Reflections on characters and themes in “Lawrence of Arabia”
directed by David Lean, script by Robert Bolt, music by Maurice Jarre, cinematography by Freddie Young, produced by Sam Spiegel
A video presentation of these notes is available here
“Lawrence of Arabia” is a most remarkable film.
A war film, a character piece with action sequences, politically aware yet heroic, idealistic yet cynical, thought-provoking yet entertaining, the film reflects the character and multi-facetted enigma that was its principal protagonist, T.E. Lawrence.
Lawrence was straightforward, complex, heroic, flawed, sincere, arrogant, extraordinary and human. Robert Bolt took original “unfilmable” material (Lawrence’s own “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”), and what was a potentially unlikeable character (as Lawrence set out to be, at one point) and, combined with David Lean and the others mentioned above, managed to create an ageless piece of cinema which has engaged generations of audiences by developing timeless themes through Lawrence and other strong and complex protagonists, all flawed and all beautifully depicted, who are drawn into conflict and reveal various underlying tensions and a clash of principles.
Bolt’s script is literate and concise while David Lean’s direction is storytelling par excellence, enhanced by emotive music and stunning cinematography. Flashy, attention-seeking techniques are eschewed in favour of subtle but telling shots which enhance the storyline and character development, which are clearly the “stars” of the film.
Performances probably don’t come any better than this – all played with sincerity, conviction and above all, clarity (a reflection of the masterful script and direction) not just of individual characters and traits, but how each character develops and plays a part in the whole.
The film presents us with Lawrence’s development from an apparently bumbling and rather arrogant misfit to a cohesive force in war, to a “disillusioned” failure. It also presents a clear portrait of the complexity of the man, his strengths and his weaknesses (the one dependent on the other to the point where the one might become the other, to produce the whole), his successes and his failures.
Lawrence was clearly driven – he was a highly intelligent and well educated idealist whose faith in himself drove him to acts of great courage and daring, but also led to an excess of confidence and a fall from grace.
His belief in the cause of Arab unification was visionary and may even have surpassed that of the Arabs themselves, but his idealism failed to take into account the inherent difficulties of unifying a group of nations too diverse and too proud to be able to work together effectively (a situation brilliantly depicted in the meeting of Arab leaders after the taking of Damascus in the film).
Lawrence’s story underlines the potential impact of the individual on a situation or on history itself. Through his intelligence, cunning, skill and (above all) his determination and arrogance, Lawrence altered the course of history and exercised a huge influence and impact not only in the Arab nations during WW1, but also in covert and guerrilla tactics in military conflicts up to this day. However, the film also clearly depicts (and this is a theme common to much of Robert Bolt’s work) the heavy personal price paid by Lawrence himself.
After his “interrogation” at the hands of the Turks in Deraa, Lawrence appears to have lost much of his self-confidence. Ego is essential to success, but if the ego you have built up comes crashing down, along with the image you have projected of yourself (and which you may even have come to believe yourself), you may be crushed and become unable to function when faced with the inevitable truth of your own human weakness and vanity.
When confronted with the truth of his human limitations and feelings, Lawrence wants to withdraw from the situation but the powers that be appear to have played on Lawrence’s ego and arrogance, the very qualities that enabled him to make such a powerful contribution in the first place, and whose “denting” almost destroyed him. Fanning the flames of Lawrence’s ego, the authorities persuaded him to lead an all-out Arab revolt which led to the taking of Damascus, but only by way of awful blood-letting and carnage epitomised in the film by the attack on and massacre of a Turkish caravan consisting largely of wounded troops (who were, of course, far from blameless and innocent), leading to enormous self-doubt and guilt.
Lawrence’s constant need of validation is therefore used as a tool or a means to an end by politicians (a term used in its broadest sense). Lawrence delivers with great pride what he promised – the Arabs in charge of Damascus – but sadly he is let down by the very people for whom he was fighting. Arab unity is destroyed by petty squabbling and lack of vision, vision that perhaps Lawrence alone possessed and which was mocked by his fellow countrymen and colleagues, but which allowed Lawrence and his Arab comrades to come mighty close to fulfilling Lawrence’s dream.
More worldly and experienced politicians knew better, of course, and having used Lawrence and his qualities of leadership, inspiration, sincerity and idealism to help achieve their apparently common goal, they were there to profit from the disintegration of the winning “side” and set about extending financial and political interests, benefitting their own nations where Lawrence had sought to establish another.
In many ways, “Lawrence of Arabia” is a political fable with Lawrence representing an individual put to use by the State to seemingly achieve one thing, while actually achieving another.
At the end of the film, Lawrence appears shattered – more than just physically, but emotionally and morally as well. Is this purely the result of his experiences in war, or does he see that he was, perhaps, a pawn in a much bigger game?
Feisal sums up the situation rather concisely, if somewhat cynically, when he suggests that Allenby should be as happy as he (Feisal) is to see the back of Lawrence. The man of action has served his purpose and now the politicians must take over.
Along the way, themes such as friendship, loyalty and racism are dealt with most effectively, and combine with the depiction of Lawrence’s character and political opportunism to provide an unforgettable and stimulating tale of adventure, idealism and sad reality.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. So far, this includes various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.
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