This year marked the 50th anniversary of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. To mark the occasion, a digitally restored edition was released, and I had a chance to see it on the Empire Leicester Square’s biggest screen: an auditorium vast enough to complement the scale of the film’s setting, but normally reserved for mediocre Hollywood movies. Before the film began, shifting shades of yellow, pink and blue light played across the cavernous space of Screen One and a constellation of tiny white lights above the screen drew the gathering audience’s gazes heavenward, as clips from the upcoming film’s soundtrack boomed, marched and murmured in the background.
Given its iconic association with deserts, it is a surprise to see Lawrence of Arabia‘s opening set in England. This is just a brief prologue, though, and it’s not long before the film’s famous theme belts out at you, even more powerfully than Lawrence’s motorbike in the first scene. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes, the grand soundtrack combined with these majestic images of the desert. The moon meets the ocean in the windswept sand dunes, towering stone crags, the gold of the land and the azure sky. Then there is Lawrence himself: the golden-haired, blue-eyed English boy who finds himself at home in a landscape so different from his own.
Near sanctimonious in his stereotypically British adherence to a strict moral code, Lawrence comes across as a Christ-like figure, evoking Victorian imaginings of Jesus as an Englishman. It’s not just his gentleness or his insistence on kindness, loyalty and respect that gives this impression: later in the film he compares himself to Moses, is referred to as a ‘prophet’, miracle-worker and even, jokingly, as someone who walks on water. He becomes a sacrificial lamb for his chosen people: when his army has abandoned him, he goes into the Turkish-occupied town to make himself known to the enemy, as though he genuinely believes no harm can come to him. Rejecting the Arabs’ fatalistic attitude that whatever happens is ‘written’ in advance by Allah, Lawrence only believes in the future he has written for himself.
Well before the film’s intermission, though, the first grains of doubt begin to germinate in the desert. This is a film where every extreme has its complement. To begin, an apparent opposite to Lawrence’s character is Sherif Ali, whose black robes contrast with Lawrence’s army khakis and, later, his white robes. When they first meet, it is as enemies, as Sherif Ali has just killed Lawrence’s guide and friend. Lawrence readily categorises Sherif Ali according to his deeds, first as a murderer then as a potential thief. Lawrence also at first refuses to tell Sherif Ali his name, as he says that it is reserved for his friends. Later, when the two men do become friends, it is Sherif Ali who gives Lawrence his Arab name (‘Al-Awrence’) and clothing. Later still, Sherif Ali is in turn appalled by Lawrence’s bloodthirsty behaviour. In between the extreme acts of violence on the part of Sherif Ali and Lawrence, there is an additional reversal: first, Lawrence demonstrates his superior morals by going back to save a soldier lost in the desert when Sherif Ali tells him it’s not worth it. Soon after, Lawrence is forced to execute the very man he saved, in order to maintain peace between the two tribes in his army. Sherif consoles Lawrence, pointing out that it was inevitable, but already the audience feels uneasy: Lawrence fired several shots where one would have sufficed.
Over the course of the film, Lawrence is pulled between extremes: most obviously, his Englishness on the one hand and his commitment to Arab freedom and interests on the other. These two sides are opposed to one another: in this 1960s film, looking back to the 1930s, there is an awareness of racism: present-day audiences may laugh at the transformed Lawrence, now in his Arab-style robes, entering the officers’ bar where all the other men are dressed as he once was—but it takes longer to realise that the men don’t care so much about Lawrence’s attire as the fact that he has brought a native friend with him into a British space. The British prejudice is counterbalanced by prejudice from the opposite side: while the Bedouin tribes arguably accept Lawrence much more easily than the British accept them, they do call him ‘English’ (as an impersonal name, rather than an adjective), while his Turkish captor pinches his white skin and reminds him that he can never be Arab.
Lawrence’s encounter with the Turkish bey is ambiguous to say the least: a scene of rather violent disrobing, a strange shot of their feet as Lawrence’s clothes fall to the ground, an extreme close-up of the Turkish general’s lips, Lawrence’s angry reaction, and Lawrence’s painfully altered state after their encounter (some of which we do not see), all suggest a possible rape. This too is unusual, as it is a reversal of the racist trope of effeminacy normally projected onto the Other by Europeans. Although the film implies that the Turkish bey may be homosexual, so in this sense is not stereotypically ‘manly’, the bey’s attitude exoticises Lawrence’s difference and ‘feminises’ him insofar as he is sexually exploited.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that is all too aware of human failings—surprisingly so for an epic film, which you might expect to be based on a clear-cut notion of good and evil. Lawrence is initially known for his abhorrence of bloodshed, but later in the film he presides over (and takes active part in) a bloodbath when his army comes upon a group of retreating Turkish soldiers: Sherif Ali disgustedly throws back at Lawrence the British reference to Arabs as ‘cruel’ and ‘barbaric’. As Prince Feisal puts it in an interview with an American journalist, ‘For Lawrence, mercy is a passion; with me, it is simply good manners. You can decide for yourself which is the more reliable.’ Although his blood lust could be read as part of a change in Lawrence following his encounter with the Turkish bey, much earlier on he confesses to his superior that he is not fit to be a soldier because he enjoyed his experience of killing. Tellingly, it is at these dark moments, when Lawrence most doubts himself, that he is roundly praised by the army and receives honours and promotions.
Aside from its eventful narrative, majestic music, grand vistas and complex philosophy, Lawrence of Arabia is also impressive in its cinematic style. Of particular note are four exhilarating point-of-view shots that put you in the seat of Lawrence’s motorbike, atop a camel, on a speeding Turkish train, and finally in the British army car taking Lawrence home. There are also masterful, occasionally surprising transitions, the first of which saturates the screen with the pure orange of the desert sun, marking the beginning of Lawrence’s Arabian odyssey. To mark the occasion of Lawrence of Arabia’s 50th anniversary, it is well worth discovering, or rediscovering, this masterpiece: with its superb restoration, it is even more easy, and accurate, to say that its many charms have not been tarnished by time.