A Strange Film
Lacking any particular sizzle, somehow Lawrence is interesting enough to build a four hour movie around.
American Film Institutes Ranking: #5/100
Awards: Nominated for ten winning Best Picture, Director, Score & Others.
This movie is about one thing: T. E. Lawrence. If we take the movie’s portrayal as truth, this would have suited the egotist just fine.
The annals of history are filled with intriguing but unknown characters. This film brings to light one of the more interesting people of history that I had no idea even existed. Regardless of whether the portrayal is particularly accurate, the movie risks its entire livelihood on Lawrence being captivating forgoing any action scenes, romantic angles (I don’t know if I can recall a single woman in the entire film), or other characters.
Somehow it is just enough.
The movie begins with the end in mind: Lawrence’s death (played by Peter O’Toole) . At his funeral, the opinions of him run the gamut from praising his intelligence and fearlessness to his egotism and selfishness. Then the movie pivots to tell the story of his life, starting in WWI.
He is assigned to assess Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) chances of rebellion. Another British officer is already on the ground, and Lawrence quickly ignores his advice and begins to insert himself into the situation by suggesting which actions the Prince should take. His plan requires a trek across an impassable desert, and he convinces the Prince to give him men to go on the expedition himself. Being successful, they over run the Turkish forces capturing the town.
Lawrence then begins another dangerous trek, this time returning to Ciaro to inform the British of his success. At this point, he is dressed in official Arabian attire, and he is shunned by his fellow officers when they see him wearing it. The British Brass give him a green light to continue warfare against the Turks.
He leads his Arab army to capture Damascus, even before the British do. He planned to use this as an opportunity to unite the Arabian tribes to lead without British oversight, but tribal infighting destroys his plans. Now with Damascus secured and his army disbanded, Lawrence is discharged back to Britain, having failed in his attempt to unite the Arab people.
Once again, this movie is about Lawrence and Lawrence alone. Yes, Alec Guinness puts on a fantastic portrayal of Prince Faisal and Omar Sharif plays an interesting supporting role as Sharif Ali, but none of that matters. Somehow the fight for Arab independence, the story which we follow within a WWI timeline, is peanuts. The character study stifles any chance of considering other venues of thought.
My thoughts and feelings followed the arc of how Lawrence is presented to us.
Lawrence begins as smart and wickedly sardonic to superiors. He then shows how tough he is, not backing down when his guide gets shot and espouses a rigid morality — he had given the guide a firearm, and when killed his assailant gives Lawrence an opportunity to take it back, but since he no longer considers it his, he lets the assailant steal it to make a point.
These kind of rigid values leads into his iron will — like when he leads a group of 50 men across a desert with no water for a surprise attack. Near the end, it is realized that someone fell off their camel in the desert, and Lawrence foolishly goes back to get him even though everyone says it will be two deaths instead of one. Lawrence triumphantly returns and is rewarded for his bravery.
Our opinions quickly turn. Infighting threatens to ruin his planned attack on the turkish army, and the only thing that will settle it is if he executes someone for a crime. This person happens to be the one he saved from the desert, and he does it cooly. Afterwards, we see him toss the gun away and walk in a daze as he is comforted by Sharif, making us think he feels badly for his decision. Only later do we learn that his trans-like state was because he enjoyed taking a man’s life.
Lawrence only continues to get more complicated: does he really care about uniting the Arabs, or is he doing it for his own ego, to prove it can be done? Are we watching a civilized rouge or a sophisticated barbarian? Each passing minutes shows a new face to Lawrence and the movie ultimately ends with a defeated man, no longer needed and no longer in control.
We end up like those at his funeral: is there really “one” way to describe him?
What an odd film. An epic set in the desert with the expected gorgeous scenery and costumes but none of the pompous flair or fight scenes. Ben-Hur had the chariot race and battles at sea, Lawrence of Arabia has…the rise and fall of its protagonist? Four hours was a bit much for such a narrow focus, but I came away thinking “How did someone like that even exist?” The power of Lawrence is worthy enough of our time, even though I would have liked a few more elements.
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