Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)

"I like good stories and I like good characters, it's [Lawrence of Arabia] not far away from a movie opera... it's a huge canvas, it has enormous presence"
- David Lean

Despite being a nearly four hour epic filled with monumental vistas of the desert, there are moments of stillness and intimacy in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia that are just as memorable as any of the sweeping battle scenes. Barry Norman (1998:158) said that because it's a personal study of Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) himself, who was a hero 'unlike any other', it makes the film the best and least patronising of all modern epics. He is a complex, absorbing and conflicting character to watch and see transform over the course of the film.

To those back in Britain, Lawrence is somewhat of a mystery. Several people are interviewed during the opening funeral scene and asked what they thought of him, yet none of them reveal any aspects of his personality. Those who believed he was a great man aren't able to articulate why he was, and those who hated him don't give any justification. Perhaps this lack of articulation regarding the description of his character is because Lawrence was "a man of contradiction" (White, 2008: 118). Indeed, there are hypocritical aspects of his personality that reveal themselves to us more and more as the film goes on. Most obviously, his blood lust and savagery towards the Turks and at one point, one of his own tribesmen. This is despite his apparent distain for murder, with the American reporter Jackson (Arthur Kennedy) revealing that there is a perception of him back in Cairo as a man who "has a horror of bloodshed", with Lawrence himself declaring the Arabs to be a "greedy, barbarous and cruel" people as long as they are un-unified.

Upon returning from the successful capture of Aqaba, Lawrence is subdued; despite achieving his goal of capturing the port, he has had to execute Gasim to prevent in-fighitng amongst the tribes he is trying to unite. What disturbs Lawrence most is not just that he's had to commit a murder, but that he enjoyed taking another man's life. This harks back to Mr Dydan's (Claude Rains) observation earlier on, when he remarks that Lawrence has a "funny sense of fun". Unlike in other films that have a similar character arc of a pacifist turning into a killer, there is an inconsistency to his actions - for there exists no specific moment which acts as a trigger. After ambushing a train for example, the blocking of the actors is such that Lawrence is distinguished from the rest of the crowd because he is the only one not running to the wreckage, perhaps because he does not yet have the stomach to loot and finish off any survivors. This has come after his earlier confession regarding Gasim, so is at this stage is seemingly still trying to hang on to his humanity (or perhaps trying to suppress this destructive aspect of his personality). This scene also comes after a very inventive piece of editing from Lean and collaborator Anne Coates, after Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) says to the American reporter that Lawrence is the perfect man to follow if he is looking for a figure that will "draw his country [America] towards war", Lean cuts straight to Lawrence detonating a rail-side bomb. First finding success as an editor before a director, Lean saw the act of cutting a film together like a "jigsaw", and this moment is an effective way of visualising the type of reputation that he has amongst those in the revolt.

Throughout the film, Lawrence constantly regrets his actions, going back and forth between the remorse of murder and the thrill of victory at the sacrifice of human life. His military victories are always 'qualified by doubt and guilt' (Williams, 2014: 161), for each triumph is earned at the expense of his own humaneness, until he is finally gripped by a lunacy and hysteria when he cries that there are to be "no prisoners", before slaughtering a group of retreating Turks. If one considers how soft spoken and hushed Lawrence is when he's first called in to General Murray's office in comparison to this very moment, his ironies as an individual who started off being repulsed by violence are laid bare.

"None of my friends is a murderer" - Lawrence berates Ali (Omar Sharif) during the
mirage sequence, but after ignoring Ali's advice to "go around" the group
of Turks rather than murder them, their roles have been reversed.

Jackson (2007:79) writes about how, during production the crew tried to present Lawrence as a ghostly figure as his power mania starts to consume him. Costume-wise, his Arab robes were made gradually out of thinner and thinner material, until eventually it was just muslin. Indeed, after the attack on Damascus you can actually see Lawrence's arms underneath the sleeves of these robes. Furthermore, writer Robert Bolt has also revealed that they purposefully obscured his face behind the dusty windscreen of the car that he is travelling in during the very last moments of the film. They picked a tall actor to play the driver, then gave his some cushions to sit on so that his face was much more visible in comparison. Such a technique is also applied during Lawrence's first return to Cairo after capturing Aqaba, when his sand-covered face is obscured by the frame of a doorway - here it's less of a case of him being consumed by power, and more that he's being consumed over the guilt of his execution of Gasim and death of Daud - his servant that was killed in quicksand after Lawrence lost his compass. 

Although he starts out as a relatively modest individual, proclaiming for example that he doesn't need a servant and being the only British man who treats said servants with any respect, the egocentricity and power mania that Jackson writes of reaches its zenith at the start of the second half. After the aforementioned ambush of a train, an injured Turkish soldier shoots Lawrence in the arm, then after realising that the bullet has gone straight through, he smiles to himself and stands his ground rather than take cover as the enemy troop continues to fire and miss all of his shots. He believes himself to be immortal, taking the pain of the bullet like he did earlier with the match ("the trick, is not minding that it hurts") and subsequently posing for photographs as the enthusiastic roar of the crowds cheer him on. 

"Lawrence, I think, had a great opinion of himself, feelings which he said he despised terribly" (Lean, quoted in Organ, 2009: 26)

This vain, godlike aspect of his personality takes a significant beating after being captured and tortured by the Turks in Deraa. After confidently walking into the town believing that he is invisible, that no man could ever capture him, the experience 'forces him to recognise the fact that he, like other men has a breaking point' (Phillips, 2006 310). After at one time declaring that "only a golden bullet" would kill him, Lawrence (for a time) reconciles with the fact hat he is just an ordinary man. It is after this that he realises, perhaps for the first time that he will never be fully assimilated into Arab culture, he points at his skin and says to Ali: "What colour is this? That's me. And there's nothing I can do about it". His 'disguise' failed him, because he didn't blend in with the others in the town, this realisation leaves him truly isolated, since he doesn't fit in with his fellow British troops either.

For a time at least, the only place that Lawrence really feels accepted is among the Arabs. His "nasty, dark little room" in Cairo is a stifling trap for him, with the muffled sounds of the outside world coming through the prison like bars on the windows. It's easy to see him as an outsider - "I'm different", he says to his guide when asked about what the people in Britain are like. Everything about the scenes at high command in Cairo at the start serve to illustrate his character as an oddity amongst those around him, he simply doesn't fit in. His fellow troops are bigoted, which is at odds with Lawrence's love of certain aspects of Arab culture. Even when he's finally treated with esteem upon being congratulated by the British troops when returning from Aqaba, he doesn't relish it nearly as much as when he's parading atop the train as if it was a catwalk when the Arabs are doing the same.

There is a lack of mutual respect between him and his superiors too; wearing a hat in the mess hall and forgetting to salute the general gives him a negative reputation and disapproval from authority:

"General Murray can't stand his [Lawrence's] type. He is arrogant and certainly undisciplined. He can't stand his type for the deeper reason that Lawrence thumbs his nose at precisely the conventions on which military authority rests" -(Caton, 1999: 146)

The military mind-set that the British high command has is ultimately what leaves Lawrence feeling disillusioned; at times it seems that his battles are as much with his fellow Englishmen as they are with the Turks. His successes are undermined by the realisation that the capture of Aqaba and Damascus was 'not for their [the Arab revolt] benefit, but to advance British war aims and preserve its colonial war aims in the Middle East' (Niemi, 2006: 57). 

Lawrence has to prove himself before gaining the respect of Ali. Before the
the famous scene when he is given a set of robes, Lawrence is mainly referred to as 
"English"; Ali has little faith in Lawrence as a tactician and believes he has no right to go back into 
the desert to save Gasim. Freddie Young's diagonal composition here separates the 
foreground from Ali's tribe in the background, to demonstrate their indifference to
his suicidal quest. 

After visiting Jordan in 1960, Lean wrote a long letter to blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson in which he spoke of his attraction to the desert and those who he met there. His description of the environment and the enthusiastic way in which he speaks are words that could have been said by Lawrence himself:

"The desert is wonderful... the rocks are rose red and the whole place is much more impressive than any pictures we have seen in any of the books... The real desert people are the most impressive. Can I make audiences share my thrill?" - Lean, quoted in Brownlow (1997: 412-413)

It seems that Lean felt he had some kind of a duty to present the desert in a way that met up to not only the way Lawrence described it, but how he himself had experience it when visiting. Eddie Fowlie, Lean's right hand man who was a special effects coordinator and location scout has spoken of the fact that Lean would repeatedly tell him that one should be able to take out any moment from a film, put a picture frame and admire it on the wall. The breathtaking cinematography of Freddie Young in this picture certainly would look great above any mantlepiece:

"For ordinary men it's a burning, fiery furnace"- After the famous
match cut, the sky takes up two thirds of the frame to demonstrate
the blistering heat.

However, this is inverted at times. Here it is the desert itself
that takes up the majority of the frame to show the immensity
of the desert environment.

The moment of Lawrence's heroic return from rescuing Gasim. 
By taking advantage of  scale within the frame, we can see in a 
single moment the enormity of what Lawrence has just achieved.

Here Lean pushes the two characters each to the edge of the
frame, accentuating the space in the centre and preparing us for
the arrival of Ali.

Santas argues that locations in Lean films are usually perfectly tied to the thematic aspects of the picture; with such integration serving to emphasise certain motifs. Although specifically making reference to Lean's epics here, this is true also of some of his more low-key pictures, in Brief Encounter (1945) for example, the train station setting underlines how the time that the two lovers have with each other is fleeting and dictated by the ring of the bell that signals the arrival and departure of a train. In Lawrence of Arabia, there are no 'superfluous' shots of the desert, each one is necessary because 'the desert in Arabia was part of Lawrence's psyche - of his struggles to conquer it and unlock its mysteries' (2012: xxxviii). It's clear that Lean was intrigued in the seemingly inscrutable British officer, and it's credit to him and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson that the enigmatic personality of one individual, in my opinion remains the most engrossing aspect of a film of such an epic scale.

Maybe the one moment that sums Lawrence up best is when he arrives at the Suez Canal. A motorcyclist notices the figures on the other side of the water and shouts "who are you?" several times. Lawrence remains completely silent, seemingly unsure of his own personality himself. A line that was dubbed by none other than Lean himself, Turner (Quoted in Phillips, 2006: 309) states that this is in fact the director himself puzzling over the nature of this hero, a "hero" that's incredibly unconventional and fascinating.


Brownlow, K. 1997. David Lean: A Biography. London: Faber & Faber 

Canton, S. 1999. Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology. London: University of California Press

Jackson, K. 2007. Lawrence of Arabia. London: BFI

Niemi, R. 2006. History in the Media: Film and Television. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO

Norman, B. 1998. Barry Norman: 100 Best Films of the Century. London: Orion Media

Organ, S. 2009. David Lean: The Interviews. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson

Phillips, G. 2006. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington

Santas, C. 2012. The Epic Films of David Lean. Maryland: Scarecrow Press

White, J. 2008. Fifty Key British Films. Oxford: Routledge

Williams, M. 2014. David Lean. Manchester University Press: Manchester

Screenshots taken from 'The Cinematography of Lawrence of Arabia'. Available here: and 'The Beautiful Film Frames'. Available here: