THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The short version of the story is that Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), bored with his duty as a member of the British intelligence in Cairo, is sent on a fact-finding mission to study Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), but with a romantic's view of the desert and the "simple" people living in it. Once he meets Faisal, he almost immediately begins to offer suggestions on how the Arabs, who the British hope to use as a front against the Turks, can both defeat the Turks and break free of their colonial rule. Bit by bit he convinces them of his unusual battle strategies and cunning, taking control of an army consisting of members of various tribes (often warring tribes) and driving the Turks back. His power and growing aggression lead him to make some mistakes and after nearly four hours of tremendous battles and bitter debate Lawrence is left with a sense of disappointment and disgust, as anyone more than knee-deep in politics inevitably is.
The film, however, is a journey, filled with treacherous pitfalls and painful decisions. Lawrence must deal with integrating into a society vastly different from his own, something very difficult at first but becomes easier the further Lawrence drifts from his old self. Lean offers up a complex world with no easy answers. The Brits back in Cairo brush the Arabs off as savages but are shown to be ineffective and self-serving themselves. The Arabs, on the other hand, are not romanticized. They fight each other and commit acts of seemingly terrible cruelty. But Lawrence understands that this is a different world from his Oxford origins and is only presumptuous in his feelings of kinship with his new brothers. Tribal leaders like Auda (Anthony Quinn) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) are hard, jaded men who can turn violent without warning if their own codes are violated. Lawrence understands that but can still be shocked at times. There are no easy heroes here.
The craft of the film is virtually without parallel. Freddie Young's cinematography is a sight to behold, with vast desert-scapes dwarfing tiny travelers and blinding sunlight. The film's editing is bold, sharply cutting from a lit match to the baking desert, forcing the audience into a new world without warning. All of the performances are exemplary. Sharif plays his character with a playboy's swagger, but with a definite sense of danger. Guinness, nearly unrecognizable, gets the contradictions of a man educated at the highest level who rules his kingdom from a tent. Claude Rains delivers his usual sly, charming performance, but with the added texture of being an ineffectual beaurocrat. Jose Ferrer adds genuine perversion to a dark sequence where Turks torture Lawrence. Quinn's towering Auda is a force to be reckoned with.
The film is commanded, however, by Peter O'Toole, who is on-screen for virtually every second of the film's 227 minutes. It's impossible to believe that Lawrence was his first leading role. He holds the screen with his slightly-wild gaze and his clear blue eyes. There's flair, carelessness, anger, intellectualism, and ambition mixed into his performance. He makes Lawrence both real and iconic, a man that found his calling and turned it into a crusade. Few other actors have ever painted such a specific portrait but still left the mystery of what makes a man tick there for an audience to ponder.
A telling fact about the film is that there isn't one single female with a speaking role and barely any female extras. There is a sense of seeing men go off to do what men do: Cause war, build nations, and manipulate entire peoples. This isn't some oversight on Lean's part or an example of misogyny, but rather a theme of the film. The Brits look at the region as a chessboard that they can play with, the Arabs see opportunities for raiding, pillaging, and looting, and Lawrence sees a chance to play liberator and hero. The film is practically an analysis of the male psyche, on top of all of the other themes.
With the questions facing the world about the role of the financially modern but social ancient Arab states on the Arabian peninsula, Lawrence offers a painful discourse. The viewer is left to ask questions that the makers probably didn't know would exist: What's worse, Lawrence's vision of a free Arabia, or the Brits' need for more hatred-spawning control? Whose interest is Faisal looking out for when he offers weak compromises with the British? Is anyone keeping the big picture in mind, or just their own selfish desires. The only answer that the film offers is that nothing works the way you want it to, especially in politics, and that's a hard lesson to learn.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org