LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

commentary by Tony McRae

Early on in Lawrence of Arabia, soon after Lieutenant Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) arrives in the camp of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), the prince moves close to him and while staring him in the eyes says, "I think you are another of these desert-loving English.  No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.  Or is it that you think we are something you can play with because we are a little people?  A silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel?  What do you know, lieutenant?  In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village."  There is both reproof and warning in Feisal's words.  Yet given the manner in which it is delivered by Alec Guinness, there is also instruction, for he likes the young lieutenant.  The question I ask myself is:  Does Lawrence “get” what Feisal is saying by the film's end?  His answer to Feisal, that the Arab people can be great again, is at once heartening and evasive.  And as we see as the film unfolds, self-serving.

Before Lawrence leaves Feisal’s tent, the prince tells him that to win the war against the Turks they would need a miracle.  This language resonates with Lawrence, and so that night he wanders into the desert to meditate away from Feisal’s camp.  The next morning he has his inspiration.  "Aqaba."  The word is muttered like a consecration:  he will use it like a talismanic formula that will bring to the Arabs power and victory.  Cut to Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) repeating the word "Aqaba" but in disbelief.  "You are mad," he says, but Lawrence’s conviction engulfs him; he convinces Ali that with fifty men—and others who will join them--they can take the supposedly impregnable city.

As he prepares to leave in the dark of night with Feisal's men, the prince stops him and asks," Where are you going, lieutenant."  Of course he knows the answer, but he wishes to gain an insight into the young Englishman.  "To work your miracle," Lawrence answers.  Feisal rejoins, "Blasphemy is a bad beginning for such a journey."  He asks Lawrence why he didn't tell his superiors what he was up to.  "We can claim to ride in the name of Feisal of Mecca," Lawrence answers.  "You may claim it," Feisal says, "but in whose name do you ride?"  An abrupt cut to Lawrence and Ali leading Feisal's men toward the Nefu desert and ultimately Aqaba.  For whom does Lawrence ride?  He has finally begun his mission:  he will see to it that the Arab world will be great again.

Is David Lean’s Lawrence driven by a moral conscience?  Does his desire to help the Arab cause arise from a genuine love of a persecuted people who were once great?  David Lean does not attempt to solve the enigma of Lawrence; rather he plays on both Lawrence's messianic impulses and his clearly narcissistic nature.

Much later, the reporter Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) asks what the Arabs hope to gain from the war Lawrence is waging.  “They hope to gain their freedom.”  Bentley is skeptical.  “They’re gonna get it, Mr. Bentley.  I’m going to give it to them.”  When Bentley asks what attracts him to the desert, Lawrence answers, “It’s clean.”  “Well now,” Bentley replies, “that’s a very illuminating answer.”  

And it is, I think. Lawrence needs cleansing, and he knows it.  He is tormented, attracted by pain and killing.  Lean does not deal with these issues in a heavy-handed way.  He puts it out there—in Lawrence’s face, in side comments from others.  When the diplomat Brighton (Claude Rains) says that the Arabs think Lawrence is “a kind of prophet,” General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) retorts, “They do or he does?”   

Rather than pass judgment, David Lean co-opts his viewers, bringing them into a desert which mesmerizes.  Like his hero we are swept up in its allure, its dangers, its ever-changing permanence.   

And so when Lawrence finally leaves Arabia for his native England, his goal unrealized, he is lost.  Auda (Anthony Quinn) tells him, “There is only the desert for you.”  And for Lean’s Lawrence this is certainly true.

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