There is an image that recurs twice or thrice in Lawrence of Arabia. The screen shows a vast, blank, impossibly empty expanse of flat desert, filling the lower half of the screen, while the unforgiving sky stretches above. Both land and sky are featureless. It is a vision of unforgiving, infinite, primal absence. Absence of anything made by human hands, absence of thought, of feeling, of morality, of all things human. It is a blank canvas on which anything might be drawn. Then, on the exact centre of that flat line dividing land from sky, a tiny black dot appears. You have to search the screen for it, but it is there. A little black vertical line, standing out against the sky behind it. This tiny black line is a man, coming towards the camera. First there was only emptiness; now there is a man who by his coming has created something, something drawn on the canvas of nothing. “Nothing is written,” declares Lawrence. Fate is a lie: a man may come, and a man may work change by the power of his will, and his will alone.
Has there ever been a film hero with the sheer, unadulterated hubris, the superhuman self-faith, of Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence? The mere British corporal who dreams a dream of how the Arabs might turn the tide of the First World War against the Turks, and convinces his superiors in Cairo to send him into the desert to speak with them, moves from first to last as though he is a man possessed. His general in Cairo believes that the real war is being fought on the Western Front, against the Germans, and that anything the Bedouin of Arabia might do against their Turkish rulers (Germany’s allies) could be only a sideshow. Lawrence knows better. He does not have any logical reason for knowing better. He cannot point to lines on a map and recite numbers of troops, names of commanders, or quantities of supply. He simply has faith that it can be done. He believes in the Arabs – but more deeply, and crucially, he believes unshakeably in himself.
David Lean’s film is as vast and mighty as its desert setting. Lean does not seek to capture the viewer’s attention. He simply expects it. Like his film’s hero, he has total confidence in his own power. He shows us the desert in all its pitiless, inhuman indifference, and he shows us, directly and unhurriedly, the story that is played out against it. Nobody, no filmmaker or photographer since this film’s release in 1962, has made the desert more impressive or more frightening than Lean does here. His every image of it is noble, brutal, and captivating. Like abstract paintings, Lean’s shots of this extraordinary landscape seem alien and wild, often little more than great areas of colour divided by lines where dunes meet salt beds or where rocks meet the sky. Lawrence is the man who defies it, but he can defy it only because he himself is as uncompromising as the desert. That does not have to mean he is cruel. When he ventures back into the Nefud after crossing it at night, to retrieve a man he left behind because if he does not then that man will die by midday, he demonstrates an uncompromising compassion and humanity. But later, as he leads a cavalry charge bearing down upon a near-defenceless party of Turks, he will scream “No prisoners!” at his slaughter-hungry men. Uncompromising. Lawrence’s decisions, whether right or wrong, have the clarity of the Arabian wilderness.
Such is the tragedy of Lawrence’s story. He enters Arabia pure of heart and pure of intention, a true moral being. When Sherif Ali (the superb Omar Sharif) kills Lawrence’s guide for drinking from his well, Lawrence then refuses Ali’s help, even though without it he will have to find his own impossible way through the murderous desert. No death in this film is taken lightly: the dead guide lies motionless on the sand with his head bloodied, and the camera refuses to look away, including him in the shot with both Lawrence and Ali. For Lawrence, people who do not need to die must not die. The act of killing is anathema to his very nature. Lawrence then wins the respect of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) because he is willing to say in front of a senior British officer that Faisal ought not to let the British dictate what he shall do with his armies. “Are you not loyal to England?” Faisal asks. Lawrence replies: “To England, and to other things.” There are values more important to him than any nation.
Faisal is a realist and recognises that the Arabs need England or they need “what no man can provide, Mr Lawrence: we need a miracle.” Lawrence has the vision to give them their miracle. He will take the Turkish garrison at Aqaba, but he will take it from the land, which means crossing the supposedly impassable Nefud desert. His effort is heroic and extraordinary beyond the bounds of what we expect to see in any film, but in the course of it he will be forced to do something he abhors, and he will face a kind of failure more bitter than any military failure could possibly be. Lawrence’s terrible discovery is that some things may indeed be written – if not by fate, then by the tide of events that cannot be contained by one man’s will. He cannot remain true to himself and still take Aqaba, and in the choice between those two paths lies the real tragedy of this film.
Lawrence of Arabia is political drama, military epic, and personal tragedy all in one. After the demonstration of Arab power at Aqaba must come negotiation with their British allies, and that leads us into the drama of Lawrence as the leader of the Arabs, beginning to believe he is as untouchable as some of them think him to be. The screenplay of this film is as splendid and as finely honed as the blade of an Arab sword, gleaming with first-class dialogue. Lawrence dominates, but the people around him are all just as real as he, and in their varied reactions to his character and to the impacts of his endeavours, they both show us themselves and cast new light on him. “With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion,” remarks Faisal to an American journalist; “With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.” Besides being a better line than you will hear in almost any much more recent epic, that is a striking reflection on the differences between the wise Arab prince and the wild, brilliant British officer who is leading his army. Lawrence has a passion for what is right, but perhaps passions may lead a man astray. When we last see him it is through a dust-coated car windshield, his every feature blurred and dulled. The story that began with such certainty finishes with ambiguity, compromise, and a mysterious kind of failure.
This film runs for three hours and thirty-six minutes, and yet miraculously, nothing in it is superfluous. Every scene advances the film thematically, and every scene has its place in the elegantly balanced plot. Over the course of its mighty sweep, Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson challenge their viewers with the question of limits. What are the limits to what one human being may achieve by will alone? Are we masters of our own identities, or are we limited by our character, our nationality, or our race? Lawrence puts on Arab clothes and learns to live as Arabs do, but he finds at last that he cannot change the colour of his skin, and perhaps this matters more than he had believed. Lawrence finds his limits at last, somewhere. Exactly where those limits are, and why they matter, is not made clear – just as Lawrence by that time has lost the power to distinguish things as clearly as once he did. We are forced to reflect on what we have seen before we can discern exactly what has gone wrong. Like all great works of art, Lawrence of Arabia is open to multiple interpretations.
What is not ambiguous is the sheer power, beauty, and greatness of this film. Lawrence of Arabia is untouchable. Its every image is memorable and its every moment is meaningful. It confronts the viewer with extremity; and whether it be the extremity of the desert or the extremity of Thomas Edward Lawrence, we find ourselves equally powerless to tear our eyes away.