Who was Lawrence of Arabia?

Lawrence of Arabia is the Icarus myth. A hero starts out at neither the bottom nor top but somewhere around the middle, perhaps a bit lower than that, then ascends. But he gets too close to the sun and falls. The movie looks at that, asks why and suggests the answer is the usual thing: hubris.

An interesting contrast to this is Kingdom of Heaven where we get the opposite story. Balian starts at the bottom and rises. He is still at the top when the movie ends. And that is how hero stories go: you rise or you fall. You cannot end in the middle in the hero’s story.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by David Lean

I’ve seen some argue that there isn’t much of a story to Lawrence of Arabia but I can’t agree with that. This movie is the story of a hero’s fall from grace.

It was a huge project and what ended up on screen reflected that: something huge. The breadth of landscape the camera captures and the multitudes in some of the shots, as well as the variety of landscapes captured from something so minimalist and austere, are nothing less than breath-taking.

But what about the story? What is that?

Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence.

Based on the life of T.E. Lawrence (and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, no doubt), it is the story of an extraordinary individual, Lawrence played by Peter O’Toole.

“Extraordinary” as applied to him related to his skills and mental brilliance but there was more to him than that and whatever that “more” was, it conditioned what happened to him.

Despite being born a bastard, he is loved and has grown up as a relatively privileged young man and one that, because of his brilliance, is indulged.

So even in the military he behaves in a way that even while following orders he does so in a way suggesting he doesn’t really believe they should apply to him. He is smarter, he feels, than most of his superiors and those around him (there are exceptions however).

In other words, he seems to have a pretty high opinion of himself.

Peter O'Toole as "El Aurens" and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali.

It’s not so exaggerated as to be a problem – until he is sent to the Middle East. There he finally feels challenged however it’s not by his fellow countrymen but by the people who make up the Arab tribes.

He embraces the challenge they present as well as their lifestyle and, presumably because he is brilliant, is one of the few of the British to see the value of the those tribes to the war (World War I).

He cheerfully goes about proving himself to the Arab tribes; he leads them on an unlikely attack on the city of Acaba, held by the Turkish, and takes it as an important military foothold.

But then something happens to him. His internal conflicts start rearing themselves such his questions about who he is for: he British or the Arabs? Who exactly is he fighting for? Where do his loyalties lie?

A messianic Lawrence.

These conflicts start becoming informed by his ego. He starts to think he can do anything because he is so brilliant. He’s “El Aurens” after all.

And the tragedies start to mount.

They are small and personal at first (such as the child that is lost in a desert sinkhole) but because of Lawrence’s blinders, they grow.

For one, despite being skilled and bright, like most British of the time he accepted the British approach to everything without thinking. He expected the Arabs to do the same because, after all, wasn’t it self-evident? Instead, they questioned it because, of course, they had their own self-evident truths based on their own culture.

Lawrence leading the Arab tribes into battle.

Lawrence’s conflicts intensify and his ego responds.

He is convinced he can do it, no matter how unlikely and impossible it may seem. This is heard in statements such as, “They will come for me.”

He begins not so much to believe in his own press as to retreat into it as a way to avoid dealing with the realities he is faced with.

It all reaches a pitch when he is imprisoned by a Turkish officer (Jose Ferrar) who has a thinly veiled idea of the homosexual rape of Lawrence. This incident is followed by a horrific battle and, when it is all over, a broken Lawrence.

Director David Lean fills his movie with stunning and austere images.

And it all seems to be rooted in the internal conflicts of Lawrence, the primary one being the reality that he is human and imperfect and some of his decisions and actions have had horrible consequences.

Peter O’Toole does a wonderful job of communicating the contradictions and conflicts within Lawrence and the transition in him from a young man with an unshakable belief in himself to one who is in retreat from the truths he’s faced with.

Who was Lawrence? The movie suggests that not even Lawrence really knew. He’s an unlikely hero and possibly a mad one and, in the end, one who felt belittled by the consequences of his actions.

Or so I interpret it. Apart from the magnificence of the imagery and the scope of the production, Lawrence of Arabia still commands our attention because Lawrence continues to be a puzzle and the movie articulates that puzzle so very well.

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