Lawrence of Arabia: An appreciation of David Lean’s greatest accomplishment

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Painted on a glorious Super Panavision 70 canvas, British director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is such a stunning and lavishly mounted epic that, no other film has come close to attaining  its level of immense grandeur, ambitious storytelling, and gigantic scale. Based on one of T.E Lawrence’s chronicles of his wartime experiences, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom“, the film is a staggering and vivid exploration of the psyche of a bewilderingly complex individual. The protagonist T.E Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, is reminiscent of another famous movie character, Charles Foster Kane, from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

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Even the opening of the film bears a resemblance to the opening of Citizen Kane. At his memorial service, several characters claim to have known Lawrence but it is quite clear that none of them knew him that well. This is the story of a man who was so many things to so many people. The film then tracks back to Lawrence’s days as a British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo with a dreary desk job. He yearns to go out in the open, in the scorching desert, having fun and wild adventures. He gets his chance when his higher authorities take into account his extensive knowledge of the Middle East and hand him an assignment: to observe the Arab revolt against Turks.

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Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal

He is ordered to establish contact with Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and report on the likelihood of him launching an attack on the Turks. When he finally meets Feisal, he convinces him to attack the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba, much to the chagrin of his superior officers. But Lawrence believes that this move will strengthen the position of the British forces in the region and with the support of an unlikely ally in the form of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence undertakes the perilous journey of crossing the mysterious and formidable Nefud desert.  It’s after this journey that he comes face to face with a ferocious mercenary named Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn).

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From left: Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole

Lawrence succeeds in persuading Auda and his tribe to lend a helping hand in their attack on Aqaba. The attack becomes a huge success and Lawrence is hailed as a hero by everyone. The path is then set for a guerilla war, planned and initiated by him. However, he slowly starts to become disillusioned by the war after being subjected to several challenging and tragic circumstances and Lawrence is no more the same man he was before. Towards the end, we find Lawrence as a man who is emotionally shattered, brought about by the moral disintegration of the inhabitants of the desert that he so hoped to reform.

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Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi

In the beginning, he is oddly mesmerized by the vast expanse of the sprawling desert landscape and is enticed by the unseen possibilities that lay ahead. The Arabs don’t see things the same way he does. As Alec Guinness’s Prince Feisal observes at one point, “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” To them, it is a desolate place whereas Lawrence envisions it as something out of a Utopian dream – a place he can escape to, paint his own reality and weave his lofty dreams and aspirations. It’s a place where he won’t be bothered by all the “fat people” back home. He doesn’t see himself as one of them, and when an Arab asks, “You are not fat?”, he replies, “No. I’m different.”

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Lawrence is repeatedly reminded of the dangers of the place but for him, it’s a playground upon which he can entertain his fancies, vent his frustrations, ruminate on the complexities of life and above all, be somebody that others would look up to. But in the end, the desert turns into a bleak wasteland – a burial ground for his shattered hopes and dreams. Cinematographer Freddie Young captures the splendour of the desert in a way that no one else has done before. The characters are dwarfed by the backdrop of the vast stretches of sand that lay around them. Each frame is perfectly composed and resembles an immaculately drawn painting. It should be noted that another famous British director, Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), was one the second unit cameramen.

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The casting of the then unknown Peter O’Toole posed a considerable challenge for the filmmakers. Toole was not the initial choice to play Lawrence and other actors were considered for the role like Robert Donat, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde. But Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were finally convinced that Toole was the perfect choice for the role. Some critics have criticized Toole’s slightly effeminate portrayal of the role because it implied that Lawrence was a closeted homosexual. He is also portrayed as a shameless exhibitionist, as remarked by one of the characters early on in the film.

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I was introduced to this film in my school days and, being ignorant about homosexuality back then, I found Lawrence’s mannerisms and body language to be slightly odd. I was wondering why he looked and behaved strangely and ‘effeminate’ is the word that crossed my several times but I couldn’t fully make sense of his performance. It was only later when I got to my teens that I understood why Toole’s performance was that way. This is an ambiguous character and there are several clues in the film to suggest that whatever you are guessing could be right after all. Now, I’ve come to regard Toole’s performance as one of the finest of his career.

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This performance has garnered praise from a majority of critics who, after doing a careful and thorough scrutiny of the writings of T.E Lawrence, have come to the conclusion that Toole has effectively captured the many nuances of the character’s persona. With the laser precision of an expert surgeon, Lean unflinchingly conducts an incisive probe of the psyche of this deeply flawed and compelling protagonist and manages to draw a not-so-flattering portrait of him. Lean makes no attempts to gloss over some of the unpleasant aspects of the characters such as his inherent narcissism and sadomasochistic tendencies. Compared to the characters presented here, those present in the rest of Lean’s films pale in comparison. Anyone who thinks that Lawrence is a conventional movie hero must have been watching the wrong film. 

Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali

But if there is one actor whose presence looms large over the film, it is that of the charismatic Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. As Sherif Ali, his commanding performance nearly overshadows Toole’s. His famous introduction scene ranks up there along with some of the very best from the history of cinema. In the neatly and patiently composed scene, Sharif initially appears as a speck on the desert horizon who is then slowly revealed to be an Arab man on horseback dressed in a black garb, his face concealed by his headgear.  I heard that Sharif’s performance made such a strong impact that he decided to keep that moustache for the rest of his career. After seeing the talents of this magnetic actor, one wonders why Lean did not bother to cast other outsiders in the roles of Prince Feisal and Auda. But I’m not complaining, as the presence of these actors lends a certain gravitas to an already majestic film.

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Omar Sharif’s grand entry

There are only a few films that carry a nearly 4-hr long runtime and manage to not bore the viewer throughout the entire length of its duration. Lawrence of Arabia is certainly one of them. In fact, it’s one of those films that you wouldn’t mind seeing even if it were 5 or 6 hours long. The 7 Oscars that it had won, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography were all well-deserved. The film continues to inspire both young and old filmmakers alike and remains Lean’s greatest accomplishment even to this day. Nothing like it has been made since and I don’t think we’ll get to see a rare cinematic gem like this ever again. This is old-school storytelling at its finest.

 

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