If you have seen my Favorite Films page, then you know that I consider Lawrence of Arabia the greatest film in motion picture history. Steven Spielberg says that both Robert Bolt’s screenplay and Ali’s entrance scene are the greatest, respectively, in the history of cinema. Of course, Lawrence of Arabia won its share of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but its greatness remains its ability to transcend both temporal cinematic efforts as well as geopolitical concerns. Below are some thoughts on this film, and while this is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the film’s fascinating production facts and the various interpretive grids, it nonetheless offers some of my own reflections on the fifty or so viewings to date.
HOW TO WATCH LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
It may seem odd to instruct someone on how to watch a film, but Lawrence of Arabia is no ordinary film and its fullness can be missed. First, it should be seen in the 228 minute director’s cut. Unfortunately, the studio was forced to cut the film several times for theaters to provide more showtimes each day, and this shortened version is found in most DVD editions. Second, it should be seen in the theater if at all possible. Many art house theaters show classic films, Dallas’ being the Inwood Theatre. Third, it should be seen in one sitting with no distractions, and in total darkness. Of course, all films should viewed in this manner, but most are not. This will demand that the viewer go to the restroom (and possibly the kitchen) beforehand due to the film’s length (nearly 4 hours!). Finally, see it more than once. I did not particularly care for the film on the first viewing. After the second viewing, I knew it was the greatest film I had ever seen.
Lawrence of Arabia ultimately is a film about identity. To miss this is to miss the film. The repeated questions “Who are you?” and “Who is he?” are intentional, as is the response. Lawrence both loves and hates the desert, both loves and hates Arabs, both loves and hates the British. He is a British officer who is discontent being simply a British officer. His loyalties shift throughout the film, but this shifting is quite ambiguous, as his allegiance seems neither to favor the British or the Arabs. His motives are exceedingly obscure, as Lawrence’s efforts and visionary capacity seem to be for its own sake.
Lawrence of Arabia is also a film about destiny. From the early Cairo scene where Lawrence is not content with drawing maps, to his budding excitement and resourcefulness in the desert, he comes to see himself as an an almost mythic figure who was meant to alter the course of WWI. His vanity and showmanship (as well as numerous adroit camera angles) play into this idea of destiny for Lawrence as he casts himself (and is cast) as a symbol of a higher humanity.
Lawrence of Arabia is also a film that measures and anticipates the ongoing relationship between the West and Arab culture. Filmed well before the Six-Day War, the Munich Olympics, or the Camp David Accords, the film anticipates the struggles so evident in the late 20th and early 21st century world. While the protagonist and filmmakers are British, the film is very sympathetic to the Arab cause in relation to British imperialism in the early 20th century.
Notice the opening scene of Lawrence’s work in Cairo. It is uncut and runs for nearly two minutes.
Notice that there are obviously no computerized special effects. Especially impressive are Auda’s summer camp, the train crash, and the direction of countless horses and camels.
Notice that Lawrence of Arabia is a character study, yet by the end of the film, one knows little more about T. E. Lawrence than at the beginning.
Notice that when Lawrence meets the three principal characters in the film (Sherif Ali, Prince Feisel, Auda abu Tayi), all of them ride up and are seated on a horse or camel.
Notice how dismissive the British officers are of Lawrence and how curious the Arabs are of him.
Notice the recurring question to Lawrence, “Who are you?” Notice Lawrence’s response.
Notice what is not said, but implied by the scene in Derra.
Notice what is not said, but implied by Lawrence’s friends Farraj and Daud.
Notice that no women have speaking roles.
Notice the relationship between freedom and determinism throughout the film.
Notice the dirtiness of the windshield only over Lawrence’s face during the last scene of the film.