Last week, I received the awesome privilege of being able to watch Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at a local theater. And yes, it makes a difference. You can actually see the grains of sand blowing around the Nefud desert. You feel the sun burning down as Lawrence rides through the scorching Devil's Anvil. And more than once, you see those blue penetrating eyes staring straight into your heart and know how a skinny, white British soldier inspired the Arab people to almost free themselves once and for all from imperialism.
If you haven't seen Lawrence of Arabia , it is an experience worth having. True, at 216 minutes, it is longer than your average film. But unlike some films of this length, the viewer stays involved. In fact, at the end of this film, I am always wanting more. It seems impossible that a people group could get so close to their goal only to turn back. And I want to see Lawrence and Sherif Ali continue their strange, endearing fellowship past what this film shows. And unlike some biopics, we don't see some long drawn out story about how painful Lawrence's childhood was or follow him past his prime to see him sighing over lost opportunities. The ending is abrupt with no sense of conclusion. The whole thing seems like a big buildup to failure, but no one ever said the man Lawrence of Arabia could be put into a nice, neat box.
At the beginning, T.E. Lawrence is stationed in Cairo in the maps room. He is portrayed as messy, reckless, and somewhat masochistic. He enjoys letting a match burn down to his fingers and "not minding that it hurts." He is called to the general's quarters by Mr. Dryden, of the Arab Bureau, for his knowledge of the Bedouin people. They want to send him to look for the Bedouin people and Prince Feisal . His mission is to assess the situation. That's a somewhat nebulous task, but Lawrence is enthralled. He gets to come out of his hidey hole in the maps room, out into the desert, and away from those stodgy British military folks. Lawrence has an obvious obsession with the Arabian culture and the desert. As we watch him riding his camel, he looks around him like a gleeful kid with his first slingshot.
Lawrence's initial encounters with the Arabs are mixed. He gets along well with his guide only to see the man get killed the next day by another Arab merely for drinking from a well. Lawrence sees this as somewhat barbaric, but we can see his eyes sparkle when it happens. This is a physical tell. He has been raised to be a civilized British conservative, but his heart longs for the feuding and bloodthirst of the eastern world.
Lawrence finds Prince Feisal and his people in the midst of a Turkish air strike. He is invited into the tent of meeting and speaks out of turn. Feisal wants to hear what he has to say. Lawrence seems to desperately want to please this man and to "out-Arab" the Arabs. What is his motivation? Does he truly love the Arab culture so much? Does he wish to glorify himself as the one who could make it work? Is he just suicidal? Is he out to prove an agenda? Director David Lean (genius) makes the wise choice to leave this open. He never attempts to "explain Lawrence." This is why people are still obsessed with this movie 40 years later. Lawrence is a mystery.
Lawrence breaks with his orders by deciding to do more than assess. He decides to help the Arabs take Damascus and will stop at nothing to make this goal a reality. Not ridicule, not the impassable desert, and especially not "what is written" will keep this white boy from dreaming the impossible dream. He dares to hope, to dream and creates a believer out of Sharif Ali and the rest of the Bedouin peoples.
The film contains moments of grandeur, such as the battle scenes and the train raids. It also includes quiet moments around the fire, like when Sherif Ali tells Lawrence he can choose his own name. This movie is a symphony, which has dynamics of highs and lows. This is a lost art in the film world today. Above all, there is the desert, which is more than the setting of the movie, it is a living thing which invites Lawrence into its danger and secrets. The desert is the seductress which pulls Lawrence into his long arduous path from conquering hero to possible madman to a man resigned to "failure." The desert brings out the very best in Lawrence, and the very worst.
The dialogue is precise and memorable. The music is gorgeous. The acting is superb. The only problem with this film is that I will never be able to understand who Lawrence truly was. That is the maddening genius of this film. I am going to make a bold statement here. I believe this is as close to being a perfect movie as one can get.