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Film Review: Lawrence of Arabia
In 1962, David Lean released Lawrence of Arabia, based on events in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. Starring Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Omar Sharif, and Peter O’Toole, the film grossed $70 million at the box office. Nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama, the film won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Substantially Original Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound along with the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director of a Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Most Promising Newcomer – Male (O’Toole), Most Promising Newcomer – Male (Sharif), and Best Cinematography, Color. Steven Spielberg cites this film as the one that inspired him to become a filmmaker.
A misfit British Army lieutenant, T. E. Lawrence is notable for his insolence and knowledge and is sent to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. But after a surprise attack on Aqaba that results in victory, Lawrence is promoted to major and he launches a guerilla war.
Incredibly well-made, Lawrence of Arabia is a very engaging film that actually deconstructs the common White Savior trope. Though it’s presented straight up first when Lawrence impresses the Arabs and becomes one of their leaders, the film goes from there and subverts it when it’s shown that he has no understanding of their culture, motivations, or problems. Further when he attempts to forsake his own people in order to help the Arabs, the film shows that they don’t really want his help and demonstrates that the British, a culture more advanced and determined than the Arabs, have the advantage against the divided and more primitive Arabs. Lawrence’s beliefs that he can be the one to help the Arabs succeed is shown in a conversation between Colonel Brighton and General Allenby. The former states that the Arabs believe Lawrence to be some kind of prophet while the latter turns it around and states that Lawrence might believe himself to be. It’s shown that Lawrence actually may have those assumptions as well, considering he tells Faisal that he’s going to work the man’s miracle (which Faisal responds that Lawrence is being blasphemous) and that he later tells Auda that he can cross Sinai in 10 days because Moses did (and Auda replies that Moses was a prophet).
But in the scope of the entire film, Lawrence is given a rather interesting character arc. Initially, he’s an insubordinate lieutenant who really wants to get out of his desk job and becomes quite excited when he discovers that he’s being transferred to Arabia as he sees the aiding of the revolt as a grand adventure. However, while the first half of the film does have the tones of an epic adventure with a climactic battle scene, it changes in the second half, which demonstrates that Lawrence’s belief that he’s a sort of knight or prophet to the Arabs and can unite them is wishful thinking. Further, the film shows that he is quite naïve about the imperial ambitions of the British in the Middle East. What’s more is that he’s shown as prideful about his ability to withstand a lot of physical pain, but the film rolls on and it’s seen that even Lawrence is human and has a breaking point.
At least the film shows that the tribal factions of which Lawrence’s force consists attempts to unite and work together. Lawrence was able to have some success in getting them to set aside their differences as they are able to occupy Damascus, but it doesn’t last as they resume fighting once the city is occupied, with the Arab National Council devolving into belligerent bickering. It’s even commented on with Auda telling Ali that being an Arab, rather than simply being a member of a tribe, will be much harder than he imagined.
O’Toole’s acting is also notable. It was his first starring role with him doing mostly stage work at that point, which is apparent in his overacting in many scenes. However, this can be seen as intentional as Lawrence was trying to make himself out to have a much bigger persona than he really possessed. O’Toole’s overacting could be seen as him carrying himself in such a manner that would be appropriate for someone trying to come off as much more grandiose than he actually is.
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