Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 1963 Academy Awards, and won seven of them. It deserves every one of those, and I can’t figure out how it got them. I cannot figure this movie in any way, it is so fascinating and gorgeous and homosexual and deranged. It’s approaching four hours long, with an intermission card and a fucking overture for the first five minutes like you’re about to watch a light opera and need to know all the musical motifs, and honestly sure that’s not invalid, but that’s such an ask, baby, (David Lean is “baby” in this scenario), who said yes? I obviously did, said yes yes yes, but even I can’t always be relied on to do so! Because I had actually watched this once before, over ten yeas ago, and that time had just emerged with the takeaway “long character study in the desert!” and not much more than that.
This time, I spent the two nights I was watching Lawrence of Arabia absolutely hype on CINEMA. Everything made happy. Every shot made me want to say something like “Aauh!” Every choice was like a new crazy gemstone tossed into my hands. “What do I do with this!” I cried at Lawrence of Arabia, and in response it would just dump another handful on me.
Let’s go over some of these!
Lawrence of Arabia is loosely based on significant events in the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence, who was indeed a rather larger-than-life figure in the real world, but has here been transmogrified into a deeply cinematic creation that exists somewhere beyond and askew from his namesake, a blonde English cryptic birthed like Venus from the turbulent suds of culture and empire. Lawrence of Arabia was played by unknown 29-year-old Peter O’Toole in only his second film role, a fact I cannot deal with so we’re moving on. The whole time I was watching him there was some other performance occasionally niggling in the corner of my mind, but I just couldn’t figure out who it was. Until literally as the closing credits were rolling, I finally got it: I think the only possible comparison to Peter O’Toole here would have to be Jude Law in The Young Pope.
But here it’s 1916 (or so) in the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War, and as none of the British staff in Cairo knows what to do with this lanky blue-eyed madlad who quotes obscure stuff at them, Lieutenant Lawrence is sent into the Arabian Peninsula on a vague mission to simply go say hello to a certain Prince Faisal, an Arab leader the British are trying to collaborate with to oust the Ottomans from the area. Over the course of the film, Prince Faisal, at one time as real a person as T.E. Lawrence, will be presented as the only good politician in this whole mess, significantly more moral and likable than Lawrence’s fellow British officers, who are roundly portrayed as condescending, lying vipers who will and do betray him. However, wrinkle: Faisal is played by British actor Alec Guinness in brownface. This is just one SAMPLE of the variety of ways in which this movie refuses to ever let you orient yourself (pun intended!) in what seems to be, at once, a whitewashed colonialist fetish object engaged in a harrowing indictment of the ‘white savior’ narrative. Lawrence of Arabia, what do I do with this!
Personally, I’ve come to the decision that this movie’s political mayhem is just part of the spice of it all, just another thing that kept me riveted with wonder at what was going on here. I mean, this is, technically, a sweeping war epic, in which the battles given by far the most time and emotional oxygen are between men and stretches of desert. This is a sweeping war epic except it isn’t even, really, it’s an epic of psyche and landscape set against strife. And even then, if you wanted to you could ignore all the history and half the plot and watch this movie wholly as an exercise in cinematography and editing, which are breathtaking at every turn, rightfully legendary. You could watch Lawrence of Arabia merely as a costume study and still lose your mind simply at how much story is being told in the fit of fabric on bodies.
And, there is also that David Lean, director of Brief Encounter, decided to be, quote, “very daring at the time,” and go, as my friend Lily put it, FULL ROMO on a dynamic love story between Lawrence and Sherif Ali, a composite character invented for the film, but this time actually played by an Arab actor: the lovely Omar Sharif in his first English-language role. I wish I could say something intelligent about Omar Sharif in this, but honestly I spent such a considerable portion of this film’s very long runtime just weakly sobbing “your EYES!”—his eyes. His eyes?? And while it’s certainly not that this movie needed saving or something when Ali literally gallops into it out of the desert haze, dramatically draped in black and intrigue, but when he does so, ho boy he immediately fires up the interpersonals in a new direction. A brief summary of ‘Aurens’ and Ali’s first interaction:
Lawrence: “Fuck you. Strong letter to follow.”
Ali: “Yeah how about I steal your compass about it, prettyboy”
Me: “Oh yay”
Beginning in antagonism is a classic of the romance genre for a reason, because it gives you such a long ramp of developments for a relationship to build into, and this one goes so many places you want as well as several I guarantee any LOA-newbies haven’t even fathomed right now. I think one of my favorite permeations of their love story is a later period I’m going to describe as having kind of a Hamlet & Horatio quality. It’s all just TREMENDOUS, baby, thank you! (David Lean is still “baby” here)
In conclusion. There is so much…going on, in Lawrence of Arabia, that I fully understand why audiences keep coming back to it time and again, earning it that vaunted Classic status not in spite of, but because it is so fascinating, and gorgeous, and homosexual, and deranged.