I was first introduced to Lawrence of Arabia when I was about 13 or 14. I’d been introduced to David Lean before, through Bridge on the River Kwai, as part of my education in the Brilliance of Alec Guinness (which included Eskimo Day, a lot of Ealing Comedy, and absolutely no Star Wars). I watched in more than two parts that first time but was still blown away. I can’t remember what it was about it that caught at me, but something in young-teen-me was captured by more than the desert and the music. There was something in Lawrence that intruiged and fascinated, and that I loved even in the moments where he is at his worst – something summed up in that final line of Sherif Ali: “If I fear him, who love him, how must he fear himself, who hates himself”
Lawrence may not be my favourite film (that generally depends on my mood), and it is one I watch infrequently. It is nearly four hours long, after all, and best watched in one sitting. But in my opinion it is the Greatest Film Ever Made.
* Four hours long. Never less than gripping
* The music.
* That cut from the flame to the desert.
* The desert. ”It’s clean” I love that way of expressing the appeal of the desert.
* ”Thy mother mated with a scorpion” Still the best insult ever.
* The cast. Yes, it’s a film of its time, with Anglo-Saxon Anglo-American stars playing Arabs, and ideally we’d do it better now (though, would we?), but the performances work. Guinness as Faisal, playing off Lawrence and Dryden? Anthony Quinn as Auda, proud, suspicious, and yet terribly fond of Lawrence and Ali? Oh, and Claude Rains as Dryden? What film isn’t better because he’s in it?
But, leaving aside the issues of historical veracity, it is the complexity of Lawrence that really makes it work – it’s psychologically intriguing, geopolitically savvy, and completely unafraid to let humans be humans in that very messy way that humanity will insist on being. Lawrence is and isn’t a hero and is and isn’t a villain. He’s a man – and a man who knows what he can do, but not who he is. He discovers that he can execute people, and is troubled to discover that he ‘enjoys it’, but he doesn’t know how to incorporate that into his being as a person and as a soldier. He can’t balance his acceptance of his ‘extra-ordinary-ness’ with a judgement about what he should still refrain from doing. With a focus that is so entirely external – to give Arabia back to the Arabs – he can’t ground the actions that that will realise that and say that some things are worth doing for the cause and some things are not.
Watching it this time – in the gorgeous 50th Anniversary release, on a big screen for the first time (and ohhhh, the ripples in the desert when you see it this way…) it was the contrast and the relationship between Lawrence and Ali that struck me most. They’re alike, but they’re opposites – they trust, but they challenge. Lawrence starts by dismissing Ali as a murderer, a ‘little person’, and Ali dismissing Lawrence as a crazy dreamer, whose compassion will kill him and maybe them all. And then they switch around. Lawrence becomes consumed by his mission, his dream of uniting the Arab tribes. And Ali follows – but only so far. He learns to dream of a united Arabia, to play nicely and politically with others, to concede and to compromise – and if this is to happen, within the world of this film, he is the future and Auda is not, that much is clear from the scene at the Arab Council in Damascus – but he also grows in compassion, learning that it is not a weakness. He does not, as Lawrence does before Damascus, fall to the idea that the end justifies the means, because Ali knows who he is. He is Sherif Ali of the Harith and his identity rests in his name and what his name means (in a way that Lawrence’s cannot, given his family) in a way that directs his actions rather than being earned by them.
And so, for all it’s vast sweep and critique of empire building (made just as the British Empire was being taken apart), Lawrence of Arabia’s understanding of the world comes down to who people are (and how they use and misuse each other). That sounds about right.