One of the wonderful things about living in Los Angeles is the abundance of movie theaters that play old movies, on film, for no particular reason other than that’s what they do. The American Cinematheque operates two such theaters – the amazing Egyptian in Hollywood and the Aero near my neck of the woods in Santa Monica. The New Beverly is a run-down but cherished city landmark responsible for probably half of my film education while going to school at AFI. There are others that have midnight screenings like the NuArt in West LA. Cultural institutions including the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (The Academy), as well as the Skirball and the Arclight partner with (my alma mater) the American Film Institute curate old classics so film geeks like myself can see the movie on a real movie screen.

So, I would get the calendars and schedules for these theaters and programs to see what plays each month and see which ones also are on my “to see” list. Often, I was fortunate to see great films that I had missed (including Night of the Hunter, Before Sunrise, East of Eden, Harold and Maude, The Last Emperor, etc.) the way they were originally intended to be seen. I even saw Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law featuring the late great Rudy Ray Moore in all its glory on the big screen – probably my favorite terrible film of all time.

And – thanks to you, Los Angeles, and specifically the Cinematheque – I was able to watch, in 70mm film, Lawrence of Arabia at least five times in the theater over the past 10 years. (Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson and directed by one of my film heroes Sir David Lean.)

I don’t exactly remember the first time I saw the film in its entirety. I would always catch chunks of it on AMC or something, but never from start to the finish. So when I moved to LA and discovered that these old classics play in the theater now and again, I made it a point to see Larry of Arabia (as the Aero’s small marquee writes it) in the theater. (I’m familiar with TE Lawrence well enough that I feel comfortable calling him Larry.) I believe the first time I saw the film was with my long time roommate and friend-since-the-first-grade Tom who moved out to LA with me after growing up together. Since then, I saw it alone a couple of times, once with my now-fiancee, and again last summer with friends who were visiting me from (sweet home) Chicago.

Volumes have been written about the stunning cinematography and wide open vistas of the Arabian Desert. And still enough cannot be said about it. It’s truly astounding seeing the film in a theater on a beautiful 70mm print. I refuse now to catch it on television, even though it’s one of my all time favorite movies. (So please pardon the poorly captured YouTube clips. Some of them have the aspect ratio all wrong and other things just as bad as copyright infringement.)

What’s almost as amazing as the film itself is the sheer production logistics that have to go into hauling a massive film crew and a massive Super Panavision 70 film camera, into the middle of the desert nearly 50 years ago. That’s an ambitious assignment with modern travel, cell phones, lighter equipment and scene replacement to help bail out the production team. Without all that, it takes an incredible amount of production coordination that makes my head hurt.

But all their planning still couldn’t prevent a production truck backing up into a pristine desert landscape thereby ruining an entire day of work. (I tried to find this story written somewhere online but it might be apocryphal – though I’m pretty sure it is not as it is often repeated in film industry circles).

The first time Lawrence enters the desert on camel with his guide, there isn’t a single footprint, not a single sign of humanity as massive mountains loom all around. We are entering this desolate, wide-open space just as he does – with awe and humility.

The film is based on the story of the actual British officer who sought to unify (and perhaps modernize) the Arabs and fight the Turks in the early 20th Century. While the film is overall historically accurate, it’s accurate to the extent that any biographical movie is – liberties are taken, multiple people are consolidated into one, and so on and so on. But all of this is entirely beside the point. TE Lawrence and his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom tell the historical story. Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the legend.

Lawrence of Arabia is a very definition of a vast, sweeping epic and at its center is an enigmatic man involved in extraordinary historical circumstances. A man who becomes a legend bigger than himself, who starts to even at one point believe in the legend. And a man who has a deep questioning of his own identity. British, or Arab? Legend, or just a man?

Lawrence – portrayed by the slight and effeminate Peter O’Toole (in perhaps the greatest screen debut in movie history) – begins the movie as an Arab specialist in the British Army. He’s told to go and meet with Prince Feisal and advise them. So how do you get a man in a British Army uniform inside their base out to the desert, cinematically speaking? You do it with one my favorite edits in any movie:

Catch that? It’s a close up of Lawrence, doing this thing where he lets the match burn to his fingertips. It’s very close up. The first real close up of the entire film, probably 10-15 minutes in. Then, he blows it out and it cuts straight to the wide wide wide open desert just before sunrise. It’s something you can do in film that is harder to get away with in literature where there would be so many details missing of him getting ready to go, getting a camel and guide, packing for the desert, then leaving, etc. But here, like the snap of the finger or the flicker of an ember, we’re already out there in the desert. Like how our memory operates – only the relevant bits.

The juxtaposing of the close up of the face, the flame, and then the flame-red sunrise is why it’s so striking. Not to mention the music builds and introduces that legendary theme for the first time right after it. We watch the sun just start to burn the morning desert sky with its crimson fire.

And then we see the desert. The incredible wide expansive vistas and two tiny souls on camels inching through. It reminds me of Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, Oh Lord, thy sea is so vast and my ship is so small. But with a beautiful crane move. With Lawrence and his guide resting in the desert, we get a first taste of Lawrence’s romanticism and dedication. He won’t take a drink of his water if his Bedouin guide doesn’t drink from his.

The first half of the movie, we see Lawrence trying to prove himself, especially to Sherif Ali (the intense and deep Omar Sharif), that he’s genuinely interested in the Arabs unifying. Lawrence arrives just in time to see an aerial massacre by the Turks against Arabs on horseback with simple guns, leaving Prince Feisal (Ben Kenobi, er, Obi-Wan, er… Alec Guinness) beside himself.

Oh, brief historical interlude. (Forgive my over-simplification of this era. I’m sure Wikipedia will be more than happy to fill you in on the details.) At the time the events of the film take place, the early 20th Century, the Middle East was a collection of kingdoms, princely states, and nomadic tribes – much like South Asia and oh probably a lot of the non-Western world back then. No real modern nations as we think of them today existed after the fall of the Caliphate, except for the Turks who were German allies in World War I. (Much of this era and the support of the “Arab Revolt” was a proxy for European conflicts over colonial territories and spheres of influence and part of England’s infamous “divided and conquer” strategy that served them throughout the former colonies… but we can save that discussion for after class. Fist shaking is encouraged.)

The Arabs, however, were not an organized single entity. They needed a unifying force. Lawrence (the real one) would help lead them.


First, Lawrence (the movie one) has to prove himself worthy. And to do that, he has to figure out how to drive the Turks out of the region. The big problem is that the Turks have these massive guns that point to the sea, so the British won’t use their naval fleet to invade from the water. What lies between Feisal, Ali, Lawrence and the coastal Turkish-run cities of Arabia is a lengthy trek that may prove fruitless.

So Lawrence has to come up with a solution – and there’s this fascinating “thinking” sequence where he drifts out into the desert at night. But we see the scene through the eyes of his two stable boys who watch him think. Lawrence is out in the desert alone, just thinking. This is essentially a major screenwriting and filmmaking no-no. Which is why it’s awesome. We watch Lawrence think – there’s no dialogue, just some reactions from the two kids, and the music. The music! It represents his thoughts! It builds as and comes together as he hatches a plan. And it ends with one exclaimed word:


Lawrence hatches a plan. He says they will lead a handful of men on camels, defy death by passing through the Nefud Desert, the “Devil’s Anvil” – a nearly impassable stretch of wasteland – and take the coastal city of Aqaba from the side the Turks are not defending: land. Because who would be foolish enough to tempt death by crawling through the hottest place in the world with a band of Arab mercenaries? Aqaba’s only defense, those huge canons, point away from the desert and to the sea. Sherif Ali reluctantly agrees to the hare-brained scheme and they lumber off.

The trek is tedious. It’s filmed that way – long searing, blown-out landscapes. Heat rising off the desert in waves. The band sleeps during the day when it’s hottest and ride at night, gathering other tribes of Arabs along the way. After probably 20-minutes of on-screen travel, they’re finally about to exit the Nefud.

But Lawrence sees in their long train of camels and men that one of the camels is without a man. A man named Gasim (I.S. Johar) fell asleep on his ride and fell off. Sharif Ali says they should go on, he’s lost. Lawrence wants to go back and get him. Ali tells him – “Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.” When Ali says that if he goes back after him we won’t be in Aqaba, Lawrence points to his head and says, I shall be at Aqaba. That, IS written. In here-” pointing to his head. So he goes back into the desert! And Ali is pissed.

The next sequence is awesome because we don’t see Lawrence for a long time, just as the caravan doesn’t. We see Gasim, stumbling along alone in the desert with the heat beating down. We see a close up of the sun beating down. Back to Gasim.

Back to the caravan. What will happen – will Lawrence survive? The best way to show that is the way Sir David decided to – through the eyes of Lawrence’s sidekick Daud, waiting with hope towards the endless horizon.

And then a speck on the horizon. Followed by a shot of a completely cloth- and sand-covered Lawrence with Gasim draped across the back of his camel. (Note: I couldn’t get these clips below to embed, but you can click to the site – the clips are well captured.)

I love this scene…

… partially by the way his sidekick pronounces “Lawrence!” (More “Or-runts!” than “Lawrence.”) But especially by Ali, clearly amazed by the accomplishment, brings water to Lawrence – now his peer, an equal, and maybe a hero. And Lawrence says, throat completely destroyed by the heat and dust:

“Nothing is written.”:

Badass. Lawrence’s legend begins.

The man is now in – he’s one of them. Ali acknowledges it: ” Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.” They even give him his own set of Arabic robes. And this really begins the theme of identity that Lawrence grapples with throughout. He has revealed to Ali that while his father is an English lord, he is not because “my mother never married my father.” Ali says that means Lawrence is free to make his own name, his own identity.

And while Lawrence’s skin is white and he’s English, he identifies with the Arabs as if he’s one of them. He’s so taken with his new clothes that he starts prancing around in them, only to be caught by regional warlord Auda Abu Tayi (played by the gnarly and garrulous Anthony Quinn, “a river to my people!”) – who soon joins the band of fighters.

But we’re still not yet at Aqaba! Before we get there, there is another scene to illustrate the difficulty in unifying the various Arab tribes.

They’re getting closer to the coastal city, and then one night there is a confrontation amongst the Arabs. Someone from Ali’s tribe has murdered someone from Auda’s – blood spilled because of an ancient feud. So Auda and Ali say the man has to be executed. But if he’s executed by one of the other tribe, then everything will descend into chaos and the entire campaign will be lost. Lawrence comes up with a solution – he’ll pull the trigger since he has no tribal allegiance.

He holds up the gun, and then, we cut to his point of view – there’s a crowd of people around the offender and they clear. Lawrence’s reaction says it all:


The man he saved in the desert is the one he has to execute. O’Toole as Lawrence is so good here because you see a mixture of rage, confusion, disappointment, fear – and then he shoots.

Auda asks what’s the big deal? When told Lawrence had to kill the man that he saved in the desert, Auda shrugs, “I guess it was written.”

Finally! They get to Aqaba. And it’s this incredible wide pan that starts left and pans right with the men on horse and camel rushing towards the city, and then the pan ends with the sea on the right.

And in the foreground are the massive guns. Unmanned, useless, and silent. That’s the battle. It’s over and done in just that one beautifully composed shot as the music rises and we see the sea glimmering in the distance.

After the pillage of Aqaba, Lawrence and Ali stand at night at the sea, victorious. But it’s not over for Lawrence – he decides to take two sidekicks with him in the desert, trek down to Cairo, and tell the British Army the news, that they’ve driven the Turks out of Aqaba.

But it goes poorly. Sandstorms, the loss of Daud in quicksand, abandoned outposts. Rendered nearly insane by the journey, he sees the top of a big ship, a boat, rising above the sand dunes. It’s a seemingly surrealist departure from Lean’s usual traditionalist visual expression – but it turns out to be the Suez Canal. They’ve made it down the Sinai Peninsula back to Cairo.

At the British base, everybody looks at him with rank confusion and borderline racism. He’s in full Arab dress, face a deep brown, dust-covered, walking with his young sidekick into this British officers’ boys club. There’s this great scene where he asks for lemonade. His voice quivers and says, “it’s for him!” pointing to his friend.

Lawrence reports that he’s taken Aqaba. They think he’s gone mad, but he describes the operation and is immediately promoted and promised weapons to start a guerrilla campaign in the desert.

But here’s the major part of this section that gets me, and why I love this film so much. He tells General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) that he had to kill a man in the desert and describes the execution of Gasim.

And the camera moves in as he says, “I enjoyed it.”

There’s something within Lawrence – either a destiny for greatness, a inner restlessness, a demon, a longing for an identity – but something that he continues to grapple with throughout. Is he Arab? Is he British? Is he a legend? Is he just a man?

Lawrence of Arabia is a personal journey and self exploration film cloaked as an epic. And it’s written over O’Toole’s face throughout.

I can’t imagine going to pitch a film to Sony Pictures Studios and say, Yeah, I need $100 Million Dollars to explore the nature of human savagery, racial identity, and ambition. Oh and there will be Arabs and most will be good guys. (Actually, I can imagine doing it, and I can easily imagine the response…) Incidentally, Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, LA is where they have the David Lean Building complete with really great making-of photos from Lawrence of Arabia adorning the walls. But I digress…

Following a Shadow

The first half of the film is Lawrence ingratiating himself to the Arabs. The second half of the film is him running amok in the desert as a guerrilla warrior. There’s of course this great cut and scene of him blowing up a train:

(Don’t you love the “shooting” of guns and the “shooting” of the camera juxtaposed?)

Lawrence clearly is having fun. And he is now a legend. How do you illustrate a legend visually? Sir David knows how.

After successfully derailing the train, Lawrence is almost killed by a soldier’s bullet. Unflinching, he waits for the man to shoot him, as if to test his invincibility – but he is killed from behind by Auda. Then, Lawrence walks atop the wreckage as the heroic music swells and they cheer “Lawrence! Lawrence!” After the photographer takes a snap, we cut down from the train – not to the train top as you would imagine. The focus instead is on his shadow. The shadow’s robes flow in the wind and he seems to dance along. And everyone cheers and follows it. The image is powerful and beautifully conceived because it says so much – people aren’t just following a man, their following his essence, his aura.

He is mythic:

But of course, he is mortal. While scouting a Turkish held city, Lawrence is captured. His white skin gives him away, so much so that the guards, after stripping him naked, grab at the white flesh on his shoulder. He is set up to be tortured and the scene ends with the audience understanding in a nudge nudge wink wink way that bad things happen to Lawrence. They don’t say he’s sexually assaulted or raped, but it’s very strongly  implied.

After being dumped back out onto the streets, and back to grappling with if he’s a legend or just a man, Lawrence decides to go back to the British base in Jerusalem. At the base he awkwardly tries to fit in. It’s great, he’s fake-smiley, his uniform fits poorly, he tries to prance around with perhaps a touch of hamming it up.

But General Allenby insists that Lawrence head back out to the desert and help their big push on to Damascus, Syria. Lawrence, tormented, finally gives in. The blood starts to emerge where he was whipped on his back. But he’s returning to feeling like he’s legendary, that he’s one of the Arabs. When Allenby says they’ll be given all the money there is, Lawrence says, “Not that much.”

“They won’t be coming for guns or money. They’ll be coming for me.”

And he walks in front a sculpture relief, a low-angle heroic shot:

Immediately after that, we’re back in the desert. And they have come for him. Lawrence has pristine white robes and seemingly distant to his old friend Ali. Lawrence’s band comes across a retreating band of Turks who have just slaughtered a tribe of people. Lawrence and the crew see the wounded Turks in the distance.

This is the most chilling scene of the film. There’s a wide long shot point of view at the Turks. Then back to the line of Arabs atop their horses. Ali tells Lawrence to go around, it’s not worth it. But what of the slaughtered village? Then one Arab says, “No Prisoners” and charges on his own. He’s shot down by the Turks, his blood on the sand. And then a close up of Lawrence, eyes crazed, literally shaking with rage. He shouts.


Man, it gives me goosebumps. He storms down with everyone else and they just mercilessly slaughter the Turkish soldiers. It’s the bloodthirsty Lawrence who “likes it.” As if no longer in control of his senses, he shoots people left and right. The violence is so striking that Ali yells out to Lawrence who looks back and shoots an expression of either embarrassment, disbelief, or confusion.

Lawrence and his Arab army take Damascus and immediately try to set up a working government. But these are nomadic tribesmen from rival tribes and no one is willing to work together. Soon, many of them give up trying and hand over the city to the British.

Lawrence, being neither Arab enough to take over the city for the Arab cause nor a British diplomat, he is soon cut out of the picture on how to rule Damascus. Again, Lawrence is an in-betweener. He is given a promotion and told to go home. He’s chewed up, callously, his seeming usefulness over in the eyes of politicians and ordinary men.

The final scene is the punctuation on this theme of dual identity we’ve seen throughout the film. Lawrence, in his British officer’s uniform, is in an open-topped car being driven on a desert road. The solider driving him, in a great cockney accent asks, “Home, sir?”

Just then a few Arab nomads on camels saunter past and Lawrence is transfixed as we zoom past in the modern car. The driver asks again, “I said, going home, sir?”

The question hangs in the air, unanswered as the picture ends.


The reasons I love the film are evident by the appropriately epic weblog entry here. But I do want to bring up one interesting thing that is certainly not shocking to anyone who has lived in the US from oh let’s say 1979 to present day. There have been dreadfully few positive images of Arabs in popular Western culture. And I dare say that nearly all of them are in this film. Ali, especially, is a fully fleshed out complex friend to Lawrence. He clearly loves him. It’s easy to speculate that he and Lawrence were lovers (T. E. Lawrence was believed to be homosexual by some scholars), but that’s irrelevant – they were clearly friends and Ali is at pains when Lawrence does not act like himself.

Jack Shaheen, film historian, has compiled a very thorough study of the stereotyping of Arabs in Western media, including in his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs. He writes: Arabs “consistently appeared in American popular culture as billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers.” The numbers of positive, fully-rounded characters are grim. I’m trying to find online the actual numbers because I saw it once, but it’s obvious there are almost no positive portrayals of Arabs.  That can lead us to believe one of two things:

  1. Arabs are really bad so that makes sense, or
  2. We’re probably not seeing or depicting Arabs as fully fleshed out humans.

I’m on Team 2.

But Lawrence of Arabia also is interesting to re-watch given the most recent decade of watching geopolitical events unfold in the Middle East – especially this past year and the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. The origins are all varied and complex, but I’m sure this is in some way the logical tail end of T. E. Lawrence’s era – arrogant colonial rule that carved out poorly drawn modern borders, the placement of truly evil men to rule, and also the difficulty of unifying people across tribal lines. All of these are hinted at or explicitly shown in Lawrence of Arabia made nearly fifty years ago about events nearly one hundred years ago.

So watch the film again (or for the first time) with that in mind. But still, it’s an epic tale that masks a deeper question that the film explores through Lawrence/O’Toole: Who am I?