Of all the cinematic epics, few come as grand and successfully realised as Lawrence of Arabia.
Ambitious in every sense of the word, David Lean’s Oscar-grabbing masterpiece makes most movies pale in comparison and has served as an inspiration for countless filmmakers, most notably technical masters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The latter eventually helped restore Lawrence of Arabia to its proper length and lustre alongside fellow enthusiast Martin Scorsese.
The film was shot in “Super Panavision” and designed for 70mm projection, which enhances minute details, from star Peter O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes to the sun beaming down on the constantly shifting sand.
Lawrence of Arabia’s famous images and set pieces, such as Omar Sharif’s appearance out of a desert mirage, the famed cut from a lit match to the sunrise, and the mind-boggling assault on Akaba, look spectacular, indeed, unrepeatable.
There are several thousand camels, miles of sand, and several big explosions. Add a bombastic Maurice Jarre score, pumped-up Technicolor and a few dignified thespians to brown up as Arabs (Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn), and you have a package designed for Oscars to be flung at.
The film opens on 19 May 1935 when T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), 46, is killed in a motorcycle accident near his home in Dorset, England. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, a reporter (Jack Hedley) tries to gain insight into Lawrence by questioning those who knew him.
The story then flashes back to Cairo during the First World War, where – over the objections of General Murray (Donald Wolfit) – Mr Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau sends Lt. Lawrence to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in his revolt against the Ottoman Turks.
Col. Harry Brighton (Anthony Quayle) tells Faisal that he should pull back once defeated, but Lawrence suggests a different tack: an unannounced assault on Aqaba. Although the coastal town appears heavily guarded against an attack from the sea, it has a much weaker defence on its land borders.
Though unsure of Lawrence’s plan, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) leads a group of 50 of Faisal’s men to attack Aqaba. Lawrence’s troops cross the Nefud Desert, travelling day and night towards much-needed rest and water.
One of Ali’s men, Gasim (I. S. Johar), faints from exhaustion and falls to the ground, unbeknownst to his company, as they are travelling at night. Not wanting to leave a man behind, Lawrence returns for Gasim, gaining the respect of Sherif Ali.
Lawrence convinces the Howeitat tribal leader, Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), to go against the Turks, but he almost loses the alliance when a personal matter causes one of Ali’s soldiers to murder one of Auda’s men. Lawrence saves the alliance by offering to personally dispatch the killer but is shocked to find that the murderer is none other than Gasim, the man whom he doubled back to save. Lawrence has no choice but to shoot him.
The next morning, Lawrence and his Arab cohort capture Aqaba. Lawrence shares news of the victory with Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), and is promoted.
After an intermission in the film, Lawrence initiates a guerrilla war against the Turks. Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), an American journalist, publicises Lawrence’s exploits, making him internationally famous.
When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Daraa with Ali, he is arrested. Alongside other Arab citizens, Lawrence is taken to the Turkish Bey (José Ferrer), where he is stripped, ogled, prodded, flogged for defiance, and otherwise tortured before being left in the street. Lawrence is deeply affected by the experience.
The film’s focus on the incident has long bothered Lawrence biographers, who have posed the question of what happened, or didn’t, at Deraa.
Lawrence wrote that he was imprisoned there by district governor Hajim Bey (José Ferrer) and tortured, sexually assaulted, and perhaps – his descriptions are vague – raped. The film hints at this but does not show much.
Some historians consider the whole Deraa incident a fantasy, partly because Lawrence described it sensually and partly because he was seen by witnesses looking unhurt afterwards. Biographer Scott Anderson suggests sympathetically that Lawrence may have submitted to the rape to avoid further torture and afterwards embroidered his tale.
Whatever happened, the film is correct that Lawrence became even more withdrawn and peculiar after Deraa.
Soon after, in Jerusalem, General Allenby persuades Lawrence to join the “big push” on Damascus, and Lawrence – seeing himself as a sort of demi-god – recruits a ragtag army that is monetarily motivated to fight.
They come upon a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just massacred the residents of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men from Tafas demands, “No prisoners!” and charges the Turks alone but is shot dead.
Lawrence takes up the dead man’s battle cry resulting in a gruesome slaughter in which Lawrence himself gleefully participates.
Lawrence’s men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces, and the Arabs then set up a council to administer the city, but despite Lawrence’s diplomatic efforts, they constantly bicker and get nothing done. As a result, the city is abandoned to the British.
Lawrence attains the rank of colonel but has outlived his usefulness to both Faisal and the British forces and is ordered to return to England.
Several incidents in Lawrence’s life are represented with major dramatic licence – including the fate of Gasim, who Lawrence first rescues from the desert and afterwards is forced to execute. The first of these things happened; the second sort of did, though Lawrence did not have to shoot the same man he rescued. In real life, he shot one called Hamed in a separate and earlier dispute between Syrians and Moroccans.
What the film does, though, is use these incidents to build an idiosyncratic but insightful picture of Lawrence: a complicated, egomaniacal and physically masochistic man, at once god-like and all too flawed, with a tenuous grip both on reality and on sanity.
The $15 million picture was three years in the making – the 14-month shoot (in Jordan, Spain and Morocco – which Anthony Quinn dubbed “the arsehole of the world”) lasted longer than the Arab revolt itself – and, unsurprisingly, won seven Oscars in 1962, including Best Film and Best Director.
Lt. T E Lawrence
Auda Abu Tayi