In 1935, a man dies in a motorcycle accident. Although described as “extraordinary” and ” great” at the funeral, this man remains a mystery as the vigilers struggle to comprehend his legacy. Who was this man, this Lawrence of Arabia? To learn the answer we embark on a journey to the past and the Arabian desert where an Englishman leads an army in a fight for independence…  

Directed By: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness 

This film is one of my all-time favorites. Lawrence of Arabia leads the viewer on an adventure, entertaining and thought provoking, that explores the immensity and severity of the desert as well as the mind of a fascinating individual. The titular character, T.E. Lawrence, (Peter O’Toole) is a personality so large that England cannot accommodate him. He needs a larger, grander stage… Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia depicts a quest for independence. The Arab tribes seek independence from Ottoman as well as from European dominance. However, it is also a quest for identity. Lawrence with his poorly fitted uniform, arrogant personality, and unusual behavior noticeably stands out from the rest of British soldiers. As Lawrence later claims, he is “different.” One gets the sense that not only do the British officers not understand Lawrence, Lawrence doesn’t even understand himself. He only knows that he does not belong to the British people. The inevitable goal of this film is to answer the question, “Who are you?” 

In order to understand Lawrence we need a point of reference. Thus, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) emerges on the scene in one of cinema’s greatest entrances. The first impression Ali creates is that of an enemy and a rival. With his dark robes and complexion, he sets a dramatic contrast to the Englishman especially when Lawrence later dons the pure white robes. The film compares the civilized and just individual and culture against the primitive and barbaric. Of course, that brings up another question, “Which is which?”

In many ways the film is structured like a Western. A great hero fights for justice against the forces of evil, and Lawrence fully envisions himself to be that shining hero. Arrogance and ego are Lawrence’s dominant personality traits. For good or for evil, he is a man who believes his own hype. With each victory his ego inflates further and further to impossible proportions. In Lawrence’s mind the attention from the media and the respect of the Arabs becomes worship and his power grows into that of a god. Lawrence almost seems to defy the gods at times. Of course Lawrence is only a mortal man, vulnerable and weak, and he is later forced to confront that fact.

Still the legend of the man, awesome and enigmatic, endures. In many ways the Lawrence of legend is an incarnation of the desert itself, friend and foe mysterious and majestic, savage and merciful, contradictory and powerful. To take Lawrence away from the desert is to diminish the myth. To capture all that on screen seems unimaginable but it was done. The direction, cinematography, and score are without doubt incredible. I doubt there will ever again be a comparable production in my lifetime. Every scene is firmly rooted in both reality and fantasy. The setting sun, the echoing stone valleys, the city bounded by the desert and the sea, and a massive ship among the dunes are some of the beautiful and surreal images presented to the audience.

Among all this, the real Lawrence no longer appears so all-powerful and immortal. The Lawrence of reality is a complex and deeply flawed individual but still draws our attention, respect, and sympathy. We cannot help but try to understand him and look for the truth behind the veneer of glory. 

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