Lawrence of Arabia: The Desert Epic

Without even intending to, I seem to have found myself in a stretch of films that focus on morality, our human journey, and, to some extent, culture. Ever since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I’ve reviewed movies that have made me think; rather, I’ve had to dig deep to find a hidden meaning within each film, and they’ve all opened my eyes to something extraordinary.


In Moonlight and In the Heat of the Night, two films almost 50 years apart racial struggles in America. Gentlemen’s Agreement was one man’s quest against an unfaltering monolith of anti-Semitism, while On the Waterfront dealt with courage and zeal in the face of oppression and corruption.


This week, we reach the end of our two-part examination of David Lean’s two Best Picture winners. In last week’s review of The Bridge on the River Kwai, I tackled the complex moral issues of what happens when a man loses himself in a project. Now, we’ve got Lawrence of Arabia. I’ll dive into the life and times of the fictional portrayal of T.E. Lawrence soon, but for now, know that the film, the 1962 Best Picture winner and debut film for the great Peter O’Toole, features unspeakable hardship, a fierce desert, and what appears to be a half-baked notion of independence. It’s a tale of one man’s determination to lead and to be a kind of hero for the people he finds himself leading.


On a larger scale though, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic tale of loyalty and brotherhood. In fact, the film is probably the best epic of the 20th century. Stunning images of sparse desert landscapes, grand battles, and a remarkably personal story make this film one of the most recognizable and greatest cinematic achievements in the history of Hollywood, and I haven’t even talked about the camels.


Now, for the rest of the movie.



The film begins in England in the 1930s. The opening shots are of T.E. Lawrence (O’Toole) riding his motorcycle through the British countryside, which ends in his death. From there, the story is told from the point of view of the few people that knew him personally. This is a narrative style that will be followed by Chariots of Fire almost 20 years later.


From there, we see young T.E. Lawrence in Cairo during World War I. He’s a young officer in the British Army, but a cocky one. He’s recruited to venture through the Arabian Desert to assess the rebellion of the Arabian Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in his fight against the occupying Turks. Along the way, his guide is killed and he must make the remainder of the journey to Faisal’s camp alone.


When he does arrive, he slowly convinces Faisal to send men to attack the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba on the Red Sea, improving the prospects that the British can offload desperately needed supplies to the fighting Arabs. The Arabs, who still identify as squabbling bands of tribes, take Aqaba thanks to Lawrence’s steely resolve and brave leadership. After this, the Arabs will, for the most part, follow Lawrence anywhere to fight the Turks.


Fight them, he does, harassing the Turks all over the desert and even leading them against the mighty city of Damascus. All the while, though, Lawrence must contend with an apathetic fighting force where most men are only in it for the money and riches and return home after their greed has been satisfied. But he must also contend with an equally apathetic British command structure that doesn’t actually want the Arabs to have their own nation, but rather be under British rule.


Much like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the plot for Lawrence of Arabia builds slowly and over time. Extreme patience must be used and checking in at about 221 minutes, the film is a long one, right up there with Gone with the Wind. But, again, the payoff is worth it.


Also just like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the narrative seems to shift throughout the film, particularly when it comes to who is actually supposed to be the villain. The movie is from the perspective of Lawrence, sure, but I was in the dark as to who the villain is until the end. At one point, I thought a bunch of sand was the enemy. 1.



The material for the screenplay is based somewhat on Lawrence’s autobiographical work, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom which producer Sam Spiegel bought from Lawrence’s family. Michael Wilson originally wrote the script for the film, however, he was fired by Lean and Spiegel during pre-production and Robert Bolt wrote much of the dialogue that made it to the final cut. The script was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 35th Academy Awards.


Much like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the script is very direct and to the point. Lean, again, chose to let the pictures tell the stories. But, the script is not perfect. Littered with historical inaccuracies, the script highly dramatizes many elements of historical events and even takes great liberty with Lawrence himself, which angered many in the historical community and even some families. Again, I can’t fault David Lean for this. It’s his job to tell a story. Using brief dialogue full of quotable one-liners like “Thy mother mated with a scorpion,” the script tells Lawrence’s dramatized story in the most efficient way possible. 1.



Perhaps the second-most impressive feature of Lawrence of Arabia, after it’s cinematography, is the score. Composed by Maurice Jarre, the score won the Best Original Score in 1962. The film also won the Best Sound Oscar.

The score is certainly befitting of an epic, heavy on the happy crescendos in the theme, but also full of drama throughout. But, as is the case with most movies that are nearly four hours long, music can’t play during the whole thing, though when it does play is perfectly timed. Silence throughout the film is a great use of the audience’s ears, as it does in the clip below. Great drama is built around the simple sounds of the desert. 1.

Set Design

So far, I’ve failed to really harp on the grandiose nature of Lawrence of Arabia, but fear not, I won’t let you down now. When examining the film’s set, one really gets the sense of how large, intricate, and complex it is. Winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction, Color, Lawrence of Arabia features a set full of extras, beautifully crafted pieces, and an obsessively detailed atmosphere that is only matched by other well-known epics like Gandhi, Gone with the Wind, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.


Taking place in a mostly desolate place, the set is at once grand, expansive, and empty, while also being full and busy. Extras upon extras comprise the Arab fighting force and controlled chaos reigns during the film.


Additionally, the movie uses A LOT of animals, with horses and camels making up the fighting force for the Arab rebels. When O’Toole fell from his camel during a take of the Aqaba attack, he was nearly killed in the stampede. Additionally, O’Toole was not comfortable while riding the camel and bought a piece of foam to place under the saddle. This earned him the nickname “Ab al-’Isfanjah” or “Father of the Sponge.” Watching the fatty lips of the camels bounce up and down in battles tickled me to death. 1.



This singular category, more than any other that I can write in this post, that takes Lawrence of Arabia from being a biopic (a historically inaccurate one) to being something truly epic, romantic, and utterly amazing. Freddie Young was an easy choice for the Best Cinematography Oscar.


The film uses every aesthetic in the world to make my eyes melt and run down the front of my shirt. It’s pretty. Wide-angle shots with Super Panavision technology fill the film from nearly the beginning all the way to the end. The pictures on the screen would make a minimalist drool. The desert is nothing but sand and sky and the contrasts of the colors, and the vastness of both, leave our eyes wanting more. When more is given to us in the form of Lawrence on a camel, or a burning train, our eyes gravitate to what is different on the screen. This is a brilliant exhibition of how to force our eyes to watch an object.


But what’s interesting to me is how the desert is introduced and how the story moves forward with the help of cinematography. Anne V. Coates, the editor, gave us one of the most famous cuts in movie history when Lawrence blows out a match and the scene jumps to a desert sunrise. Additionally, the transitions are marvelous utilizing everything from fades to camera spins. Coates won Best Editing for her work, and the innovative editing is clearly some of the best ever.

An example of this editing is not only the clip above, but also the one below, after Lawrence rescues a man from the dreaded Nafud Desert. 1.


This film, this great epic, was a debut of sorts for Peter O’Toole who, at 29, had to play the sometimes mythical T.E. Lawrence and bring him to life in a most extraordinary way. For his efforts, O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor at the 35th Academy Awards.


The young Lawrence starts off as a cocky soldier in the British Army in Cairo, Egypt. And, he’s bored to death. Seeking out the adventure in Arabia as a new kind of fun, Lawrence ventures out on his own with only a guide and a compass to help him find his way to Prince Faisal.


From the start, we see the untapped potential of Lawrence when he chooses to drink water only when his guide drinks. But the death of his guide at the hands of Sherif Ali (Omar Sherif) starts a slow change in Lawrence. Even though he still acts like the smartest man in the room, even to leaders like Prince Faisal or Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), Lawrence must learn to rely on his instincts. His travels through the desert, both to Faisal’s camp and to Aqaba, help steel his resolve for later on.


Lawrence is a man that relies on his gut to inform his leadership decisions, and he’s not afraid to take risks, which echoes back to his days of being a younger man. The men he commands and unites love him for his risky decision-making. He’d rather be in the field of play rather than be on the sidelines.

Right up until the bitter end, Lawrence stays idealistic, even though the people he united keep bickering over every little thing. He tries to impress upon the Arabs that they’ll never be independent as long as they keep squabbling, but they don’t listen. Lawrence’s spirit almost dies along the way, but his tenacity keeps the vision alive.


Other honorable mentions go to Alec Guinness, who we saw last week in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Five years removed from that film in the jungle, Guinness dons a robe and haunts the desert 15 years before he becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Also getting an honorable mention from me is Omar Sharif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. 1.



Winning his second Best Director Oscar for this film was David Lean. Just like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean’s obsessive perfectionist view on filmmaking leads to terrific results.


Choosing to shoot in the deserts of Jordan, Morocco, and Spain, Lean gives this film stunning authenticity. He was also very persnickety about each and every shot of this grand film, sometimes getting only one shot per day. The film also took more than a year to shoot from May 1961 to September 1962.


Perhaps the biggest appeal to a film like this is the character arc that is normally present in a biographical picture or biopic. In Gandhi, another biopic epic, we saw Gandhi’s struggle as his movement tried to keep from spinning its wheels. But Gandhi, as portrayed by Richard Attenborough through Ben Kingsley, was already tough and established. A lot of his arc had already been solidified before we even met him. However, in Lawrence of Arabia, we see Lawrence’s transformation from an arrogant soldier to simply a better human being, performing all the courageous acts that made him a legend in the Middle East. His story speaks to the very western idea of becoming your own person and finding your own way in life. Lawrence separates himself from the crowd, something that so many of us strive to do every single day. But he also gives a voice to the powerless against the powerful and oppressive. In a world full of war and death, T.E. Lawrence is a ray of hope.

Additionally, the story is one about loyalty and brotherhood. While Lawrence crosses the Nefud Desert, he forges a bond with the men he’s with and they with him. He becomes a man possessed by two forces that seemed to be similar at first, but divergent by the end. His two sides must meet in the middle, his loyalties will be tested.


Lean’s strong direction shows up yet again in Lawrence of Arabia, captivating us and sending us on a journey to far-flung places, with people and cultures not well-known or understood in the west. Lean’s take on the Arab’s fight for independence is tragic, yet hopeful and helps bring to light a little-known part of a broader global fight, even if that fight isn’t quite historically accurate. 1.


Bonus Points

I’m giving an extra point to the acting, cinematography, and set design.


Final Score: 10/10


Oscar Facts

Lawrence of Arabia won the 35th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 8, 1963, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The movie beat out The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and To Kill A Mockingbird for Best Picture. The award was presented by Olivia de Havilland and accepted by Sam Spiegel, producer. In total, Lawrence of Arabia garnered 10 nominations and won seven Oscars, the most of the night.


Other notable winners included Gregory Peck winning for To Kill a Mockingbird, Anne Bancroft won Best Actress for The Miracle Worker, Ed Begley won Best Supporting Actor for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for The Miracle Worker. The ceremony was hosted by Frank Sinatra.


Final Thoughts

Next week, I jump back to the 1930s with a review of 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld. After that, it’s Rain Man, Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, Shakespeare in Love, All About Eve, and Marty.



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