Thomas Edward “Ned” Lawrence was an extraordinarily complex man, as I discovered after listening to Legion: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lawrence of Arabia. I had seen the film first, of course, as have most people who go on to read more about him I imagine. What makes the film Lawrence of Arabia so extraordinary is that it managed to capture a vast swathe, if only in passing in some instances, of these complex and sometimes unnerving behaviours in what is a fairly short period (the film is over three hours, and was drafted at seven hours!).
For those who haven’t seen the film, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic character study of an arrogant and irritating lowly British soldier, who is sent as an envoy to Prince Faisal, in the effort to essentially decide ownership over Arabia. Lawrence reveals himself no only to be presumptuous with his advice, but ultimately ends up being listened to, and results in one of the first big victories in the conflicts. Following this, he is turned into a media legend by a roving American reporter looking for a hero, and whilst the pictures of him as a confident, respected, famous Arab leader is spread across the world, in this film we see the other sides to him: the desperate, the unsure, the maniacal, the terrified. Though the film itself doesn’t graphically expose the very darkest moments of Lawrence’s life, it being 19[?] (a film nowadays might not flinch at the idea of having Lawrence whipped onscreen by a young man paid to do it) it is still very easy to see the insinuation of certain moments. When Lawrence is captured, and ends up kneeing the general in the balls and gaining a whipping from it, there are sinister moments of sexual aggression between Lawrence and his captor, which reflects the real life events. That particular scene is based on Lawrence’s own words, where he describes being whipped and raped in those moments.
With Robert Boltand Michael Wilson's script, David Lean managed, somehow, to make Lawrence of Arabia seem effortlessly sweeping. It probably helped that the desert was one big set piece in itself, assisting some of the most memorable scenes within the film, like the sunrise cut, the first approach of Sherif Ali, and Lawrence’s singing echoing around the great rock cliffs. To be honest, loads of the scenes are memorable purely for their beauty and scope, but when you can make a bunch of men on camels traipsing across sand for about ten minutes (and you know how long ten minutes can be in film time), then a bunch of them waiting around for about five minutes while the hero is absent from the screen, utterly engrossing, you’re probably onto a winner. Fun fact, Lawrence really did return into the desert to save Gasim, the man who fell from his camel…and actually saved him.
And of course Lawrence of Arabia is now forever linked to the dashing Peter O’Toole, and you don’t get much bigger or better a break really than be cast in a role Laurence Olivier was asked to do but turned down (he didn’t see himself in it). Peter O’Toole was not the first choice, or the second (he was many down the line) but Lawrence surely cannot be imagined as being any other actor now. O’Toole’s performance is captivating – reckless, gentle, arrogant, annoying, heroic, silly, brooding, tortured and much more besides. In Legion: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lawrence of Arabia Kevin Jackson states the scene where Lawrence admires himself in his new dagger from Sherif Ali was O’Toole’s idea on the spot, to which Lean said, ‘Clever boy,’. The moment was mirrored later when after a massacre he instigates Lawrence again looks into his dagger, which is now covered with all manner of human debris.
Yes, if you delve into the real history of T. E. Lawrence and his contemporaries regarding the warring in Arabia, you’ll see creative licence is used throughout the film – though, in general, the actual events that occur in the film are faithful to reality - but when it is used so expertly, when it makes a film unforgettable and seeks to both unravel and stay true (warts and all) to its subject’s character (in this case one that is so changeable), it is hard to avoid applauding the result.
Lawrence of Arabia is essential viewing for anyone who wants to see film mastery at work, from all sides of the creative team. I cannot think of many modern films of 3hrs that will last in a kind of shared social conscience beyond the decade they were released, and I cannot think of a moment when Lawrence of Arabia won’t be one of the greatest epics of all time.