Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

 Dromedaries and their spindly legs, flying over endless sand dunes

There’s something about the desert. It’s a place of lone meetings, where magic blows on the hot wind and where you can truly lose and find yourself. Desert settings have an irresistible pull, whether it’s in Aladdin; Jesus Christ Superstar; A New Hope; The Good, The Bad & The Ugly; or this Lawrence of Arabia.

“No Arab loves the desert,” Prince Feisal admonishes, but Lawrence does. Oh, he does. It is the middle of the first World War and the British army is in North Africa, desperately trying to maintain the Turkish threat. T.E. Lawrence is a soft-spoken Captain, an expert on the Arab region, who is sent into the desert to foment a Bedouin uprising. From the very first moment, he goes native. He empathizes with these people, adrift in a bellicose world. He yearns to help them create an Arab nation and pulls off superhuman feats in order to inspire their would-be king, Feisal.

Lawrence’s opening salvo is crossing a desert known as ‘God’s Anvil’, for its unendurable heat. The hardship is well worth it, as the group rallies another clan and takes the coastal garrison town of Aqaba from the Turks. By this time, Lawrence has had his first taste of Arab justice, cruelty and compassion. He assumes a prophet-like status among them, but returns to headquarters deeply troubled. Reporting that he had to shoot a man, he confesses that he enjoyed the sensation.

From here on out, the Arab Revolt continues. Their victory and subsequent taking of Damascus is a historic fact. Lawrence played a crucial role in this, both in reality and in the film. I’d like to talk about the latter some more.

It should be obvious by now that Lawrence is an unusual character, and unusually complicated. The Arab tribes may look upon him as a hero, he most certainly isn’t a typical one. His affected manner of speaking betrays him as a gentleman and we see him often doubtful and meek. At other times, his eyes fill with rage and he commits sadistic acts against his enemies. He seems disconnected from the battles he orchestrates and before long you start to wonder – is he really a prophet? The parallels with Jesus are clear to see, but they fit Lawrence as uncomfortable robes. The scenes where scores of Arabs cheer him on have a sinister air about them.

His troubled nature carries the film with its generous 3,5 hours of running time. Curiously, Lawrence of Arabia’s length doesn’t feel at all tiring. Perhaps the key is in the complexity of the character, or the infinite, luxurious appeal of the desert. Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece of cinema.

Roderick Leeuwenhart