The Empty Balcony: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is the grandest of them all. Grand scope, grand personalities, and a grand, at times overpowering, score. The film is at or near the top of more ‘best movies ever’ lists than is worth recounting here. It is a classic, a film at the apogee of the industry’s aspirations for crafting epics. It was also a gaping hole in my experience of film. Until this weekend, I had never seen more than the first few minutes and some random clips here and there. Mostly, I had just never set aside the time. For the last few years, however, I never sought out the film because of what I know of the Middle East, and the film industry’s liberal interpretations of history.

There has been a recent topical expansion of books on my shelf. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The Persian Puzzle by Kenneth Pollack. A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. And there’s more. I would look on my shelf and see these very bold and blunt books about history and politics in the Middle East and Asia, and would think that no movie from 1962, no matter how gorgeous, could rise above what a friend of mine has called “the last bastion of openly acceptable racism in the country.” That is, even before I’d seen any significant portion of the film beyond the opening motorcycle ride, I’d decided that the plot must consist of little more than lies, or a patronizing portrait of the wise and angelic westerner leading the savages to glory and victory they could not otherwise achieve on their own. After decades of films with plots involving both war and peace similar to that above, what confidence could I have that there would be depth in a film that’s so universally loved? That’s quite a bit of snobbishness on my part that kept me from just seeing a movie.

I was prepared to see a film that bathed its main character in admiration, but Lawrence, as played by Peter O’Toole, is one of the most conflicted characters ever on screen. Sure in his purpose, relentless in his drive, he nevertheless is in constant battle with his conscience. He is keenly aware of the strange figure he cuts among his countrymen, and consequently seeks to find an identity with the Arabs. He is an egotist supreme. He believes only he knows how to win the Great War’s far-flung battles in the Middle East, and is unafraid of saying so. He takes on the airs of a prophet, whose destiny is to lead his adopted people to the Promised Land. In this case, Damascus. No forty years in the desert for Lawrence, however. Rifles, intimidation, and flank attacks are the methods of political expedience he employs.

The other major characters in the film are played to the hilt. Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali (a combination of many real members of Hussein bin Ali’s family), Alec Guiness as Prince Feisal (later in life King of Iraq), Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayl, and Jack Hawkins as General Edmund Allenby all give their best. What differentiates them the most from Lawrence are their static, one-dimensional characteristics. They are used to effect as objects Lawrence can bounce off of, so much so that they all seem to be at Lawrence’s bidding, even while pursuing their own agendas behind his back. Only Sherif Ali seems to be willing to follow Lawrence to the end without question.

What the film presents is a fictionalized accounting of one of the most complex political dramas of the 20th Century. While the wars in Europe shaped the Cold War, the current international environment was shaped by events depicted or alluded to in this film. In many ways, what was considered a back woods arena to the real war in Europe has turned out to have more far-reaching implications to the world we live in today than the trenches on the Western and Eastern Fronts. “Lawrence of Arabia” doesn’t gloss over this at all, showing unusual foresight for having been made at the height of the Cold War, when the Middle East was obscure to westerners.

The British are depicted as using the Arab Revolt against the Turks to further their own aims. Which is accurate. The Arabs are always watchful of the British, sure that at some point the British, and their French allies, will force them to sublimate their own aspirations to the greater glory of European empires. That is accurate. The interplay of rhetoric and hidden truths among the power brokers show that this film makes no attempt to apologize for the successes of one side versus the raw deals handed the other.

While the depth of the film is refreshing, its historical accuracy is much debated. Lawrence as played by O’Toole was emotional. Lawrence as told by history was bold, yet reserved. Lawrence in the film is oversold in his importance as the motivator of Arab success in their revolt against the Turks. Also, he was hardly in the dark on the machinations of the French and British in the area, as the film would have you believe.

Additionally, the three prominent Arabs in the film, Feisal, Sherif Ali, and Auda, are played by an Englishman, an Egyptian, and a Mexican wearing a woeful false nose. The only one of the three who apparently captured the mannerisms of his real-life counterpart was Alec Guiness, the Englishman, who bore a striking resemblance to the real life Feisal once in costume. It would be easy to look on casting decisions as a nod to the necessities of the time, especially when employing such talent, but it makes these characters feel dated. Were Lawrence of Arabia made today, there would be little justification at having these men played by anyone who was not of Arab extraction.

Historical inaccuracies and Anglo-Arab casting end up having a constant presence in the film. It is not political correctness that makes them apparent, it is their own inauthenticity.

Taking this into consideration, the quality of the film cannot be ignored. Like many historical films, it does not owe the bulk of its success to the accuracy of its facts. Lawrence of Arabia is an incredible film, with an incredible story, incredible performances, and incredible locations. For the three hours a viewer immerses themselves in it, they are transported to the exotic. After the end, viewers lurch back into their own lives, memories of the film powerful enough to feel like real experiences. That is the very definition of suspension of disbelief, and of great cinema.