Thursday, May 1, 2014


BACK-STORY:  “Lawrence of Arabia” is considered one of the great classic movies.  It is #7 on AFI’s latest list of the greatest movies.  It is #1 on the Epics list.  The film is considered to be the best of director David Lean’s awesome resume (which includes “Bridge on the River Kwai”).  It is loosely based on T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.  The screenplay was first written by Michael Wilson, then Robert Bolt was brought in and changed virtually all the dialogue and characterizations.  Wilson was uncredited partly because he was blacklisted for communist sympathies.  His contribution was not credited until 1995.  The movie’s desert scenes were filmed in Jordan and Morocco.  King Hussein of Jordan provided a brigade of the Arab Legion as extras.  Peter O’Toole was not the first choice for Lawrence.  Albert Finney was unavailable and Marlon Brando turned the role down.  Anthony Perkins and Montgomery Clift were considered.  Jose Ferrer agreed to appear in it only after being guaranteed pay that ended up being more than what was paid to O’Toole and Sharif combined!  The movie took over two years from start to finish.  In one scene the O’Toole that finishes at the bottom of a staircase is two years older than he was at the top of the staircase.  The desert shoots were difficult.  There was the 130 degree temperatures and the sandstorms and the critters.  At one point, O’Toole was thrown from his camel and only was saved from being trampled by the camel standing protectively over him.  By the way, O’Toole had to sit on a sponge pad to survive all the riding (the Arab extras called him “Lord of the Sponge”).  It was all worth it as the film was universally acclaimed.  It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography (Freddie Young), Score (Maurice Jarre), Editing, and Sound.  It was nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Actor (O’Toole lost to Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird”), and Supporting Actor (Sharif). 

Drink plenty of water before watching this movie!
OPENING:  This movie is so Old School epic, it starts with a lengthy overture (like “Spartacus”).  The credits include “Introducing Peter O’Toole”.  The movie leads with Lawrence’s death which allows Lean to set the theme of a multidimensional protagonist at the ensuing funeral.  The first line in the film is “He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew”.  The views of the funeral attendees are varied.  It seems there was more than one Lawrence.

SUMMARY:  The rest of the movie is a flashback.  Lt. Lawrence is an intelligence officer for the Arab Bureau in Cairo.   An oily politician named Dryden (Claude Rains) proposes using Lawrence to unite the Bedouin tribes under Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to take on the Turks and thus open a new front against the Central Powers in the Middle East.  The army commander, Gen. Murray, is against the idea mainly because Lawrence rubs him the wrong way, but Dryden convinces him he has nothing to lose (other than an insubordinate eccentric).  Lawrence’s mission is to locate Faisal and bring some organization to the Arab Revolt.

                Lawrence sets off via camel with a Bedouin guide.  At a watering hole, he is deguided by the charismatic non-mirage Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in one of the great entrances in cinematic history.  Lawrence chastises Ali for the “littleness” of his people.  These two will become best friends and exchange attitudes by the end of the film.  Lawrence also meets a British military adviser named Brighton (Anthony Quayle) who considers the Arabs to be “bloody savages”.  The Arabophile Lawrence disagrees.  When the two Brits reach Feisal’s camp it is under attack from Turkish biplanes. As per war movie rules, the planes are dropping extremely accurate bombs that they clearly do not have.  The chaotic scene establishes the theme that the Arabs lack the ability to contend to the modern weaponry of the Turks.  Lawrence has some outside the box ideas to deal with this problem.

Who or what is that?
                Lawrence meets with Feisal and immediately impresses him with his affinity for Arab culture.  He urges Feisal to use his advantages in mobility to challenge the Turks.  Specifically, Lawrence convinces him to give him some men to attack the key port of Aqaba from the landward side.  This will entail an almost impossible trek across a desert affectionately called “the Sun’s Anvil”.  With success in sight, Lawrence defies Ali to go back and rescue an Arab named Gasim.  This suicidal act of bravery convinces the Bedouin that this guy is special.  They reward him with Bedouin clothing and Lawrence is well on his way to going native.

                Al Arauns (as the Arabs call him) meets a Bedouin chieftain named Auda (Anthony Quinn).  Auda is open to joining the revolt as long as there is money involved.  Lawrence convinces Auda that there is plenty of wealth in Aqaba.  The unification almost is aborted by a murder in the camp, but Lawrence plays peace-maker by executing the culprit who turns out to be someone Lawrence knows.  The cavalry charge on Aqaba (using 450 horses and 150 camels) is epic in scale and epicly lensed.  (The entire town was recreated in Spain.)  Flush with victory and feeling increasingly messianic, Lawrence insists on crossing the Sinai (“like Moses”) with his two servants.  One of them has a date with quicksand. 

Look, ma - no hands!

                In Cairo, Lawrence meets with Murray’s replacement Gen. Allenby (Jack Hawkins).  Allenby agrees to Lawrence’s proposal to launch a guerrilla war against the Turkish railway that they depend on for supplies.  He also wants the Middle East to be left to the Arabs after the war.  Allenby and Dryden assure him that England has no desire for the region (wink, wink). 

                Lawrence is now famous and about to become a celebrity as an American newsman named Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) intends to use him to prod the U.S. into WWI.  Bentley tags along as Lawrence attacks trains.  Explosives placed on the tracks cause the trains to wreck and then the Bedouin do the rest. They like loot.  The civilized Brighton and Bentley are incensed by this, but the end justifies the means for Al Aurans. 

                With the revolt waning, Lawrence needs an adrenalin rush so he and Ali sneak into Daraa to scout the Turkish position.  Lawrence stands out like a black man at a Ku Klux Klan rally and is arrested, although not identified.  The Turkish leader (Jose Ferrer) identifies him as pretty, however.  The audience is left to imagine what happened beyond the caning Lawrence endures, but apparently Lawrence and the Turk did not play chess.  The incident in Daara changes Lawrence and dampens his enthusiasm for the Arab cause.

                Lawrence returns to the British army which is now in Jerusalem.  He is awkwardly garbed as a British officer again.  Allenby and Dryden inform Lawrence of the Sykes-Picot agreement in which England and France have decided to establish “spheres of influence” in the old Turkish empire.  Surprise!  Lawrence wants no more to do with this slimy business, but Allenby too easily changes his mind.  Lawrence agrees to lead the Arab part of the campaign to capture Damascus.  He tells Allenby that he intends to take the city for the Arabs to keep.  Allenby nods (and thinks – can you believe how naïve this dude is?).

                Al Aurans gathers the tribes and now has a body guard of thugs surrounding him.  He has gone over to the dark side.  He subsequently orders a “no prisoners” attack on a retreating Turkish column that had massacred an Arab village.  Lawrence participates looking more manic than messianic.  Ali is now the voice of reason and humanity.

"Ali, I see a time soon when the Arabs will be united in a peceful Middle East"
CLOSING:  Lawrence arrives in Damascus ahead of Allenby and tries to establish Arab control of the city.  He oversees an Arab council to provide democratic administration of the city.  Since the Arabs are noted for their democratic traditions, what could go wrong?  There are also the little problems of electricity, the telephone system, and fire fighting.  Not exactly the strengthes of the Arabs.  Allenby and Dryden sit back and watch the predictable incompetence of the fractured Arabs.  They know it is just a matter of time before the Arabs come begging the Europeans to run things for them.  Lawrence is promoted and sent back to England.  Feisal arrives in Damascus and immediately starts playing politics.  “Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future.  Then old men make the peace and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution.  It must be so.”  Brighton walks out in disgust.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes.  It is not a graphic, combat-oriented war movie. It is more of an epic or biopic than a war movie.  O’Toole and Sharif are dreamy.  Surprisingly, no females are fawning over them on the screen. In fact, there is not a single female character in the movie!

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  This section is going to be a chore.  I read “Setting the Desert on Fire” and the appropriate chapters of the new biography “Hero”, watched the PBS documentary “The Battle for the Arab World”, and visited several web sites, but there is a lot of contradictory information out there.  Part of the problem is that the movie is based on Lawrence’s memoirs, which have been called into question by historians.  It is understandable that Wilson used the book as the outline for the screenplay since Lawrence’s account of his adventures is compelling, but one has to wonder how much embellishment went into “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”.  I plan to do a “History or Hollywood” post on the film later, but for now let me summarize the historical accuracy.

                First, the characters.  The main characters are all based on real people or composites of real people.  The composites are Ali (who is based on the actual Sharif Ali, but represents several Arab comrades of Lawrence’s), Brighton (who stands in for all the British military advisers), and Dryden (who is typical of British politicians of the Arab Bureau).  Feisal and Allenby are close to real.  Murray is maligned a bit too much.  Although a reluctant supporter of the Arab Revolt, he later became a strong believer in Lawrence.  Auda gets a raw deal in the film.  Depicted as mainly motivated by money, he in fact was a patriot.  His depiction as a great warrior is accurate.  Farraj and Daud had roles in Lawrence’s life similar to the movie, but Daud actually died from freezing to death.  Farraj was put out of his misery by Lawrence, but it was after he was shot by a Turk.  Gasim was a real person and he was saved from the desert by Lawrence, but he went back for him due to the Bedouin tradition that one was responsible for his servants.  The shooting incident was another person.  Bentley was based on the American journalist Lowell Thomas who spent about a week with Lawrence and then wrote glowing tales after the war.  He was not the cynic that Bentley is and did not witness any of the train attacks.  Also, by the time he met Lawrence, the U.S. was already in the war.

                The portrayal of Lawrence has come under criticism.  Some carp about Lawrence being much shorter than O’Toole, but this can not be a serious argument against O’Toole getting the role.  No actor on Earth would have been a better choice.  Other than height, he resembles Lawrence, including the blue eyes.  The movie implies that Lawrence wanted the job of meeting Feisal because he wanted to experience the desert.  In reality, Lawrence had been in the Middle East for some time at this point as an archeologist and had been coopted by the British Army to conduct a survey of the Negev Desert.  The famous match-dousing scene alludes to Lawrence’s masochistic tendencies which included going without food and sleep when he was growing up.  The question of Lawrence’s sexuality is merely hinted at in the film which is appropriate not just because the film was made in 1962, but because even today it is unclear.  Lawrence’s brother, who had sold producer Sam Speigel the rights to “Seven Pillars”, disowned the film and refused the use of the book title for the film title. 

the real Lawrence
                Most of the events depicted in the film are based on actual incidents, but there are some accuracy issues.  Lawrence’s death is well done.  Lawrence was an intelligence officer with the Arab Bureau when the opportunity to encourage the Arab Revolt presented itself.  He did not get along with his superiors. The incident at the well was pure Hollywood as no one was killed.  When Lawrence arrives at Feisal’s camp the air attack had already happened, but Feisal’s force was disintegrating.  Lawrence brought the gold, guns, and glory to revive it.  Lawrence did establish a strong relationship with the prince, but the decision to attack Aqaba was more of a group decision including Auda (who met Lawrence at Feisal’s camp).  Auda was with Lawrence for the crossing of the Negev. 

                The assault on Aqaba was not as much of a surprise as the movie depicts.  In actuality, several Turkish outposts had already been captured and the surrender of the port had been negotiated.  The filmed charge was true to form, but it occurred after Arab reinforcements arrived and insisted on it.  Lawrence did cross the Sinai to report to Cairo, but he was accompanied by seven others and no one died.  When Lawrence met with Allenby, the two got along fine and continued to do so through the rest of Lawrence’s stay in the Middle East.  The relationship with Lowel Thomas (Bentley in the film) was very inaccurate.  He was an unabashed worshiper.  It was Thomas who coined the term “Lawrence of Arabia”.

the assault on Aqaba
                The train attacks actually began before the attack on Aqaba and were initiated by other British officers.  Lawrence was never wounded in any of the incidents and no Arab was wounded by an explosive.  As far as the arrest in Daraa, historians are divided on this one.  Some do not believe he ever was in Daraa.  It seems likely that he was taken prisoner and physically and sexually abused.  This traumatic event apparently led to the flagellation disorder that Lawrence evidenced later in life.   

May I touch your scar - for starters?
The atrocity at Tafas is pretty accurate.  The town had been massacred by a Turkish force which was then caught retreating by Lawrence’s men.  There is some question about whether Lawrence ordered “no prisoners”.  Some historians argue that he took responsibility for something he could not stop.  He did participate.  It is ridiculous to make a big deal of this since it is hard to imagine it playing out differently than what happened.

Lawrence at the massacre at Tafas
The closing events in Damascus are acceptable.  Lawrence did enter the city ahead of the British with the Arab army and he did have high hopes that the city and the whole of Syria would have its independence.  By this time  Lawrence knew about British/French plans, but had kept his knowledge of them from Feisal.  The Arab Council did have trouble administering the city and one of the problems was lack of electricity.  However, the movie implies that the British were forced to take control fairly soon when actually Feisal was not deposed until 1920.  The last straw incident at the hospital did occur.

CRITIQUE:  “Lawrence of Arabia” is a guy epic.  All the elements you associate with a movie of massive scope are there except the mushy romance.  The scenery is awesome.  Lean was influenced by John Ford’s use of Monuments Valley and one-ups him here.  I’m not much into scenery, but the desert vistas are incredible.  If ever a movie was made to be watched on as big a screen as possible, this is it.  The cinematography is equal to the locales.  Lean contrasts the sere desert scenes with the cool marble of the British interiors.  The outdoor shots could best be described as sweeping.  The movie includes one of the iconic cinematographic scenes in which Ali appears mirage-like at the watering hole.  Add to this the score which matches the scenes perfectly.  No one has ever deserved the Oscar more than Jarre. 

The perfection carries over to the casting.  It is hard to imagine any major role that could have been played better by another actor.  Has any actor ever had a more auspicious start than O’Toole?  You have to give the man credit for preparation as he read “Seven Pillars” almost to the point of memorization and interviewed as many people who knew Lawrence as he could find.  He also learned to ride a camel (Guinness and Quinn only ride horses in the film.)  And keep in mind that this was Sharif’s first English speaking role.  All of the actors acquit themselves well.  There is not an average performance.  Anthony Quinn is great as Auda and went to great lengthes to look like him.  Guinness delivers Feisal’s political bon mots with aplomb.  Quayle does a fine job as the officer who evolves into an admirer of Lawrence and a person who takes umbrage at the scheming that daggers the Arabs in the end.

Quinn balancing the handsomeness
of O'Toole and Sharif
                The movie’s themes are efficiently developed.  Lawrence is worn down from naïve optimism to disillusionment.  His character arc is fascinating and something of a roller coaster ride, but with the inevitable realization that one man can not change the Middle East.  Early in the film, Lawrence proclaims to Ali that “nothing is written”, but by the end of the movie it is apparent to him and the viewer that European domination of the region was written (literally in the Sykes-Picot agreement).  The movie controversially implies that the Arabs were incapable of governing themselves.  Although one theme is clearly that the Arabs were shafted by the British, the movie also gives the impression that the Arabs were too factional and incompetent to rule themselves.  This is reinforced by Lawrence going from believing that the Arabs can rise above being a “little people” to being frustrated with having to deal with them.  It is interesting to note that Ali and Lawrence go on opposite arcs as Ali ends up the more optimistic and empathetic individual.

                The movie does have some weaknesses.  It is a bit long with two lengthy desert passages.  In fact, “Lawrence of Arabia” clocked in as the longest Best Picture winner (one minute longer than “Gone with the Wind”).  In spite of the length, the combat scenes are too brief.  The movie could have used a few maps and the time frame is hard to follow.  This vagueness was a product of the decision to concentrate on Lawrence as opposed to the Arab Revolt.  Still, the cinematography, acting, plot, and music stomp out any quibbles.

CONCLUSION:  “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the truly great motion pictures.  Everything about it is grandiose.  It is a film that holds up to multiple viewings and even though it was made before the VioLingo school kicked in, it stands up well when compared to the more modern war films.  It is interesting to compare it to a film like “Patton” and see that it is in the same league.  I would have to say that “Patton” is the better war movie, but the lesser movie.  The same could be said when comparing it to Lean’s other war epic – “Bridge on the River Kwai”.  Thus the conundrum of the list of the Greatest 100.  “Lawrence of Arabia” is firmly ensconced as one of the Top Ten movies of all time, but is definitely not one of the ten greatest war movies of all time.  My opinion is partially based on my belief that it is not primarily in the war movie genre.  I would place it first in the biography genre and then in the epic adventure category.  I will eventually have to decide if a film like this should be considered for my 100 Best War Movies list.


Acting                     A+
Action                    6/10
Accuracy                C
Plot                         A
Realism                  A
Cliches                    A



  1. Excellent review and summary. One of your best ones actually as you really dug into this one and it shows. A big part of the grandure of this one is the musical score. One of the best ever done.

  2. Thanks. And thanks for the book. It was very helpful. I was surprised to find that there are so many different takes on what happened in important events in his life.

    BTW I'm not sure if many will agree with you on my digging into it. The Internet generation is not into lengthy reading. But then again, that generation would never sit through a movie as long as this. I wonder when was the last time a movie had an overture?

    1. I just looked on Wikipedia and the last significant movie was "KIngdom of Heaven" in 2005. If you do not include "roadshow" versions, there have been only 5 movies since 1970 that had an overture - The Cowboys (!), Jeremiah Johnson, Man of La Mancha, Star Trek, and Kingdom of Heaven.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you. That's nice to hear considering how much work I put into it. I probably spent over 20 hours on this post.

  4. As an aside of interest...I noticed there is a new documentary on John Milius out on Netflix you may want to watch since he made a number of war movies. I'm going to watch it this week myself.

  5. Actually, the Australian Light Horse had already entered the city and passed straight through at 5am to cut off the Homs Road - well before any Arabs entered Damascus at 7:30am ;)

    It was the British Desert Army that did all the fighting pushing back the Turks in the great advance from the 26th of September to Oct 1. The 'Arab Army' did bugger all, very often arriving late or not at all to battles. The Legend of Lawrence and his Arabs was purely for political propaganda purposed to secure Arab support for the war against the Turks.

    Sadly - we live with that legacy today. The world would have been a vastly different place if the British didn't make a deal with the devil, so to speak.


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