In 1962, director David Lean (Oliver Twist and The Bridge Over the River Kwai) made cinematic history with his epic historical drama, Lawrence of Arabia. The film is perhaps one of the most daring and ambitious films ever made. Utilizing an amazing screenplay written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, Lean created a film that is an intimate character study, a harrowing war epic, a spectacular adventure and one of the greatest achievements in the annals of filmic history. Lawrence of Arabia has gone on to become a classic. It won seven Oscars and garnered international acclaim. Even its few detractors (most of which complain about the film's historical inaccuracies) will admit that it's stood the test of time and only earned more praise over the years.
The film tells the tale of staff-captain and Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence, an English officer stationed in Cairo during WWI (at this time the Turkish Empire was ally to Germany and therefore a threat to British interests). Lawrence was a unique individual in that unlike most of his British compatriots, he understood that England's military was losing the fight against the Turks. He also understood that the various Arab tribes were warring against the Turks, but they were too scattered and disorganized to make any real progress.
Bored with his mapmaking and newspaper writing duties, he set forth a plan to get himself reassigned. He made himself out to be a general annoyance, obnoxious and peculiar. He managed to with the help of a senior officer, obtain a new position with the Arab Bureau. He would observe and chronicle the Arabs from within their encampment at Wadi Safra and evaluate their usefulness to the British war effort. Upon meeting Prince Feisal and his ill-equipped soldiers, Lawrence came to the conclusion that they were not only adequate as fighters but also courageous and dedicated. Their weaknesses were mainly that they lacked modern artillery, and that the various tribes were divided and constantly feuding with one another. Yet if they could be united, as one Arab people, against the Turks then they would stand a chance.
Lawrence upon fist glance might seem the most unlikely person to do this. Though he was well educated and possessed an unusual understanding of the region, he was awkward and outspoken, which made him seem arrogant. Lawrence's confidence at first offended the Arabs, who saw him as another cocky British officer, but they eventually came to respect his bravery and tenacity.
It becomes apparent that in order to defeat the Turkish army that the seaport at Akaba must be taken. But it cannot be approached by the sea due to the great immobile guns facing the water. It is decided that a small group of fifty men from the Harith tribe could take Akaba by land, but first they would have to cross 600 miles of desert and survive the "impassable" Nefudh desert. This treacherous journey tries them all and along the way Lawrence earns the respect of the Bedouin, especially Ali (who he first met on his way to meet Prince Feisal, when Ali killed Lawrence's guide for drinking from a Harith well). After saving a man's life, Lawrence is given the name El Orens and is presented with the robes of a noble Arab tribe.
Lawrence and Ali then manage to convince the Howeitat tribe to join them in their attack on Akaba, though they only agreed to do so when offered gold. Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the Howeitat, proves to be a great ally despite the fact that many of the Harith disapprove of Auda's mercenary tactics. Finally they reach Akaba and their surprise attack is successful. However Auda is disgusted when he finds only paper money and not gold. Lawrence promises that Auda will be paid with gold but first Lawrence must deliver word of their victory to the British.
He decides to take two young servants, Farraj and Doud, with him. The trek proves difficult and along the way Doud falls into a pit of quicksand and dies. Lawrence blames himself for the boy's death. When Lawrence and Farraj finally arrive in Cairo they are treated with prejudice and discourtesy. Lawrence has grown so accustomed to his Bedouin garments that he's not aware of how alien he appears to the other officers. The new general, Allenby promotes Lawrence to major and orders him to go back but Lawrence refuses at first. He's tasted power and held many lives in his hands, and on some level or another he knows that giving him more responsibility would be a dangerous thing to do. Yet he agrees to Allenby's proposition when Allenby subtly builds up his ego with talk of making history. He is also lied to when he asks Allenby whether or not the British have "ambitions in Arabia" after the war. Allenby tells him that they do not. As Lawrence leaves the General's headquarters he's overwhelmed with congratulations, which only inflate his ego further.
When Lawrence returns to the desert he brings British ammunition and armored vehicles. His name becomes infamous and he is viewed by many as a hero. This is a fact which numerous journalists wish to exploit and in so doing encourage support for the war effort. Meanwhile Lawrence wages a guerrilla war against the Turks. He and his army attack the railway systems, weakening the Turkish forces one train at a time. He relishes the praise and adoration that is showered upon him but he begins to delude himself. After almost being killed by a gunman he jokingly says, "Didn't you know, they can only kill me with a golden bullet?"
After months of fighting most of the Howeitat tribe have gone home and even Ali seems to be concerned with Lawrence's state of mind. After one of the attacks goes wrong Farraj is severely wounded and Lawrence is forced to kill him so as to spare him the unimaginable tortures that the Turks would use to extract information from him. Haunted by guilt, Lawrence recklessly decides to move ahead in his plans. He tells the few remaining Arabs that he intends to attack Deraa. Meanwhile the British general, Allenby begins to wonder if Lawrence has "gone native". He fears that Lawrence no longer serves Britain but instead fights to guarantee Arab independence. His fears are justified.
Lawrence, full of pride and false bravado, continues with his plans to advance to Deraa. The Arabs refuse to join him in his folly, so Lawrence goes alone, accompanied only by Ali. There Turkish soldiers capture him, though they never discover his identity. He is interrogated, beaten and brutalized before they release him.Lawrence is forever changed by this incident. He becomes insecure and disenchanted. His mind is polluted with doubts and anxieties. He decides to give up and allow the Arab revolt to be carried on by others. Ali and many of the Harith tribe feel betrayed and abandoned when Lawrence leaves.
Upon his return to British headquarters, Lawrence is treated like an outsider. He meets with General Allenby and learns of a proposed treaty between France and England, who after the war intend to share the Turkish Empire... including Arabia. Lawrence is outraged. He requests to be reassigned to a lesser position but Allenby manipulates him and talks him into leading the upcoming attack at Damascus. Lawrence buries his insecurities with anger, hiding his vulnerability with defiance. He agrees to lead the attack on Damascus if Allenby will nullify the treaty and guarantee that Arabia will be left to the Arabs. Allenby reluctantly agrees.
When next the Arab army assembles, Ali sees a great change in Lawrence. He sees a man who is over confident and vengeful, bloodthirsty and guilt ridden. Lawrence now surrounds himself with vicious mercenaries who act as his personal bodyguards. On the road to Damascus the Arabs encounter a small town devastated by the Turks and Lawrence, prompted by his bodyguards and repulsed by the Turks, orders a bloody attack. "No prisoners!" he shouts with indignant rage. When the battle is over, Lawrence finds himself covered in blood and surrounded by dead Turkish soldiers. He's horrified by the pleasure he derived from the killing. Even those men who once admired him now look on him with fear and trepidation.
Lawrence and the Arabs arrive in Damascus and they immediately form a committee. At the town hall they have a meeting to discuss the creation of a democratic Arab government but the Arab tribes have for too long fought amongst themselves. His attempt at uniting them proves to be in vain.
The film ends with its viewers asking themselves whether Lawrence's actions were altruistic or motivated by a hunger for glory, whether he was devoted to the Arab revolt or to his own hopeless search for identity. Clearly he was in real life a tragic hero, a complex man with great dreams and aspirations. But he was a man weighted down by flaws, flaws that sabotaged his potential to make wonderful changes in the Middle East.
The cast is amazing. Peter O'Toole is riveting in his portrayal of the enigmatic Lawrence and Omar Sharif, as Ali, gives a complex and multi-faceted performance. The rest of the cast is also wonderful particularly Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal, Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton, Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, and Jose Ferrer as the sadistic Turkish Bey who orders Lawrence to be beaten.
The cinematography is breathtaking in its scope and gives the illusion that the desert is unending. and the music by Maurice Jarre is incredibly powerful. It evokes images of sand swept dunes and bloody battlefields. It's no wonder the film is recognized as one of the best ever made.