Here is a brief list of things I did while watching Lawrence of Arabia (1962): played (and won) two games of chess, checked Facebook, threw a tennis ball against a wall, did research on the real-life T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), made and ate dinner, texted and had a conversation with Isaac, stared off into space, almost fell asleep a few times, etc. Before you go thinking that I was not paying attention, watch what the American Film Institute (AFI) considers to be the seventh greatest American film on its top 100 list. I have been avoiding it for a while because I knew it was long. I did not know it was this long. I once thought Dances with Wolves (1990) the lengthiest movie ever made. Lawrence of Arabia has it beat by a comfortable forty minutes, and that is including an overture and intermission. Understand that I am being dramatic for comedy’s sake. If you are in the mood to watch seemingly endless scenes of shifting sand dunes, then I have a film for you.
The title character in Lawrence of Arabia dies in a motorcycle crash in the first five minutes. The end. This is a joke, of course, though this is how the film starts. Given its length, please know that I will be truncating the synopsis a bit so as to not make this review unbearable. At any rate, the rest of the film is a flashback, seemingly in answer to the variety of opinions said after his funeral. We go back to World War I when Lawrence, as he is referred to throughout the film, is serving as an intelligence officer in Cairo, Egypt. In this corner of the world, the British are fighting the Ottoman Empire. The Turks form a common enemy for the British and the various Bedouin tribes subjugated by the Ottomans for centuries. Lawrence is sent to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the de facto leader of the Arabs in the region. With English help, he has been waging a guerilla war against the Turks in the Arabian desert. When Lawrence finally meets Prince Faisal, the intelligence officer advises bolder action against the wishes of other representatives of the British Empire. Prince Faisal is open to these suggestions, but is reticent to contradict the British lest the Arabs lose support. One of the issues is where to re-supply the tribesman. The nearest port is Cairo, though that is not within Bedouin territory. Lawrence’s solution is a city near the Suez Canal called Aqaba. This would be a prize, but it has heavy artillery guarding it. Lawrence proposes an overland because those guns are pointed towards the sea. This, too, seems like madness because getting to it means crossing some of the most unforgiving wastes on the planet. Undaunted, Lawrence sets off with fifty men, including Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish (Omar Sharif), one of the tribal leaders. Sherif believes that it will need a miracle for them to reach their destination, and that is what Lawrence promises. His successful completion of the crossing, including going back to save one of their number on his own, earns the respect of the Bedouins. They give him a set of Arab clothes in which he looks at ease. Along the way, they also encounter another group of Bedouins led by Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). He agrees to help with the promise of riches in Aqaba. With a sizable force now at his disposable, they take the city as Lawrence plans. Now in need of further instructions, Lawrence decides to undertake the daunting trek back across the Sinai Peninsula to reach Cairo and fill in the British as to this turn of events. They are shocked when the bedraggled and dusty British officer in Arab garb enters their headquarters with his servant and wanting to see the person in charge. This is General Edmund Allenby (Jack Hawkins). Once they all realize who Lawrence is and what he has done, they are all impressed. He convinces them to resupply the Arabs, and give them more money, thus allowing them to be a great nuisance to the Turks. The British need this as they plan to push further north and retake Jerusalem. Lawrence secures the aide, but he wants more. When all is said and done, he wants Arab independence. General Allenby gives them lip-service, but it is clear that they do not intend to honor any agreements. Either way, Lawrence is back in the desert and he and his men are attacking Ottoman train shipments. With every locomotive destroyed and looted, more Bedouins return home feeling they have fulfilled their obligation to the Arab uprising. Regardless, Lawrence appears to have fallen in love with his reputation, and thinks that he can go into a city by himself and trigger an uprising. When this does not happen, he is captured and tortured by the Turks. Though he manages to escape, his belief in his invincibility is shattered and he tells Sherif he is returning home. Yet, when presented to General Allenby, the British leader tells Lawrence that he still needs the legendary warrior for one more mission. It is now time to drive the British army north, and General Allenby wants Lawrence to ensure Arab help. The goal is Damascus, modern day Syria. Lawrence agrees once more, telling General Allenby that the Bedouins will get there first and that the city shall belong to them. Not even the ambushing of a Turkish convoy can stop this from happening, and Lawrence seems powerless to stop the killing that ensues. Now that they are in Damascus, it is time for the Arabs to set up a government. Unfortunately, this is when the British step in, and Lawrence steps out. This is also when the British make it clear that they will not be giving the Arabs independence. In either case, Lawrence is leaving, and the final scene is of him in a car passing a few tribesmen.
Because I opted for the bare minimum in describing Lawrence of Arabia, I left out much of the characterization of Lawrence. As is evident from the interviews given after his funeral, you are dealing with a person about whom there is much to dislike and like. He is vain, and his vanity almost gets him killed a few times. Yet, he is also generous, going after the lone Bedouin to save his life. It is the latter of these that are examples of Lawrence behaves in a Christ-like manner. At the same time, he comes to see himself almost in a Christ-like light, though shorn of all the humbleness demanded of such a station. So far, so obvious. There is a line in the film that speaks to these ideas that fits well with Catholicism. In discussing Lawrence’s plans, his confidence gives him a clever enough tongue to persuade his superiors to give him the chance. To this end, he tells them that big things come from small beginnings. The film bears out this fact, as does the Church. As we come to Good Friday, it is an appropriate time to take stock of such things. Between the end of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, Christianity as a religion was at its lowest point. Jesus’ friends had abandoned him, and aside from Simon of Cyrene who is forced to help him carry the Cross, largely bears His suffering on His own. However, from this one act in this little corner of the world came a Faith that says Mass around the world every day. There is not an hour that comes by when, somewhere on the globe, Mass is being said. That is pretty incredible. One can point to a character like Lawrence to show how such events can go to a person’s head. Lawrence is reckless, and that is not good. Conversely, he shows how amazing things can come from seemingly innocuous acts.
Lawrence of Arabia is not for the faint of heart. At the time, it is a great insomnia beater. Take the first few ticks of the clock, for example. It is nearly five minutes of black screen as the overture plays. It is incredibly well shot, but incredibly boring. Proceed with caution.