Top 100 Movie Review: No. 010 – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Ranked 010 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during the month of July 2020.

Cast: Peter O’Toole (T.E. Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Faisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (General Allenby), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali), José Ferrer (Turkish Bey), Anthony Quayle (Colonel Brighton), Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden), Arthur Kennedy (Jackson Bentley), Donald Wolfit (General Murray)
Directors: David Lean
My rating: 9.5 / 10

The film opens in 1935 when Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter tries (with little success) to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him.

The story then moves to the First World War, where Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a misfit British Army lieutenant, notable for his insolence and way of speaking. Over the objections of General Murray (Donald Wolfit), Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau sends him to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, his Bedouin guide, Tafas, is killed by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif ) for drinking from his well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), who orders him to keep quiet and not offer an opinion. Lawrence ignores Brighton’s orders when he meets Faisal. His outspokenness piques the prince’s interest.

Brighton advises Faisal to retreat after an air attack killed many of Faisal’s men, but Lawrence instead proposes a daring surprise attack on Aqaba; its capture would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. The town is strongly fortified against a naval assault but only lightly defended on the landward side due to inhospitable desert. He convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a sceptical Sherif Ali. Teenage orphans Daud and Farraj attach themselves to Lawrence as servants. They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. One of Ali’s men, Gasim, succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. When Lawrence discovers him missing, he turns back and rescues Gasim—and Sherif Ali is won over. He gives Lawrence Arab robes to wear.

Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence’s scheme is almost derailed when one of Ali’s men kills one of Auda’s because of a blood feud. Howeitat retaliation would shatter the fragile alliance, so Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. He is then stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, the very man he risked his own life to save in the desert, but he shoots him anyway.

The next morning, the Arabs overrun the Turkish garrison. Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), of his victory. While crossing the Sinai Desert, Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money for the Arabs. He is deeply disturbed, confessing that he enjoyed executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs’ suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. When pressed, the general states that he does not believe that they do.

Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) publicises Lawrence’s exploits, making him famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave him to be tortured by the enemy, Lawrence shoots him dead before fleeing.

When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Deraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey (José Ferrer). Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. Then, for striking out at the Bey, he is severely flogged before being thrown into the street. The experience leaves Lawrence shaken. He returns to British headquarters in Cairo but does not fit in.

A short time later in Jerusalem, General Allenby urges him to support the “big push” on Damascus. Lawrence hesitates to return but finally relents.

Lawrence recruits an army that is motivated more by money than by the Arab cause which causes Sherif Ali to be concerned . They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers, many of they badly injuried, who have just massacred the residents of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men is from Tafas; he demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Despite Sherif Ali’s pleads to go around this Turks Lawrence takes up the dead man’s battle cry “No prisoners!”; the result is a slaughter in which Lawrence himself participates. Afterwards, he regrets his actions in what is clearly a war crime to also kill the soldiers who did not fight back – the injured, the and unarmed and the surrendering soldiers.  When correspondent Bentley arrives he is appalled with Sherif Ali saying on barbaric Arabs could do this but he means Lawrence.  

Lawrence’s men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but the desert tribesmen prove ill-suited for such a task. Despite Lawrence’s efforts, they bicker constantly. Unable to maintain the public utilities, the Arabs soon abandon most of the city to the British.

Lawrence is promoted to colonel and immediately ordered back to Britain, as his usefulness to both Faisal and the British is at an end. As he leaves the city, his automobile is passed by a motorcyclist who leaves a trail of dust in his wake.

What’s to Like
The epic scale of the story and the real life Lawrence who is very hard to understand, the cinematography, the score, the acting.

What’s not to Like

Lawrence of Arabia is a epic historical drama film based on the life of British officer T. E. Lawrence meaning that a lot of what is in the film actually occurred with this larger than life World War 1 combatant.  Despite being an epic scale the film still covers Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence inherent in war (which he despairs when he finds he likes the killing), his own identity, and his divided allegiance between Britain and his new-found comrades within the Arabian desert tribes.

The horror of war is on full display and many times Lawrence knows he is losing himself and tries to leave but is call back and ultimately while he exceeds what any British General could have hoped for he loses a major part of his soul to the violence and still fails to help create the Arab country with the British and French agreement to split the area between them under the Sykes–Picot Agreement which created a number of artificial countries that plague the region to this day.

The music alone is worth watching this film but then you add in the visuals, the acting and the story and it’s a must watch. 

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – Winner
  • Best Director (David Lean) – Winner
  • Best Cinematography, Colour – Winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour – Winner
  • Best Sound – Winner
  • Best Film Editing – Winner
  • Best Music, Score – Substantially Original – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter O’Toole) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Omar Sharif) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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