David Lean’s biography of T. E. Lawrence is visually mesmerizing, a truly epic movie that needs to be seen on the big screen, with a riveting central performance of the young Peter O’Toole, in his very first screen role.
Narratively, the portrait of the desert-loving Englishman, who united Arab tribes in battle against the Ottoman Turks during WWI, is complex but problematic since it omits vital aspects of the hero’s life, prime amongst them is his homosexuality, a taboo issue in the early 1960s.
It’s impossible to do justice to the film’s rich texture by describing its complex plot, scripted by the playwright Robert Bolt, Klean’s collaborator on several films. So the following is just a brief outline.
O’Toole plays the eccentric and erudite Oxford-educated lieutenant who wangles an assignment as an observer with Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Feisal is resigned to allowing his tribal army to become just another branch of the British forces, but the messianic Lawrence, determined to prevent the Arabs from falling under British colonial domination, undertakes a military miracle.
Lawrence, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and 50 men traverse the huge desert, considered to be uncrossbale. They join forces with their traditional tribal enemies, led by Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn); and rout the Turks at the strategic port city of Aquaba.
Given the support of General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), worshipped by the Arabs he has brought together and cloaked in their flowing white robes, “El Aurens” leads the Arabs in a brutal guerilla war that is as much about establishing Arab sovereignty as it is about defeating the Turks. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s thrilling exploits are glorified by the American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy).
When Lawrence’s legions begin to dwindle, he resorts to sadistic violence. Later on, his grand attempt at overseeing the formation of United Arab Council in Damascus collapses, and he returns to Britain exhausted and defeated.
As a screen hero, T. E. Lawrence is one of those enigmatic figures in modern history. As played by O’Toole, he has the charisma to excite massive nations of primitive as well as the alert intelligence to manipulate tribes of nomadic Arabs into guerrilla warriors working for the British. He’s also blessed with talent to capture a kind of mystical poetry in his writings.
There’s also an element of cruelty that makes him appear dangerous, scary, and mysterious. He certainly has demons, which the movie doesn’t describe, under the surface calm. One can only speculate on the question of how Lawrence might have changed the future of the world had he not died in a freak motorcycle accident.
Producer Spiegel, Lean, and Bolt raise some intriguing questions about the man and his myth. Clearly, the filmmakers opt for a new type of historical epic, one that’s vastly different from the Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments”) and Charlton Heston movies (“Ben-Hur”). To that effect, they took a risk and cast an unknown actor in the lead, the then young stage actor Peter O’Toole, who became an overnight sensation after the movie.
As noted, the narrative is ambitious but flawed in what it includes and what it excludes. And there’s strain between the goal of doing justice to a complex but enigmatic personality and producing a popular entertainment picture to be embraced by the masses.
Selective as it is, we get crucial elements of Lawrence’s life: His entrance into the Arabian desert as a representative of England during WWI; his ability to win over the skeptical Arab forces to the belief that their future rested with Britain; his effectiveness at organizing tribesmen into a force that could attack as a guerrilla army; his conception of a United Arab State to be augmented at some time in the future; his waning interest in the entire situation once the fighting was over and the professional politicians began moving in.
Remarkably, the filmmakers avoid summing up their hero or providing facile motivations for his act, which frustrated some mainstream critics, prime amongst them The New York Times’ middle-brow reviewer Bosley Crowther.
The film is visually stunning throughout, though some particular scenes stand out. I particularly remember how Lean introduces the Sherif, first as a tiny spot on the desert horizon that steadily enlarges until it comes into a sharp focus. The distinguished cinematographer captures vividly the vistas of the large uninhabited deserts, the caravans of camels, the masses of tribesmen, elements not seen before.
Some of the images of Lawrence and his entourage are mesmerizing, like his rising, almost Christ-like, in his white robes out of the ranks of his men, strolling down a hillside with his numerous disciples circling him on all sides.
In a career-defining part, the perfectly-cast Peter O’Toole is always riveting to watch, rendering a radical, even subversive performance. The role had been offered to Brando, who turned it down, instead appearing in the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which was a failure.
It’s hard to think of another movie that boasts such a superlative cast, from the lead all the way down to the secondary and smaller roles.
T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole); Sherif Ali Ibn El Kharish (Omar Sharif); Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness); Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn); General Allenby (Jack Hawkins); Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains); Colonel Harry Brighton (Anthony Quayle); Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy); The Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer); General Murray (Donald Wolfitt).
In 1989, a carefully restored version of the original release reinstated 20 minutes cut for the road show release, and then another 15 minutes were trimmed when the movie was released, in 1970. Lean and his editor, Anne V. Coates were finally given the chance to do final cut, now running 216 minutes.
David Lean made three more epics: “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), “Ryan’s Daughter” (1969) and “Passage to India” (1984), which became his last film.