War Movie Mondays: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of the greatest films ever made and a tie for my number one favorite film alongside Dr. Strangelove (1964). It is one of director David Lean’s most lasting legacies in Hollywood and a truly epic one-of-a-kind film. It was a film that was the inspiration to future filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas.

I first saw the film at the age of twelve when my father took me to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City in 1989 for the film’s restored re-release. My father told me that it was his most favorite film and that I was very privileged to see it on the big screen. I will never forget when the lights dimmed and Maurice Jarre’s score played before the opening credits of the film. It was the first film that I can remember where my eyes were completely fixed to the screen in fear that if I turned away for a spilt second that I might miss a pivotal moment.

As I began rummaging through the popcorn bag, I looked over to my father who smiled and gave me a wink. My experience seeing the film on the big screen was like for so many others, a film, which made me want to become a director and it solidified my love of cinema from that moment forward.

The film chronicles the exploits of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’ Toole’s first major role) an officer in the British Army during World War I who became one of history’s most intriguing characters. Stationed in Cairo, Egypt as a member of the general staff, Lawrence is selected by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains in his final film performance) a member of his majesty’s Arab Bureau, to locate Prince Faisal and to assess his army’s revolt against the Ottoman Turks that have invaded and occupied Arabia in their attempt to expand their vast empire.

Lawrence is considered an insubordinate misfit and much to the disagreement of his commanding officer General Murray (Donald Wolfit), is given several weeks to travel to Arabia and help assess the situation for the Army and for his majesty’s government. Before Lawrence is to embark on his journey, he bids farewell to several of his colleagues. As he holds a lit match in his hand, he blows it out and the scene jump cuts (one of cinema’s greatest transition shots) to the Arabian Desert as the sun rises. Jarre’s powerful score builds up as Lawrence and his native guide trek through the desert to Prince Faisal’s encampment.

Lean’s direction and masterful execution of each and every shot is visually breathtaking. One of these scenes is where Lawrence and his native guide stop at the well of another native tribe. Lawrence surveys the area with his compass and a long shot shows a rider coming out of the distance, the haze reflected off of the hot sand looks as if the rider materialized from nowhere. As the rider approaches closer to the well, the guide runs for his pistol and is shot. The man introduces himself as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a member of Faisal’s army and offers to deliver Lawrence to the Prince. Lawrence refuses and wants nothing to do with Ali who he feels his actions in killing the guide were barbarous and cruel.

Shortly after, Lawrence approaches Faisal’s camp and meets another British officer Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) who is attached to Faisal as a military attaché. Brighton tells Lawrence to keep his mouth shut and to assess the situation and return hastily to Cairo and deliver his report to Dryden and the general staff. Lawrence attracts the attention of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) due to his knowledge of the Bedouin and their long history of warfare tactics. This is when Lawrence proposes the idea that the Prince’s army attack the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba.

If Aqaba were to be taken, it could open up a new supply route for the British to conduct military operations against the Turks on the Arabian Peninsula. To attack Aqaba, Lawrence, Sherif Ali and fifty men must cross the Nefud Desert, an area considered impassable by even the Bedouin. The Nefud must be crossed in a certain amount of time because it is an area where the sun is at its most deadly to those trapped below it. One of the men Gasim falls off his camel in the middle of the night. Lawrence turns back to try and find Gasim before the sun rises. Ali presses forward with the rest of the men and two orphans who become Lawrence’s valets.

This is one of the most emotional moments of the film where Gasim witnesses the sun rising and knows that he will die if he can’t find his comrades. Daud (John Dimech) waits in anticipation for Lawrence to return. Daud sees a figure coming out of the desert and begins to trot his camel towards the individual. Daud realizes that it is Lawrence and calls out to him while Jarre’s sweeping music plays.

The attack on the Turkish garrison of Aqaba is the first great battle scene of the film. The successful capture of Aqaba prompts Lawrence to cross the Sinai Desert and return to Cairo and tell the General the news. Lawrence arrives at headquarters dressed in Arab clothing and relays his report to Colonel Brighton, who then delivers Lawrence to the new commanding general, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) who promotes Lawrence to the rank of Major and demands that he return to the field and help lead the Bedouins in a guerilla campaign against the Turks.

Lawrence asks the question of whether or not the British have territorial designs for Arabia after the Turks are ousted. Allenby tells Lawrence that the British have no such designs. Allenby and Dryden hide the truth even though Lawrence knows it to be true and so do the Arabs. This is the ending of the first half of the film.

The remainder of the film follows Lawrence and his guerilla army as they wage total war against the Turks and Lawrence begins to succumb to the image that has been portrayed of him by an American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) who turns Lawrence and his guerilla fighters into a propaganda tool for the war effort. In a meeting with Prince Faisal, Bentley tells him that he is looking for a story that will help drive his country towards war, in point of fact this part takes place in 1917 and the U.S. had been engaged in battle on the Western Front of Europe for the better half of several months. This is just one of many slight historical inaccuracies throughout the film.

Lawrence’s lust for bloodshed causes him to recruit killers and cutthroats throughout Arabia. Allenby’s forces make for a big push against Damascus as the Turks are quickly being driven out of Arabia. By film’s end the Arabs set up a council to establish a seat of government that proves futile due to the various tribes and their inabilities to agree on almost everything. Lawrence’s suspicions are proven right when the British and French establish the Sykes-Picot Agreement where Britain and France would carve up territorial concessions of the deposed Ottoman Empire. Lawrence is promoted to full Colonel and sent home after the end of the war.

Many historians and Lawrence biographers have faulted the film for many historical inaccuracies that are very common for an epic film of this magnitude. The truth is, the film is a dramatic interpretation of events that were still being examined by historians when the film was made. Despite the inaccuracies, the film is brilliant and one of the greatest films ever made. The film’s harshest critic was Professor A.W. Lawrence (T.E.’s younger brother who sold the rights of T.E.’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom to producer Sam Spiegel for twenty-five thousand pounds).

Lawrence went on a campaign throughout the U.S. and Britain where he denounced the film and despised his brother’s portrayal in the film. A.W. Lawrence said in an interview “I should not of recognized my own brother.” The character of Jackson Bentley was actually famed American correspondent Lowell Thomas who also argued that the film took too many liberties with events and claimed that there were too many scenes that were very inaccurate and misleading to viewers.

The cast is brilliant most notably Anthony Quinn’s character of Auda (the head of the Howeitat tribe) who steals many of the scenes he is in. According to a Lean biographer, Quinn immersed himself in the role and showed up to the set on his first day of shooting in full costume. Quinn even applied all of his makeup from a picture of the real life Auda. Lean was so impressed and thought Quinn was an actual Arab extra that he wanted to fire Quinn and give the role to this man.

Despite many claims from critics and scholars, the film went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture for 1962, Best Director (David Lean), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. The film will be made available for the first time on Blu-Ray on June 4th 2012 to mark its fiftieth anniversary. The film has been preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry since 1991.

Lawrence of Arabia is available on DVD through Sony Pictures and can be rented via Netflix.

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