David Lean (1908–1991) directed sixteen movies, fully half of them classics, including three of the greatest films ever made: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and, greatest of them all, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lawrence of Arabia is repeatedly ranked as one of the finest films of all time, and when one compares it to such overpraised items as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, a strong case can be made for putting it at the very top of the list. I am hesitant to speak of “the greatest” anything, just because I have not seen everything. But when I think of some of my personal favorites—Vertigo, Network, Rashomon—I can’t honestly rank any of them higher than Lawrence of Arabia.
Everything about this film is epic: from its nearly four-hour running time and its 70-millimeter widescreen image with astonishing detail and depth of focus—to the magnificent settings in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain—to the music by Maurice Jarré—to the cast of thousands crowned by such stars as Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, and Claude Rains.
Lean had to go big, simply to do justice to the story. Lawrence of Arabia is about one of the most remarkable men of the last century, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) and his role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Based on Lawrence’s sprawling narrative of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago) and Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai) is a supremely masterful screen adaptation. The timeline is simplified and certain characters are amalgamated, both to save time and heighten dramatic conflicts, but the truth of the story is conveyed.
Like Lawrence’s book, the movie has several layers. First of all, it is a historical narrative. Second, it offers lessons in political philosophy. (The word “wisdom” in the title should have been a warning.) Lawrence was a nationalist, not an imperialist. To fight the Turks, he favored aiding Arab nationalists rather than spending British lives to conquer territory and resources in Mesopotamia. But, against Lawrence’s own intention, Seven Pillars also makes a case for empire, a case that Lean’s film clearly reinforces. Third, there is a strong element of Nietzschean self-mythologization: what Aleister Crowley calls “auto-hagiography” and the Arabs call “blasphemy.”
On the symbolic plane, Lawrence overthrows the three Abrahamic faiths by rejecting their doctrines and reversing or rewriting their central stories with himself as the hero. The movie takes this process further, both reflecting upon the process by which Lawrence became a legend and perfecting it: cinema as apotheosis. I want to focus on the latter two layers. Thus I will skip huge stretches of the story and leave those for you to discover on your own.
T.E. Lawrence was one of five illegitimate sons of an Anglo-Irish Baronet, Sir Thomas Chapman, and an English mother, Sarah Junner. Highly intelligent, Lawrence read history at Jesus College, Oxford from 1907 to 1910. From 1910 to 1914, he was an archaeologist in the Holy Land, working with such eminent figures as Leonard Woolley and Flinders Petrie. Woolley and Lawrence also gathered intelligence for the British in the Negev Desert in early 1914.
When the World War broke out, Lawrence enlisted. Fluent in French and Arabic and knowledgeable of Arab history and culture, he received a military intelligence post in Cairo. In June of 1916, when Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, Lawrence was sent to Arabia to gather intelligence. The rest is history.
The movie begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, at the age of 46. After a memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the crème of the British establishment, a priest asks if Lawrence “really belongs here,” which introduces the theme of Lawrence as an outsider. The first half of the movie can be seen as an affirmative answer to that question.
Then we flash back nearly twenty years to Lawrence in Cairo. From the start, Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence as slightly autistic and ambiguously gay. He also has a masochistic side. He likes to extinguish matches with his fingers. “The trick . . . is not to mind that it hurts.” It is a small exercise in self-overcoming, a hint of greater things to come.
Lawrence’s commander, General Murray, despises him as an overeducated misfit, but a civil servant Mr. Dryden (a composite character played by Claude Rains) values his intelligence and language skills. Dryden “borrows” Lawrence for an intelligence gathering mission to Arabia. He is to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the son of Sharif Hussein, and evaluate his leadership potential.
Lawrence tells Dryden that he thinks this mission will be “fun.” Dryden says that the only people who find the desert fun are Bedouin and gods. His unstated premise is that Lawrence is neither. Lawrence flatly declares, “No, it will be fun.” If Dryden is right, and Lawrence is not a Bedouin, that implies that Lawrence thinks of himself as a god. To underscore Lawrence’s funny idea of fun, he lights a match. But this time Lawrence blows the flame out.
Crossing the desert to find Faisal, Lawrence’s guide Tafas is killed by Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking at his well. You see, Tafas is from the wrong tribe. This prompts a bit of political philosophy delivered with autistic frankness that borders on the suicidal, given that it is spoken to a man holding a smoking gun: “As long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” A nation comes into being when tribes of the same people put aside petty differences and rivalries for a higher good. Throughout his adventures in Arabia, Lawrence’s dream of a rising Arab nation is stymied by tribal rivalries and blood feuds.
On autistic principle, Lawrence rejects Ali’s help in finding Faisal, preferring to risk it on his own.
When Lieutenant Lawrence reaches Faisal, he is ordered by his British military advisor, Colonel Brighton, to say nothing, observe, and report back to Dryden. But Lawrence is irrepressible. As an autist, when he has ideas, he can’t keep them to himself, which intrigues Faisal. Brighton counsels a strategic withdrawal to Yenbo, where the British can resupply him. Faisal wants the British fleet to take the port of Aqaba, but Brighton refuses. It is too well-defended. When Brighton leaves, Faisal bids Lawrence to stay. Faisal naturally fears the English have designs on Arabia, but he is forced to depend upon them: “We need the English or—what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence—we need a miracle.”
This prompts Lawrence to spend a night brooding in the desert. The next morning, Lawrence suggests to Ali that the Arabs should take Aqaba themselves. Aqaba’s guns point toward the sea, because an attack from the land was deemed unlikely. Ali points out that such an attack would require crossing the Nefud Desert, a waste that even the Bedouin avoid. Lawrence proposes crossing the Nefud with fifty men—all members of Ali’s tribe—then raising more troops from the Howeitat tribe on the other side. Ali agrees.
When Lawrence tells Prince Faisal that he is “going to work your miracle,” Faisal replies “Blasphemy is a bad beginning.” Lean films Lawrence’s nocturnal meditations like something more than just a brainstorming session. Now we know that it was a step toward apotheosis.