There’s a brief moment near the end of Oliver Assayas’s 2010 mini-series Carlos in which the titular terrorist, teaching a class on guerilla warfare, reads from T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Though the scene tells us something about Carlos’s intellectual character, and his changing role on the world stage (his bored students are a far cry from the terrorized hostages of yesteryear), the scene is perhaps most instructive about the film’s own genetics. The Lawrence in question is also the Lawrence of David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, and even though Carlos, a cool, studious film, doesn’t have that film’s ambition, Lean’s epic is still the clear model, and not just for Assayas. Lawrence of Arabia remains, for better and for worse, the prototype for Western films about Middle Eastern politics, and a touchstone for Hollywood blockbusters from The English Patient to Avatar.
May 30 – June 1
Director: David Lean
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Writers: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson, T.E. Lawrence (writings)
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, I.S. Johar, Gamil Ratib, Michel Ray, John Dimech, Zia Mohyeddin
US Theatrical Release: December 16, 1962
US Distributor: Columbia Pictures
It’s easy to see why. Almost four hours long and filmed over the course of two years, Lawrence is massive in almost every respect. The cast is huge and uniformly excellent, the music soars as you’d expect it to, and the film has a visual splendor found nowhere else on this side of John Ford's westerns. The filmmakers do magnificent things with desert terrain, capturing the harsh glare of high noon vistas and murky nighttime camel travel with equal gusto. Even the film’s talky interior scenes are memorably composed.
But the film really exceeds itself on the level of spectacle. Many of the film’s countless set pieces are unforgettably elaborate. In one later scene, for example, a train derails on camera; in another, Lawrence’s raiders steal hundreds of horses. But these orchestrations, which often employ hundreds of real people, are not merely impressive—many have a real heft to them, too. When the camera pans across the stronghold of Aqaba, taking in the whole field of battle, from the cavalry rushing into town to the big guns pointed out to sea, you get a visceral sense of the scale and scope of combat in a single shot.
Scale and scope is, moreover, what the movie is about. Lawrence, a real individual, placed himself in the crucible of Middle Eastern politics, and the film feels in many ways like an inquiry into the character of an agent of history. It asks the questions Great Man accounts of history ask: how does one find oneself at the center of things, and what’s it like to be a facilitator (if not creator) of spectacle?
Set in the Middle East during the First World War, the film follows the titular character’s transformation from a misfit British army officer into a leader in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Broken into two parts separated by an intermission—yes, it really is that long—the first section depicts Lawrence’s first journey into the desert. Assigned to parlay with Prince Faisal, a British ally in the region, Lawrence ends up leading a seemingly suicidal attack on the naval stronghold of Aqaba. The impossible mission succeeds, of course, as it did in real life: Lawrence and his Arab irregulars cross an entire desert to backdoor their Ottoman adversaries, impressing all parties, including the British army. His promotion to major sets up the film’s latter, more interesting part. While the physical heroics of the film’s first half are impressive, and it’s fun to see Lawrence gain his footing, the second half more ably conveys the tensions that make Lawrence a genuinely intriguing character.
The film’s driving conflict is his divided loyalties: he seems to genuinely want to help the Arabs achieve independence, yet he remains loyal to the British, allowing himself to be manipulated by a colonial power intent on retaining the status quo. Indeed, everything about him seems contradictory: he’s an effete yet effective military leader, a masochist who’s frightened by pain, a peaceable army officer who nonetheless commits wartime atrocities. If he’s as merciful as he claims, why then is he so susceptible to the bloodlust of the guerilla raids he leads? Why, really, is he so interested in Arabia? What’s his stake in all this?
It’s notable that we never get straight answers to these questions about Lawrence. It only narrates a thin band of his life, and delves very little into his background, at least explicitly. If the film is prone to speeches, it also has the habit of pulling away, or growing opaque just when I expect it to finally reveal more about Lawrence’s motivations. The American reporter who follows Lawrence provides ample opportunity for exposition that the film routinely frustrates. This, I think, is to the film’s credit. By leaving Lawrence somewhat obscure, the film avoids some of the pitfalls of reductive psychologizing, and retains a sense of mystery for its long run-time.
And, indeed, it’s fascinating to see Peter O’Toole (in his first major role) trying to figure the character out. I found his performance, one of the most celebrated aspects of the film, to be profoundly strange. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, O’Toole manages to be captivating without being entirely convincing, or real. I can’t imagine his character leading a revolt, and yet it’s interesting to think about it.
The film's biggest issue, though, is its politics. For all the ambiguities of Lawrence's character, the film is unquestionably a white savior narrative. He often takes the literal guise of one: decked out in white robes, he cuts a Christ-like figure, and many of the characters say as much. The film does a few things right: the politics of the region are treated in detail, some of the Arab characters in the film feel like real, dynamic people, and the filmmakers are clearly on the side of independence. But the narrative is, at its core, patronizing. Lawrence is, of course, a better Arab than the Arabs, more suited to the desert than they, and Omar Shraif, however engaging as Ali, is never more than a foil. When the independence movement fails, it fails not because of Lawrence’s poor tactics or the British government’s maneuverings, but because the Arabs, squabbling and petty, are not ready to govern. Lawrence may be vain and do some abhorrent things, but he remains the film’s ideological center, and in the end, the central tragedy is not so much British imperialism as Lawrence’s personal sacrifices for it.
You might dismiss these concerns out of hand as unfair or revisionist, but you could just as easily wonder about someone like Steven Spielberg, who credits Lawrence for sparking his interest in filmmaking. What does he have to say about the film’s dubious politics? I suspect he loves the grandeur of Lawrence and his beguiling but exhausting vehicle. But, as Assayas reminds us, that grandeur is always a bit delusional: his Carlos—arrogant, violent, rationalizing—is in some ways an antidote to the nobility of Lawrence, and his Carlos a necessary rejoinder to the sad, self-satisfied beauty of Lawrence of Arabia.