I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn. And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it. Well, I intend to rectify that now.
Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.
And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia. They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.
But first, I want to talk about what doesn’t make Lawrence of Arabia great. This is important, because misunderstanding this has led many critics to give superficial interpretations of the film and, worse yet, it has led filmmakers to emulate the wrong things in trying to make equally great films.
You will often hear references to Lawrence‘s sweeping desert landscapes, or the gorgeous cinematography that makes the audience feel as if they are caught up in the Arab revolt. And indeed the cinematography is beautiful. There are many memorable scenes, most famously Ali’s appearance through a mirage on the desert horizon.
But strong cinematography alone does not make a film great, and the history of cinema is replete with examples of beautiful films that are nonetheless failures. Many a would-be epic filmmaker fails because they mistakenly believe that beautiful vistas and ingenious scene composition are the secret to great cinema.
Another often-cited element of Lawrence‘s greatness is the performance of the excellent cast. And they are indeed terrific. Peter O’Toole’s performance is deservedly legendary, and Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness are splendid in supporting roles.
What I really love are the performances of the minor actors. Claude Rains almost steals the show during the latter half of the film with his portrayal of the sardonic and cynical diplomat Dryden. Gamil Ratib delivers the word “so” in a way so memorable I think they ought to name an acting award after him. I don’t know the name of the actor who portrayed the mercenary growling “no prisoners” to Lawrence before the massacre scene, but he too was brilliant.
But a strong cast isn’t enough to make a film great. There are many war epics with all-star casts that never became classics like Lawrence. Great actors can only do so much for a film. If the material isn’t good to begin with, the cast probably isn’t going to save it.
This is the key to what makes Lawrence of Arabia great: the screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson is what sets it apart from the typical war movie.
As much as the film is famed for its long running time (the restored versions clock in at about 220 minutes), the script is shockingly spare. This is probably why so many people come away talking about the desert vistas and massive battle scenes–because there is a lot of that, compared with a relatively small number of spoken lines.
This is a more remarkable achievement than beautiful cinematography. Anybody with a camera and an eye for beauty can get great pictures. It’s much harder to write an intelligent script that concisely communicates major political conflicts and complex emotions.
It’s like the famous quote, often mis-attributed to Mark Twain, but in fact originated by Blaise Pascal: “I made this letter very long only because I have not had the time to make it shorter”. It’s much, much easier to unleash a torrent of highfalutin verbiage with your general point buried somewhere in the middle of it than it is to economically state what you want to say clearly and succinctly.
In other words: brevity is hard. (See what I did there?)
This is rare enough in any screenplay. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the Lawrence screenplay was adapted from T.E. Lawrence’s memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an extremely thick book that seems at times to be deliberately obscure.
An example of how hard it is to craft something so simple and powerful: the BFI Film Classics book on Lawrence of Arabia, by Kevin Jackson, quotes Robert Bolt’s recollection of a discussion with Director David Lean about a scene in which Lawrence talks about his feelings on killing:
“[Lawrence] mentions that there’s ‘something else’, apart from the guilt.
David said, “What is ‘something else’, Robert?”
I said, “Well, he sort of enjoyed it.”
David’s script went up in the air.”For heaven’s sake, why don’t you put it in.”
How was it written in the finished product? Like so:
Lawrence: I killed two people. One was… yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was… well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.
Now, it’s true that O’Toole’s chilling delivery goes a long way towards making this line so effective. Part of the reason the economical script is so successful is due to the first-rate performances. Bad acting or direction would have undoubtedly robbed it of its power.
A screenwriter can only dare to write spare dialogue if they know they can trust the actors to convey subtle emotions non-verbally, and to give just the right line readings. If a writer or director does not trust the actors, the temptation to write a more verbose script increases.
But as I said, there are lots and lots of movies with great actors in them. It’s way more common for a great cast to be brought down by a lousy script than it is for a great script to be brought down by a lousy cast.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of movies with all-star casts giving great performances. But I’ve seen only one other movie with a script that packed so much meaning into so few words, and that had such trust in its cast to perfectly convey their characters’ emotions. That is how rare an achievement Lawrence of Arabia is.
I haven’t even delved into the way the movie handles the complex geopolitical and cultural issues inherent in the story. Imperialism and conflict in the Middle East are as relevant now as they were in Lawrence’s time, as well as when the film was made. And because of the way the film portrays each side–the British, the Arabs, and the Turks–the modern audience can still relate to it, even though the British and Ottoman Empires are now both defunct.
That is another aspect of the screenplay’s brilliance: the way it balances the political and cultural matters with the an intimate portrayal of Lawrence’s complex psychology. It never turns into heavy-handed propaganda, leaving it largely to the viewer to understand the machinations of the various groups. Like Lawrence himself, we see just enough to know that they are plotting something behind the scenes.
And it leaves open to interpretation who really knows more about the situation in Arabia. Are Lawrence and his Arab allies naive idealists, unable to understand the hard, practical realities as the generals, kings, and politicians do? Or are the aloof deal-makers who see it all as lines on a map the ones who have lost touch with the brutal truths of war?
That the film captures all this in such a subtle and elegant way is what makes it a triumph of cinema.
The acting is first-rate. The cinematography is impeccable. The soundtrack is rich, stirring and powerful. The desert scenery is wondrous to behold.
But it’s none of these things that make Lawrence of Arabia a classic that people still watch more than a half-century after its release. That is due instead to its tight, intelligent, expertly-crafted screenplay that perfectly weaves together all the elements of Lawrence’s experience.