Lawrence of Arabia has been described as a "thinking man's epic." The film has all the ingredients of a classic adventure yarn. Typically in epics, these ingredients are showcased to the detriment of character and plot in order to keep the action rolling. But in David Lean's epic, the title character and the political machinations surrounding his exploits take center stage; what's more, he remains an enigma even as the final credits fade to black.
Like the vast, arid landscape that, in the words of Alec Guinness's Prince Feisel, proves such a mystical allure for this latest in a line of "desert-loving Englishmen," the mystery of Lawrence's character is never quite fathomed. There is no Rosebud here. Even his rape at the hands of the Turks, which Lawrence described in his memoirs as the key assault on "the citadel of my integrity" and which may or may not have revealed to him a latent homosexuality, explains nothing.
The film overwhelms with its images of the desert and men at war, but the uncompromising genius of Lean's direction, Robert Bolt's screenplay and Peter O'Toole's starmaking performance as the obscure British map maker who becomes a national hero only to flee back to obscurity is that the focus always remains on the quest for Lawrence himself. You never stop thinking about and trying to understand him even though the quest ultimately proves unsuccessful, for the filmmakers and for us, just as it did for Lawrence himself. Our final image of the man as he is driven from the scene of his wartime triumphs to a yearned-for life of invisibility is through the windshield of a jeep, the dust-streaked glass obscuring his face. Even the film's initial advertising art (subsequently changed) showing Lawrence in arab head gear, his face in shadow, cued audiences to the puzzle without a solution they were in for. One can't even imagine a film – certainly not an epic one – like this being made today, where it is insisted upon that whatever we know or need to know about a given film's main character(s) is spelled out fully, usually in the first ten minutes.
Lawrence of Arabia appeared at a time when the British cinema that produced it and Lean were taking a decidedly different turn. Lean began his career as an editor then director of small, mostly black and white, dramas about English life drawn from the works of Charles Dickens and Noel Coward. He established himself a master of the epic with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the superlative World War II adventure film that won a slew of Oscars, including one for him as Best Director.
He began preparing Lawrence in 1960 when the foundering British film industry was being reshaped by a younger generation of filmmakers who scorned Lean's classically trained approach to narrative moviemaking and fondness for large scale canvases and subjects. They preferred to train their cameras not on vast landscapes and enigmatic heroes but on working class anti-heroes and the dreariness of British lower class life. Their small, black and white "kitchen sink" dramas, not Lean's behemoth tales of romantic characters swept up in the turbulence of historical events, were the future of British films, they maintained.
After the success of Lawrence, which took longer to make than it took the events the film chronicled to take place, Lean continued to invite scorn by making epics. When Lawrence was restored for re-release in 1989, he explained why. He'd envisioned a future when the astronomical costs of making such movies would eventually become prohibitive, so he made them while he had the chance. But there was more to it. As the curtains opened on the giant 70mm screen at the London premiere of the restored Lawrence, the ailing director, speaking on audio tape, invited the audience to sit back and experience "what the movies used to be" – i.e. something that could not be experienced the same way except at the movies.
His younger colleagues' "kitchen sink" dramas and even his own earlier films in a similar vein could be shown on television with no loss in emotional effect. But not the epic, and certainly not Lawrence. For him a film like Lawrence of Arabia was what cinema in the post-TV era was all about: a grand opportunity for larger than life adventure, in both the making of it and the seeing of it, that should be seized upon if for no other reason than the unlikelihood of it ever coming our way again.
Release Date: 1962
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, and Donald Wolfit
Director: David Lean
Writers: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Source Citation: McCarty, John. "Lawrence of Arabia." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 682-684.