By: Chris Thompson
Lawrence of Arabia is the true account of an British Army officer's experiences in Arabia during World War I. T.E. Lawrence was sent to observe the Arab resistance against Turkey. Instead, he won the Arabs confidence and wound up leading the rebel forces. However, his unique position as British officer and adopted Arab led to many conflicts.
The star of the film is Peter O'Toole in the title role of T.E. Lawrence. His portrayal is above average despite being overzealous at times. He is very successful in showing the quirks and eccentricities that keep Lawrence a mystery even to his closest friends. O'Toole is also successful in capturing the self confidence of his character without having to strut. In fact, the only hole in his performance is that at times he is too passionate. Several times he appear to be near collapse during passionate arguments.
The strong supporting cast more than makes up for O'Toole's minor faults. Omar Sharif as Lawrence's top lieutenant Ali Ibn El Kharish makes a seamless and convincing transition from Lawrence's biggest skeptic to closest friend. In his role as Auda Tayi Anthony Quin is by far the most convincing and realistic character in the film. He is basically a mercenary who fights in in the rebellion for profit and hates other tribes more than the Turks. Quin pulls all this off while wearing a fake Arab nose. Even the extras contribute a great deal to the movie. The nameless hordes give a good sense of what hundred of war loving horsemen would look and sound like, both in battle and when sacking a city.
The true stars of Lawrence of Arabia are the scenery and music. The desert is shown as both beautiful and deadly. This is done surprisingly well because it was shot on location in the Middle East and not on a Hollywood sound stage. Also the cities of Cairo, Egypt, Damascus, and Syria are very well represented. The British headquarters in Cairo is a splendid example of the old architecture being used for a new, military purpose. All of this is shown as the movie plays out to a beautiful, but haunting score. There are times during the movie that the music makes the viewer almost feel the hot desert wind.
Lawrence of Arabia deals with the two major conflicts. The first and foremost is T.E. Lawrence's personal battle against himself. As a result of his time in Arabia and his experiences there he doesn't feel at ease with his fellow British officers. But on the other hand he doesn't feel he can stay in Arabia forever. The second conflict, a historical one compounds Lawrence's dilemma even further. From the outset of the rebellion Great Britain made many promises to the Arabs and to Lawrence as to how Arabia would be ruled if the revolt were successful. They were led to believe that the Arabs would be allowed to set up their own autonomous government. Near the end, Lawrence realized it wouldn't happen unless the Arabs could come together and put up a united front. He tried to bring them together but the old Arab tribal rivalries prevented it from working.However, the Arab revolt did keep the Turks busy in Arabia and minimize their presence in the European theater which was the outcome the Allies had hoped for.
From a historical perspective the movie is accurate but obviously biased since it is based on The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book written by T.E. Lawrence himself. While the movie shows Lawrence and his allies in a favorable light, it does not whitewash their behavior and motives. Lawrence loses control and leads an attack that becomes a merciless massacre. Also, in many scenes it is unclear as to what Lawrence is fighting for. It is his own fame, duty to Great Britain, a free Arabia, or a combination of the three. His Arab allies fight for varied reasons themselves, some for freedom, others for booty, and still others for fun. However, the more mundane aspects of history are covered very well. The after effects of battles and guerrilla attacks are well done. The bodies being cast aside as the Arabs loot trains and cities is particularly convincing.
The Arab lifestyle is portrayed in a very realistic way. The nomadic tribes lives in the harsh desert environment,just as they had for centuries, isolated from the outside world and the progress being made there. at one point in the movie the Arab forces are charging across the sand on horseback as Turkish airplanes attack. As warfare had changed and become mechanized, they still depended on horses and camels. They were at a complete loss as to how to fight and engage the modern Turkish Army. Their fierce tribal rivalries were the cause of several problems and led to the eventual failure of their bid for a free Arab nation.
Lawrence of Arabia is an important movie because it highlights an obscure part of World War I history. The vast majority of World War I movies focus on Western Europe, in particular France. And while the Arab revolt might not be as major as some of the events that took place in the European theater it is none the less important. This is because the revolt occupied the Turks' attention and prevented them from supporting the other Axis powers better. It is also important because of Lawrence himself. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most intriguing characters of the twentieth century. His role as the leader of the Arab revolt made him world famous and the movie gives insight into the circumstances in which h that was made possible. His improbable rise from a junior officer, stuck at a desk, to the leader of a successful guerilla campaign is remarkable and inspiring.
Anyone in search of several hours worth of entertainment cannot go wrong with Lawrence of Arabia. The movie, like its namesake, is extraordinary despite its faults. From action to drama the movie has something for everyone. Its a little long but viewers who buckle down and sit through its entirety will be well rewarded with a glimpse into history.
There are several books available on this subject if anyone is interested. The foremost would be T.E. Lawrence's autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Since that work is what the movie Lawrence of Arabia is based on, it could possibly offer more detailed insight into Lawrence himself. For an unbiased approach one should look into A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence, an unauthorized biography by John S. Mack.