Despite being the birthplace of our civilisation, Middle East was usually one of the most ignored areas in modern history. Despite various occasions when various Middle East political developments posed as serious threat to the world as we know it – fuel shortages of 1970s, Gulf War of 1991 and the WTC attack - the area remained misunderstood in Western eyes, mostly due to miscomprehension of Islam – religion that dominates the area and influences politics and way of life with much stronger impact than its Western or Eastern counterparts. In an attempt to explain roots of recent conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and Western powers, CNN recently gave brief overview of the most important events in the history of relations between Islamic and non-Islamic countries. Events that occurred during and immediately after the end of WW1 - which are often viewed as the source of present-day troubles by most historians – were also mentioned. In order to illustrate them, CNN used clips from one great Hollywood film that just happens to deal with the period - Lawrence of Arabia, directed in 1962 by David Lean.
Protagonist of this film is Thomas Edward Lawrence (1889-1935), one of the most interesting characters of 20th Century history, and the screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson was inspired by his own autobiographic book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The story is set in the second decade of 20th Century, when Ottoman Turkey, after losing nearly all of its European possessions, still held vast areas of Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Mesopotamia – nearly all of today's Middle East - under its control. When Turkey joined Germany in World War One, Britain was forced to maintain large army in Egypt in order to protect its vital supply line at Suez Canal. While Ottoman Sultan, nominal leader of all of world's Muslims, called for Jihad against Britain and other Entente powers, some of his own Muslim subjects - mainly various tribes in Arab Peninsula – thought of WW1 as a nice opportunity to end centuries of Ottoman yoke. In October 1916 British diplomat Dryden (played by Claude Rains) needs someone to join rebel ranks and appraise the situation. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole), young and insubordinate lieutenant confined for the boring desk job at Cairo headquarters, seems perfect for the job because he had spent pre-war years on various archaeological expeditions and thus gained excellent knowledge of local geography, language and culture. When Lawrence arrives at camp of rebel leader Prince Faisal (played by Alec Guinness), he sees his rag-tag army in disarray after being exposed to modern weapons like machine guns, howitzers and airplanes. While British military advisor Colonel Brighton (played by Anthony Quayle) thinks that Faisal's forces must be brought under British command and trained as regular army, Lawrence thinks differently - he wants to turn nomadic lifestyle of Arab tribes into advantage and turn them into guerrillas. To prove his point, Lawrence, acting at his own initiative, gathers small band of volunteers under Sherif Ali (played by Omar Sharif), makes perilous journey over Nefud Desert, recruits brigand tribe of avaricious Auda abu Tayi (played by Anthony Quinn) and conducts surprise raid against heavily-defended Ottoman garrison at Aqaba that would result with the capture of strategic Red Sea harbour. This stunning triumph and Lawrence's use of nascent Arab nationalism fill the ranks of his ragtag army while General Allenby (played by Jack Hawkins), commander of Entente forces in Middle East, thinks of Lawrence's guerrilla force as valuable asset in his planned offensive against Jerusalem. Lawrence is promoted to Major, given vast supplies of guns and ammunition and the resulting series of victories turn him into household name all over the world. Instant fame and glory, however, are going to have dire consequences for Lawrence when he finally faces some unpleasant realities - his own vulnerability, as well as his government's plans for Arabia's future, quite different than his own.
Most of "larger than life" films of 1950s and early 1960s - Hollywood's brave, and expensive and, in the end near-suicidal attempt to fight emerging power of television with Cinemascope, colour and spectacle - are today seen as nothing more than historic curiosities. Only few managed to live beyond their contemporary fame and maintain their reputation of unquestionable masterpieces. Lawrence of Arabia is one of such films, and also one of rare instances of "Oscars" ending in right hands. Its achievement - contemporary and modern popularity - is even greater when we consider three-hour length (almost four hours after famous 1989 restoration), lack of action, big stars and women in speaking roles. The reason why Lawrence of Arabia happens to be one of greatest films of all times can be explained with the more than fortunate combination of various talents that worked very hard to provide great artistic vision with nearly flawless execution.
Screenwriters Bolt and Wilson had rather thankless task of making epic out of material that doesn't seem epic at first sight. Arab Revolt barely lasted for two and half years, took place in most unglamorous of all WW1 theatres, rightly named "side-show of a side-show" by one of the characters in the film, and, finally, the protagonist was nothing more than rather minor military officer in large imperial army, promoted to the rank of deity mostly thank to his eccentric nature and public's desire to have romantic hero in the cynical age of industrial warfare. But the script nevertheless managed to take the best out of this material and make Lawrence of Arabia as grand as the films that dealt with the rise and fall of great empires or life and times of great statesmen. The dialogue is simple but effective, allowing even those unfamiliar to complex circumstances of WW1 in Middle East to understand the plot.
Another great talent responsible for the long-lasting impact of this film is Peter O'Toole. This was his first major role and in he seemed perfect for it, with good looks that embodied Lawrence's charisma of self-proclaimed warrior king and even greater acting talent that portrayed vulnerable, insecure man behind the god-like façade. The weaknesses and contradictions of Lawrence - his futile attempt to reconcile Arab nationalist cause and his country's interest, as well as his own sado-masochistic and bloodthirsty urges with chivalrous ideals and common sense - all that is given in such subtle yet powerful way, making this role one of the best in the history of cinema. Other actors are more than fine too, although few of them can match O'Toole. That includes Claude Rains as cunning diplomat, Jack Hawkins as no-nonsense soldier and Anthony Quinn as larger than life brigand leader turned into amateur politician. All those who might find Lawrence of Arabia objectionable because of the racist stereotyping of Arab characters as tribalistic and savage could be countered with rather sympatheti and humanistic portrayal embodied in two great actors and two great roles. Alec Guinness is excellent as wise statesman, while great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif in his first major Hollywood role shines as an Arab prince who starts as stereotypical savage only to end as Lawrence's voice of conscience and common sense.
However, the greatest talent of them all was undoubtedly David Lean. While shooting in Jordan and Morocco - lands so different from jungle locations of his previous masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai - he simply fell in love in desert, seeing its vast artistic potential and great beauty, so much in contrast with its unforgiving deadliness. Magnificent scenery which dwarves and humbles any human character serves as an excellent background which gives epic scope of this story by itself. Beauty of desert landscapes is well-matched by magnificent musical score by Maurice Jarre, with its recognisable theme that later became used in various other films.
The only possible flaw of the film might be found in a way Bolt, Wilson and Lean dealt with Lawrence's homosexuality, including the notorious incident with Turkish soldiers at Dera. The filmmakers, however, can't be blamed for that due to tighter censorship in early 1960s, so the issue is simply ignored, even without subtle hints so popular among contemporary viewers who have great fun in discovering various sexual or homoerotic contexts in old Hollywood films. The only exception is character of Turkish bey, played by Jose Ferrero, whose homoerotic desires are so obvious that Lawrence looks heterosexual in comparison.
However, the more interesting and more important context of this film is political. Lawrence of Arabia owed its popularity partially due to the emerging importance of Middle East as major source of energy supply for world's economy. In late 1910s, when the film takes place, Middle East was not so important because the world's economy was based on steam engines powered by coal. In early 1960s, when the film was made, almost entire world had switched to internal combustion engines based on oil, thus becoming vulnerable to endemic political crisis of the region. Lawrence of Arabia in its final scenes gives hints of those future developments by showing British and French government becoming aware of oil importance and making sure that the lands with these precious resources remain under their control. Instead of free Arab states, victorious Entente forces created their own protectorates, playing various local factions against each other and thus planting the seed of Arab-Israeli conflict that plagues world politics to this day. This dimension of Lawrence of Arabia is looking sinister after recent events, but this film really didn't need global crisis in order to remind people of its greatness.
RATING: 9/10 (++++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on December 1st 2001)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/947-lawrence-of-arabia?language=en-US