Review of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Moving picture, 3.6 hours

Review refers to a 210 minute version, presumably the “UK original” (albeit restored).

A man tinkers with his motorcycle and dies in a crash on a British country road in 1936. From a grand service following his death, we flash back to a minor British officer who believes he is very special. He has considerable success leading and thereby uniting some Arab tribes against the Turks during WW1, in what is now considered the first intentional asymmetric warfare operation though it happened “alongside” Lettow-Vorbeck’s similar work in Africa. Promising independence if Arabia fights as a nation, the man discovers that he hates and fears bloodshed because he enjoys it. Although the Great Powers promise nothing, the man fights on, increasingly unsure of himself.

A martial epic biopic by David Lean, opening with the line nil nisi bonum, (speak) “nothing but good” (of the dead), and then doing a fair job of explaining and questioning the life that just ended. Even so, it’s consistently creepy in its orientalism and its stubborn celebration of the man, whose actual biography is rather more weird.

There is something wildly appealing in the idea of Thomas Edward Lawrence questioning his sanity as he puts his hand to massive geopolitical changes that would grow wildly out of control, starting with the French and British immediately reneging on what he’d promised. This is how the British created Iraq. The cinematography is good, when it stays at a distance. This is no surprise; Nicolas Roeg led the second unit!

References here: “Court Martial” (1967), Patton (1970), Voir (2021).

moving picture fiction