T.E. Lawrence was what a friend of mine calls a “transethnic,” like the couple of Italian guys you always see playing bagpipes in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Lawrence of Arabia’s Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, who inhabits the role) tries to explain to an Arab friend how he is “different” from the “fat” people of his home in England’s Oxfordshire, but he can’t seem to make even himself understand. David Lean’s gorgeous film — one of the greatest movies ever made and one of my very favorites — captures this enigmatic man beautifully.
Even with its tradition of gentlemen soldiers, the British Army in Egypt doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the fey, Greek philosophy–spouting Lawrence. But he has an affinity with the Arab peoples — while the British military dismisses them as “a nation of sheep stealers,” Lawrence sees them as real people and potentially valuable allies in the Great War against the Germans and their allies in the region, the Turks, traditional enemies of the Arabs. Sent to make an alliance with the Bedouin tribes in the desert, he succeeds in uniting — if only temporarily — squabbling tribes and leading them, though even the Arabs think his tactics are mad, on a breathtakingly daring attack on the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba. He becomes a symbol of freedom that the Arabs take to heart, inspiring an almost messianic fervor that Lawrence begins to believe in himself: The Arabs “hope to gain their freedom,” Lawrence tells an American reporter. “They’re going to get it. I’m going to give it to them.”
The sheer perfection of Lawrence of Arabia is demonstrated by the scene in which Lawrence first meets Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) at a well in the middle of a flat desert stretching as far as the eye can see. The dialogue is minimal, every word necessary and on point as Lawrence and Ali feel each other out. The cinematography is as spare and lean and beautiful as the setting, heat shimmering off the distant horizon, the whole world nothing but sand and sky. It gives me chills just to think of it.
I’m glad I got to see this film on a big screen when it was rereleased last year, because even a letterboxed video can’t really do justice to Lean’s vistas. In some ways Lawrence feels like it’s made up of a series of still photographs, simple, elegant shots that linger and let you drink in the impossible magnificence of Lean’s locations. It’s like I’ve never seen the desert before on film. I actually notice the use here of color film — instead of color just registering as my default way of seeing the world, I’m struck by the deliberate-seeming demarcation of blue sky and red-tan earth, the horizon bisecting every image.
And the cherry on top of it all: one of the great movie scores, written by Maurice Jarre. This is a film for the ages.
Oscars Best Picture 1962
AFI 100 (1998 list): #7
unforgettable movie moment:
Another movie full of memorable scenes, but here’s one of my favorites: After the impossible rescue of a Bedouin tribesman from an unforgiving desert called the Sun’s Anvil, Bedouins bestow upon Lawrence the robes of an Arab sherif.
previous Best Picture:
1961: West Side Story
next Best Picture:
1963: Tom Jones
previous AFI 100 film:
6: Gone with the Wind
next AFI 100 film:
8: Schindler’s List