When speaking about Lawrence of Arabia, it is impossible not to talk about “that shot.” Of course, that shot being the extreme long shot as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) makes his first appearance riding out of the mirage and instantly becoming one of the greatest shots in cinema history. Any film student will be shown this immaculate scene in their introduction to film classes and for good reason. In one shot you get the instant feel of what this film represents, both in scope and theme. You can barely make out the figure of Sherif in the distance until his figure grows as he nears the camera in much the way the character of Lawrence also grows in magnitude. He starts out as a small, insignificant man who eventually becomes a figure larger than even he can match up to.
The film begins with the death of T.E. Lawrence in a simple motorcycle accident. We see his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his bust remains today facing the sarcophagus of Lord Nelson. Men leave the Cathedral talking about the legend that was T.E. Lawrence. A reporter scurries around the crowd asking questions about Lawrence, but aside from the fact that he was a great individual, no one really knew much about the man. Then he finds war correspondent Jackson Bentley and gets a generic quote before moving on. However, after he leaves, Bentley gives the more accurate description of the man of the hour.
“He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey”
When we meet T.E. Lawrence, he was none of these things. He did show off some of the sadist tendencies that would later surface in his character, but at the start he was simply offsetting, strange and a little off. He was a stumbling, bumbling man, unsure of himself, with a reluctance to be anywhere he was expected to be. I don’t believe he was cocky or arrogant. The script shows him early as he haphazardly salutes a commanding officer, but when he is asked if he is being insubordinate, he says that is just his “manners”. When asked if he is half witted, he says he wonders that himself sometimes. What he turns out to be is someone who does not feel comfortable in the skin that he is forced to wear and someone who would rather leave his life behind for the world of great adventures.
I question if this movie would have carried the pomp and flair that it does if anyone other than Peter O’Toole were cast in the lead role. It is said David Lean originally wanted Albert Finney for the title role and Alec Guinness, a great admirer of T.E. Lawrence, wanted desperately to play the lead role as well. However, everything worked out in the end and O’Toole turned in a performance that surely could not have been matched by any other man. Showing an effeminate side that made Lawrence a very different sort of hero, he maintained a pained demeanor that showed the conflict buried deep within his psyche.
He is surrounded by a cast that was picture perfect in their portrayals of the archetypes in Lawrence’s quest. While Guinness was deemed too old to portray Lawrence, he was cast as the Prince Feisal, the Arab leader that Lawrence would help in his battles with the Turks. Claude Rains was cast to play the skeptical Mr. Drydan, the man who would send Lawrence to observe the Arabs during this war. His character, in a very minor role, would grow from a skeptical man into a person with great devotion and loyalty to Lawrence. Anthony Quinn plays Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the Howeitat tribe who were fighting their own battles against Prince Feisal’s men. Omar Sharif turned in a spectacular portrayal as Sherif Ali, a character who begins the story as a nemesis to our hero but finishes the story as his closest confidant, a man who knew more about Lawrence than anyone else in the world.
I left one actor out, and that man is the character that connects Lawrence to the world. The war correspondent Bentley, portrayed by Arthur Kennedy, served many purposes. He was the man who would take the individual of T.E. Lawrence and turn him into a hero. It is a role familiar in popular culture today, the press seeming more responsible for creating heroes and villains than the individuals themselves. Bentley made Lawrence a hero to the world and made him appear as a savior in the eyes of the men surrounding Lawrence. By the end, he is the man who voices what the viewers were surely thinking; noting Lawrence had become an animal.
I can not discount the music and cinematography in telling this great story. The music is of an epic scale, conducted by Maurice Jarre who won three Oscars, all for David Lean pictures (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia). When looking at the various devises Steven Spielberg pulled from this film, you only need look at the music as it lends a pomp and circumstance to the dynamic visuals provided by F.A. Young. Raiders of the Lost Ark, in its greatest moments, shares these moments where you see outlandish set pieces while over-the-top music tells you it is a heroic moment. It is a dynamic combination of perfect music with perfect visuals that produces a setting that would allow any character to look like a hero.
The film is about the rise and fall of a man who was viewed by many as a savior. Early in the film, someone mentions that Lawrence is acting like Moses, leading “his people” across the deserts. The Arabs mention their belief that things happen “as it is written.” They also decide that Lawrence’s tale might be written by the man himself. It is at this point he is lifted above mere mortal status and is seen as an almost Christ-like figure as he leads the men, who follow and worship him as he leads them into victory after victory. He is rewarded by the Arab soldiers with the white silk robes of honorable men. After one victory, as they derail and rob and loot a train, he prances along the top of the train, flaunting his robed figure for both the photographer Bentley and for the men who continue to chant his name. He has stepped over the line of soldier and has embraced his role as savior.
In this role as savior, early in their desert journey he ignores common sense and returns to save a man lost in the desert, risking his own life to do so. When he is told “it was written”, he tells Sherif that nothing is written and proves his point by saving the man. Later in the story, the man he saved kills a member of a rival tribe and almost starts a civil war between the forces Lawrence rallied together. In order to keep the warring tribes from battling each other, he chooses to execute that same man. The argument remains, was it written and only postponed or did Lawrence himself rewrite it? It is once again the question of whether he is a savior or simply a man. He continued to grow in stature and ego until the end of his hero’s journey, where he found himself no longer accepted by either the Arabs or British. He heroically led the men into battle and came out victorious in the end. However, when there is no longer a battle to fight, there is no longer a need for a savior. When Lawrence stands in a jeep as Arabs walk towards him at the end, they remain silent, no longer chanting his name, and he realizes he is no longer a savior among men and is once again just a man of a forgotten time.
It is here that I think back to the beginning. Lawrence died alone. He did not die in a great battle on a field of war with men surrounding him, looking up to him and almost worshipping the ground he walked on. He died a lonely man, no longer accepted or needed. Yet, following his death the stories grew in stature. Was he an egotistical showman? Those who were close to him knew this to be true. Yet for the rest of the world, the people who only knew him by a single hand shake or even more importantly the people who only knew him by the sensational stories and pictures in the newspapers, he was a legend. He was not the showman that was worshipped by the men who stood at his feet. He was a magnificent and heroic man who single handedly led an army to victory. He was not T.E. Lawrence, he was Lawrence of Arabia.