Ever since the formative years and peak glories of the Ottoman Empire all the way up to the current quagmire surrounding Syria, the Middle East has been a troubled, confounding, cloudy and altogether fascinating section of Earth, and humanity in general. Centuries of infighting, war and the sometimes dubious and damaging involvement of Western nations and their interests have created vast tumult and uncertainty, as endless and unforgiving as the ever-present sun and deserts. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary British officer in World War 1 who played an enormous role in Arabia’s revolution against Turkey, is a part of that history and the subject of David Lean’s Oscar-hoarding 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this movie. This is one of the most beloved films ever made, so part of me was expecting a predictable slice of old-school Hollywood epicness, a chronicle of how Lawrence (as played by Peter O’Toole in his first film role) became a hero to the Arabian nations for helping to destroy the thousand-year might of the Turks and their empire. But “Lawrence of Arabia,” to its enormous benefit, avoids the endless quicksand of cliches at every opportunity. Lean’s film is truly awe-inspiring, but it’s also a clear-eyed portrait of the Middle East quagmire, a portrait of a man destroyed by good intentions and his own insurmountable flaws and ambition. There is little heroism to be found in the expanse of the Arabian desert and the 227-minute running time. We do get the eccentricities and failings of a British officer blown up to gargantuan size.
We meet T.E. Lawrence at the British Army’s outpost in Cairo. Flamboyant, thoughtful, a devious twinkle behind his ocean-blue eyes, amused by the absurd rigidity of British process, we can tell already that he’s an outlier among the others dedicated to queen and country. His superiors send him to Arabia to seek out Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness, transcending the obvious racial difference with an expert showcase in sly pragmatism) and observe his modest but deeply impassioned rebellion. Lawrence is basically from another universe. A white, eccentric Brit among bleeding-heart Arabian rebels, he’s intrigued by this mission but he still doesn’t fully understand it, until he meets the black-robed, no-nonsense all-around badass Sherif Ali (a ferocious Omar Sharif) and the oppurtunistic, fiery Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), and becomes more fully invested in the cause and becomes a larger-than-life figure who of course becomes a hero, the great white hope who gave these Middle Eastern rebels the wisdom and intelligence necessary to achieve their freedom, and is fondly remembered by his peers after he dies in the motorcycle accident that opens the film.
Oh wait, that’s not what happens at all (not completely, anyway). Lawrence remains an enigma upon his death, and this film refuses to ignore the major, troubling flaws that defined one T.E. Lawrence. This guy is both righteous and problematic, and the director Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson make him, and the Western nations who continue to get into conflicts they don’t fully understand eat it for 225 minutes of epic, 65mm film glory.
“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most beloved films ever made, a spot near the top of enough film lists to rival the numbers of the rebel army that Lawrence eventually leads. But this doesn’t feel like any of the bloated, stilted, self-serious to the point of absurdity studio epics that dominated film at the time. This film blows the likes of “Ben-Hur,” “The Ten Commandments” and the like out of the water because it’s a big, enormous film (perhaps the greatest showcase for the wonders of the widescreen format) but it doesn’t feel like one. It doesn’t have a God-like hero; it has a brave, foolish, deeply flawed man, whose damaged qualities escalate as we move deeper into the endless desert at the deliberate four-hour pace Lean and co. march by. It’s not romantic sweep or grand proclamations that drive “Lawrence of Arabia,” it’s about the weakness of people and the politics they can be shackled by.
Of course, Peter O’Toole is the blue-eyed center of this morally ambiguous sandstorm. His performance as the strange, elliptical and constantly evolving T.E. Lawrence is truly something to behold. Smart-ass, sadist, hero, snake, broken shell who looks upon what this Arabic revolt has done to him, for better or worse; this character looms large over film history because of how captivating the anti-hero still is. Don Draper on “Mad Men,” Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” even a little Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly” are all contemporary manifestations of the troubling charisma that defines O’Toole’s interpretation of Lawrence. There’s one key scene that teases an explanation for Lawrence’s actions comes when Sherif asks him why he has a different last name than his father; Lawrence explains that he is a bastard, unable to become a lord or hold any title of esteem in his own country.
This rebuttal to the notions of simplistic heroism gives the film its eternal kick; the expansive panoramic vision and beautifully filmed battle scenes are just an added bonus. David Lean’s other wartime masterpiece “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was also about stubborn, doomed British men who thought they were doing the right thing but were really losing their souls. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the same thing, but it is more imprecise as to whether it’s hero really is that. Lawrence’s role becomes an obsession; his blinding white robes become dirtier over time, as do his motivations. Compassion becomes an obsession, he is a microcosm for the cruelty of imperialism. “Lawrence of Arabia” is all-encompassing, but its aims are smaller. It’s a massive character study, an allegory for political meddling, a story of what happens when a man who can’t lead himself tries to lead an army to freedom. In a modern film age when movie heroes are uncomplicated, “likable” and saddled with pointless romances and great speeches about a responsibility, this film is thorny, uncertain, relentless, triumphant and deeply tragic. That’s why it still feels, for lack of a better word, damn revolutionary.