Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia ★★★★½

"Lawrence of Arabia" isn't historically accurate, but it's historically true. David Lean and Robert Bolt tell T.E. Lawrence's story with few illusions about British colonial ambitions in the Middle East. For all the white savior aspects of a movie like this, their Lawrence still manages to fail and betray a lot of the people he says he’ll save.

I first saw this movie on TV when I was 12 and didn't like it. I thought I'd get more of a desert adventure movie. It’s that, but it's also long, talky, Lawrence cries a lot, he can't make up his mind, gets weirdly maniacal, gets good people killed, and just isn't the James Bond in the desert my 12-yr-old brain wanted. Now I see Lawrence as a man struggling with wild mood swings, PTSD, murder, his own sexual assault, and knowing in his heart that everything he’s doing will ultimately betray his Arab comrades. Now I see one of the great character pieces ever put on film.

Lean, Bolt, and Wilson demystify the Lawrence legend that so many Brits their age grew up revering. It opens with Lawrence’s death and memorial at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his bust has been placed in the company of the greatest military commanders in British history. Lean deconstructs and rebuilds that legend. They place Lawrence’s struggle to pull his fragile, flawed personality together to accomplish what he did alongside his greatest achievements.

You get a hint of it after the memorial when an American reporter, Jackson Bentley, who knew Lawrence, praises him to another reporter for publication: “Yes, it was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior." Then, snidely, to a friend, he adds: “He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.”

That last crack gets him an upbraiding from a blowhard British nationalist and Lawrence idolator at the memorial – a man we’ll meet later in the film when he mistakes Lawrence in his Harith robes for an Arab, slaps him, and calls him a “filthy little wog.” The Lawrence legend that the nationalist clings to, that’s the one Lean and Bolt take apart.

Lean and Bolt give us the battles Lawrence won, and in grand scale. Yet they devote the first half of their story to his uncomfortable immersion in Arab culture, to proving himself a leader among them, before the first battle in Aqaba. Lean shoots that battle quickly, he skims its tactics and drama – because Lean and Bolt know Lawrence’s psychological struggle to even get there was the real fight.

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