thing. This isn’t a conventional film—with a hero who has a properly heroic goal, a properly heroic way of achieving it, and a comfortingly predictable story arc. It’s not an adventure film where we worry if the protagonist will live, nor a historical film with a focus on social commentary, nor an inspirational film, with easily identifiable heroes and villains. It has a bit of all of those things, but mostly, it’s about a very odd, extraordinary man.

Full disclosure here: I know little to nothing about the real T.E. Lawrence. I did have a vague idea about his guerilla warfare against the Turks, and was under the impression that he was venerated in a Gandhi-esque way for his tolerance of other cultures. He wrote The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which sounds very guru-ish. I have no idea about accuracy, but the character that Peter O’Toole creates makes me believe he is Lawrence (much like I believed Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.)

That level of belief took a while to build—several actors in the film, both O’Toole and some “Arabians” felt overly conscious that they were acting. The conventional, slightly stagey style of delivery is rather distracting, and lacks the edge of foreignness that could have emphasized the culture clash even further. O’Toole himself has about all the physical personality of a Barbie doll, and comes off, at first, as stiff and somewhat delicate. However, this ultimately adds to his interest. He combines the awkward, self-conscious air of an innocent with the fierce volatility of a genius. Intelligent, but insecure, he's desperate to fit into a people not his own. As a protagonist, he's a bit of a dark horse, even to the audience. He refuses to show the appropriate emotion at the appropriate times, instead he is enigmatic and a little unreal.

Sending this nameless 27-year-old to “talk turkey” with an Arabian prince seems insane. Lawrence certainly hasn’t shown himself to be diplomatic, instead stirring up trouble by refusing to toe the line. “It’s my way.” Turns out, his way is sometimes necessary, and he uses it to successfully stir Arabia to revolt against her oppressors, the Ottoman Turks. At first the natives distrust him, but he quickly proves himself as a true son of the desert, embracing Bedouin clothing and manner, and quoting the Koran by memory. If it hadn’t been true, it would have been unbelievable. Irony, again.

After some of his more unbelievable exploits, the Arabs begin, nearly, to revere him as a god. Indeed, he seems to embrace the title, being convinced of his own invincibility and accepting the hero-worship of two young acolytes. Following one of the film’s best (if a bit tedious) sequences, he says of fate, “Nothing is written.” After that, they no longer call him “English,” but—more or less—use his name. Lawrence’s friend Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif)—amusingly enough, the everyman stand-in—isn’t quite sure how to relate to him. Lawrence is dramatically, obviously broken—his arrogance is proof of that—but he’s also remarkable; he isn’t quite human.

Like Winston Churchill, Lawrence can strategize with the best of them, but he’s vain and thin-skinned, and as with all idols, it’s only a matter of time before he falls. (As an interesting aside, Lawrence writer Robert Bolt created an almost exact opposite to Lawrence in Sir Thomas More of the excellent film A Man for All Seasons.) 

The turning point comes when (during an odd, freakish scene) Lawrence realizes that yes, some things are written, such as the fact that he is white. This indisputable fact shatters his self-image, and he implodes on himself, creeping back to the ranks of the British army. But his superiors will have none of it. He’s extraordinary, whether he wants to be or not. Lawrence sheepishly accepts this, but he has lost his ability to define himself, and therefore whatever basis he had for identity is gone. I am extraordinary? Yes, sir, whatever you say, sir. 

Lawrence is never quite the same after that. His kingdom begins to fragment, before completely unraveling. He spins from manic cruelty to passive compliance. Only once (from what I remember), does he show the same flash of divine authority, when he stops Ali from starting another feud, and this only emphasizes his English, Christian, compromising identity. (Earlier, for instance, he manipulated an Arabian lord by using Arabic methods—appealing to the man’s vanity: “It is your pleasure.” To the Arabs, mercy is unknown, Prince Faisal observes.) Ali, torn between fear of the god and love of the man, leaves. Lawrence himself is sent to England.

He murmurs, “Home.”

The irony, as the immaculately dressed Lawrence looks back from a military jeep at the romance of the dunes and the grubby roadside Bedouin, is abundant.

4.5/5 stars

Hannah Long


  1. I'm intrigued. The post was thought provoking.

  2. Good review. I felt a little bit cheated after this one. Great movie---no particular desire to see it again. I know it's supposed to be anti-climactic, I get it, but as a movie-watching experience? Disappointing. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.

    You do realize what really happens to Lawrence after he's captured, right (in the movie anyway)? I admit it didn't dawn on me first time through either.

    1. Yes, but I think watching movies which defy our expectations are quite good at times. We're so used to movies about successes that it's bizarre to watch one about a failure - but still important. Art isn't always what we like, nor should it be. It isn't there just to gratify our feelings about how life should unfold (i.e. the good guys winning, the bad guys not being complex).

      But I'll get off my soapbox now. :)

      I do know what really happened in that scene, but I didn't think that was his turning point as a character - I thought that was slightly earlier, thus I didn't make a point of it. This movie isn't about sexuality - or at least, not overtly - so I emphasized other elements.

    2. Oh quite, quite. I was just indulging in a little plebeian gripe. ;-) By the way, did I read you correctly as saying O'Toole has no physical personality? My eyesight must be failing me...

      Mmmmm, I'm not so sure about your analysis. He's still very cocky and self-assured just before his capture---which of course is what sends him walking right into disaster. I assume you're talking about the line where the Turkish bey says "Your skin is very fair." But I simply don't see Lawrence's turning point coming from the realization that he's white. It seems obvious that he's been completely emasculated and humiliated once he's thrown out the door to find his troops again, and that's what breaks him.

      As an interesting historical aside, they're taking the incident from Lawrence's own writing, but fresh forensic evidence indicates that he very likely made it up for some bizarre reason of his own. The pages from his journals at the time had been mysteriously torn out, but they used some kind of fancy-schmancy process to discover the imprint of an "A" at the beginning of a place name on a blank facing page. Since the place where the incident allegedly took place was something beginning with a "D" (I think), scholars are now quite confident that it never happened at all.

    3. Ha ha...plebiean gripe...just on the strength of that tidbit you are exonerated! :) I'll use that to justify my consumption of terrible popular movies...(Which I do more than I'll admit...)

      Partly it's just me - I don't like these sort of picture-perfect guys whose hair is never, ever, out of place. I'd have liked him better if he'd been just a little imperfect. (That goes for Chris Pine, too.) Noel Coward famously quipped to him, "If you'd been any prettier it'd have been called Florence of Arabia." :)

      When he went into the city, he did so based on the assumption that he would be mistaken for an Arab. That was his entire strength - that wild, irrational belief that he could be whatever he made himself - such as when he saved the dude in the desert and after arriving back at camp said "Nothing is written." He believes in his own omnipotence. His most marked reaction in the scene with the Turkish bey is when he slaps the Turk's hand away after being told that he is not an Arab. Later, his face is completely immobile. While I think it's a conglomeration of factors, including what is done to him, the ultimate cause for his break-down is the realization that he cannot write his own fate, that he cannot define himself. It's not that he's white - it's that he can't *change* that he is white. False God Syndrome, I suppose. I'm channeling Tim Keller I think - he quotes Kierkegaard as saying sin is "building your identity on anything but God." This movie's a great example of that. However, I'm not rushing to watch the film again either.

      I remember reading about that discovery - I imagine the psychologists are having a field day. Or possibly there's a Doctor Who episode somewhere in the future...


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