Film & TV

Iconic Films: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’: A Searing Biographical Epic of an Eccentric Hero

TIMEDecember 10, 2021

As a lifelong fan of cinema, it was hard to admit that I couldn’t remember much of director David Lean’s 1962 masterwork “Lawrence of Arabia.” It is one of those films that I’d seen bits and pieces of with family members many years ago but, due to circumstances, wasn’t able to enjoy many of the details of the production—and, boy, there are an incredible number of details to take in. The epic requires watching without any distractions in order to assemble meaning.

Based on the life of British Army Col. T.E. Lawrence during World War I, the film starts with the titular character’s death via a motorcycle accident. This surprising start compelled me to re-check the film cast’s credits to see if it was indeed the main character meeting his end on a verdant English country road—or perhaps someone playing one of the character’s subsequent relatives.

At the time of T.E. Lawrence’s unfortunate end in 1935, he was a well-respected war hero but also a controversial figure—as evidenced by the back-and-forth dialogue among attendees at his funeral. Director Lean then flashes back to the beginning of Lawrence’s career as a young army lieutenant.

When the Ottoman Empire sided with the Germans during World War I, the Arabs rose up in defiance against the Central Powers, which also included the Austria-Hungary Empire and Bulgaria. Lawrence was stationed in Cairo, Egypt, at the newly minted intelligence organization, used to counter the Central Powers, known as the Arab Bureau.

From his initial interactions with his military fellows, as well as his senior officers, we can see that young Lt. Lawrence is quite eccentric—and that’s putting it mildly. Although relatively new to his unit, he’s already established a reputation for being insolent and somewhat dismissive of others.

Due to his arrogance, Lawrence is threatened with arrest for insubordination by his unit’s commander, but a Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau spares the young man by getting him sequestered for a mission. Lawrence is tasked with traversing lengthy swaths of the Arabian Desert to reach Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), a notable Arab leader who is sympathetic to the British war effort. After locating the prince, Lawrence is to assess Faisal’s ability to assist the British against the encroaching Turkish army.

T.E. lawrence and King Feisal
T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, L) and Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), in “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Columbia Pictures)

Lawrence is assigned a guide, Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin), a Bedouin tribesman whom he befriends as they travel across the scorching sands. However, the Englishman soon learns a great deal about local rivalries and blood feuds when he and his guide run into Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and conflict ensues.

Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia
(L–R) Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) match wits, in “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Columbia Pictures)

Lawrence eventually meets up with friendly forces, including Prince Faisal, who takes the former under his wing. This affords Lawrence a tremendous amount of latitude and thus begins his journey to unite the various quarreling Arab tribes under a united cause. This also sets into motion Lawrence’s fascinating odyssey of self-discovery, the apex of his powers and influence, and subsequent troubles.

A Fascinating Nearly 4 Hours

As this film clocks in at almost four hours of runtime, I feared that it might begin to crumble under its own weight. However, its taut screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson is trimmed of nearly any shreds of fat. Indeed, the only slower parts are designed to be that way because of their formidable impacts, such as cinematographer Freddie Young’s sumptuous long shots of the sweeping deserts, or the many subtle hints of emotion that play across the characters’ faces.

 lawrence surrounded by Arabs
T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, C) becoming closer to the Arabs, in “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Columbia Pictures)

Although the action scenes are likewise well-handled, the war effort and back-and-forth among the various military generals, politicians, and tribal leaders serve as a tapestry for the central force of the narrative: Lawrence’s trajectory, his struggles with his own cultural and national self-identity, and eventual issues with his mental health.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is an intensely captivating biographical portrait of a brilliant and controversial figure whose character develops over the backdrop of World War I. It’s a must-see for any film buffs, as well as those who enjoy fascinating character studies by outstanding filmmakers.

‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Kennedy
Running Time: 3 hours, 48 minutes
Not Rated
Release Date: Dec. 10, 1962
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality. You can check out his health blog at IanKaneHealthNut.com