Oscar: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)–David Lean’s Masterful Epic, Starring Peter O’Toole

lawrence_of_arabia_posterDavid 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.


Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

It’s impossible to do justice to the film’s rich texture by describing its complex plot, scripted by the playwright Robert Bolt, Lean’s reliable collaborator on several films. (See detailed plot below).

lawrence_of_arabia_6_o'tooleO’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_of_arabia_5_o'tooleLawrence, Sheriff Ali (Omar Sharif) and 50 men traverse the huge desert, considered to be uncrossable. 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).

lawrence_of_arabia_4_o'tooleWhen 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.

lawrence_of_arabia_3_o'tooleThere’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.

lawrence_of_arabia_5_o'tooleAs 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.

lawrence_of_arabia_1_o'tooleRemarkably, 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);

Sheriff 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).

Restoration Alert

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.

Director Alert

David Lean made three more epics: “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), “Ryan’s Daughter” (1969) and “Passage to India” (1984), which became his last film.

Detailed Plot

The film is presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.

Part I

The film begins with the end of the tale.  In 1935, T. E. Lawrence is seen riding ferociously his motorcycle, and gets killed in an accident. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter tries to gain insights into this enigmatic man from those who knew him.

The rest of the narrative is told in one long flashback.

During the First World War, Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo, notable for his knowledge. Over objections of General Murray, he is sent by Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau to evaluate the position of British ally Prince Faisal in his revolt against the ruling Turks.

On the journey, his Bedouin guide is killed by Sherif Ali for drinking from a well without permit. Lawrence meets Colonel Brighton, who reassesses Faisal’s intentions. Lawrence ignores Brighton’s commands when he meets Faisal, and his outspoken approach intrigues the Prince.

Brighton advises Faisal to retreat to Yenbo after a defeat, but Lawrence proposes a surprise attack on Aqaba, which, if successful, would provide a port from which the British could supply armaments. He convinces Faisal to give fifty men, led by Sherif Ali. Two teenage orphans, Daud and Farraj, follow Lawrence as his servants.

They cross the Nefud Desert, an impassable task even for the Bedouins, travelling day and night to reach water. Gasim (I. S. Johar) succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. Lawrence turns back for the lost man and against all odds brings him back. Sherif Ali, finally won over, burns Lawrence’s British uniform, and in a ritualistic gesture, gives him an Arab robe.

Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. His plan is almost derailed when Ali’s men kill one of Auda’s because of blood feud.  As Howeitat retaliation would shatter the alliance, Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. Stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, he shoots him anyway. The next day, the alliance overruns the Turkish garrison.

Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and commander General Allenby of his victory. During  crossing of the Sinai Desert, Daud dies while stumbling into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money to support the Arabs.  Disturbed, he confesses to executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether the British have designs on Arabia, but the general denies.

Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley publicizes his exploits, making him famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured, and unwilling to leave him to be tortured, Lawrence shoots him.

Scouts the city of Daraa with Ali, Lawrence is taken, along with some Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey, where he is stripped, ogled and prodded. For striking out at the Bey, he is flogged, and a rape is implied. Traumatized by the experience, he abandons his exploits, insisting he is just an ordinary man. He returns to the British forces but he never fits in there. In Jerusalem, Allenby urges him to support his “big push” on Damascus, but the tormented Lawrence is unwilling to return. Allenby insists that this is Lawrence’s destiny and calling, he relents. Lawrence believes that the warriors will join him out of belief rather than money.

He recruits an army of killers, mercenaries, and cutthroats motivated by money rather than the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just slaughtered the people of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. This leads to a massacre in which Lawrence participates.

Lawrence’s men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but they are ill-suited tribesmen. The tribes argue among themselves, and they are unable to unite against the Brits, who take the city back.

Promoted to colonel and ordered home, Lawrence realizes that his functions have come to an end to both Faisal and the British.  Feeling dejected, Lawrence is driven away in a staff car.