Film: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

‘Epic’ does not even begin to describe this masterpiece of blood, sand, and messianic delusions, majestically restored for its 50th anniversary

-Kathryn Bromwich

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With the hair and ego of Bowie in the late ’70s and the fashion sense of an exotic prince, T.E. Lawrence is one of the few individuals in history worthy of a film as glorious as this. Re-released after a 4K digital restoration, the 7-Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen is a breath-taking experience.

Based on a true story, the film follows eccentric British officer Lawrence in his quest to single-handedly conduct the Arab Revolt of 1916-8 against the Ottoman Turk invasion and to create a unified Arab state. Starting with Lawrence’s death in 1935 in a motorcycle accident and then retracing his career, we follow him in his unlikely rise among military ranks.

Lawrence’s aristocratic origins come through in his calm confidence and classical accomplishments: he is educated in literature, languages and the arts, and is coolly self-composed at all times. However, he is unpunctual, insouciant (‘I may look as if I am being disrespectful, but it is just my face, I can assure you’) and generally a bit of a maverick. Yet, he is a frighteningly clever war strategist: he congregates an army out of nowhere and leads them to an unthought-of victory at Aqaba. His officials, though wary of his unconventional methods, recognise his achievements and grudgingly promote him to Major and then to Colonel.

Lawrence is fascinated by Arabic culture, winning over the admiration of the locals with his ability to ride camels through deserts with hardly any water, willingness to try local foods and customs, and the fetching way he wears his exotic robes. ‘Where are you from?,’ he is asked. ‘Oxfordshire. It is a place of fat people.’ ‘You are not fat?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I am different.’

‘Introducing’ Peter O’Toole in his first major role, the film hints at soft-spoken and vaguely camp Lawrence’s speculated homosexuality; however, the point is never explicitly made. O’Toole and Omar Sharif (as the smouldering Sherif Ali) engage in some intense homoerotic confrontations, and Noël Coward said that if O’Toole had been any prettier, the film would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia’.

The cast is stellar, with remarkable performances by Claude Rains as a calculating but shrewd politician, Alec Guinness in blackface as Prince Feisal, and Anthony Quinn as the temperamental and proud Auda abu Tayi, leader of the local Howeitat tribe. The film has an entirely male cast. Women are only seen twice, in brief non-speaking roles: once in a tent where they look at the male war heroes, and once as victims in a village that has been razed to the ground. Yet, rather than shoe-horning in some women just for the sake of gender balance, this feels honest and appropriate for a war film in a largely Muslim country.

Lawrence’s commanding officers vaguely debate whether he is ‘going native’, to which they conclude that ‘he would if he could’. However, he is never allowed to forget the colour of his skin: wherever he goes, his towering physique, Prince Charming blond hair and sky-blue eyes cause the locals to both idolise and gently mock him, and he becomes affectionately known as ‘Orenz’. In one unnerving episode, a Turkish commander strips him naked and starts to fondle his skin, which is ‘so pale, so fine’.

The adoring locals’ unwavering loyalty leads to Lawrence developing messianic delusions of Morrissey-scale proportions. ‘I know I am not ordinary,’ he tells his superior in one scene. An American reporter sent to the region ‘to find a hero’, a man who will inspire his country to join the war, finds Lawrence to be the man for the job. There is a wonderful scene of Lawrence in his new Arabian robes of fine white silk, playing around in the sand while lovingly inspecting his shadow – childish, carefree, and totally in love with himself – before realising he is being spied upon.

Lawrence is not a simple character, and we see him change before our eyes. His initial horror of bloodshed and unwavering morality gradually give way to a much more ambiguous relation to warfare. By the end of the film he has become simultaneously more bloodthirsty, disgusted and disillusioned, ready to return home.

The film is almost four hours long, including a fifteen-minute intermission featuring specially composed music. In spite of this, David Lean does not put a foot wrong with regard to the pacing: the length is appropriate for a project as ambitious as this, and the lengthy crossings of inhospitable deserts put these few hours into proportion.

The dialogue is razor-sharp and consistently funny, with Monty Python-worthy insults between warring factions of Arabs (‘thy mother mated with a scorpion,’ quips Anthony Quinn), yet it is in turns grand, caustic and dramatic when it needs to be.

In 1962, in the aftermath of the Suez Canal crisis and the collapse of the British Empire, the film’s message was clear: the poor directionless locals, fighting against each other over trifles, needed clear leadership and Britain was the one to provide it. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the timing of this restoration is apt, but the dubious politics around British intervention remain uncomfortable.

However, what a fantastic experience to see this film on a big screen. The stunning scenery, majestic set-pieces of battles, deserts, and people slowly emerging from the horizon, all framed by the iconic soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, make for a cinematic experience not to be missed.

It will be interesting to see Werner Herzog’s upcoming Queen of the Desert, a film about Gertrude ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia’ Bell, featuring Naomi Watts, Robert Pattinson and Jude Law.

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