The Understory in “Lawrence of Arabia”
What is Lawrence of Arabia REALLY about? And how does this deeper story inform and shape the surface drama of the film?
Let’s start with the very first scene after the opening credits. We meet Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) as an obscure English army lieutenant in an office in the basement (not an accident!) of Allied headquarters in Cairo. It’s World War I in the Middle East and Lawrence is as far away from the action as it’s possible to get. (In other words, Lawrence’s circumstances when we first encounter him are a lot like those of Luke Skywalker on the desert planet Tattooine.)
Here is William Potter with my newspaper!
In comes a corporal. He hands the paper, which is in Arabic, to Lawrence. Lawrence scans a headline, translating aloud. “Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold.”
I’ll bet there’s no one in the whole of this headquarters who even knows this has happened. Or would care if he did.
What Lawrence of Arabia is REALLY about is the challenge and heartbreak of being a Man of Destiny, an Extraordinary Man.
The war, the Arab revolt, the fate of the Middle East … these are important and dramatic and colorful. But they are ultimately only the background against which the deeper story plays out. The director, David Lean, and the writers, Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, establish this theme right here at the film’s beginning. Lawrence, though obscure and without influence in the army, not only reads Arabic (we can be pretty sure none of the British generals do) but is already alert to the possibility, undreamt of among the upper ranks, of a Bedouin revolt that might affect and even determine the outcome of the war in this theater.
The filmmakers seed dozens of other “extraordinary man” beats throughout the story.
DRYDEN (CLAUDE RAINS)
Only two kinds of creatures get fun in the desert—Bedouin and gods … and you’re neither.
No, Dryden. It’s going to be fun.
It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.
The writers and David Lean set a counter-theme against this idea of Lawrence’s personal extraordinariness and the thought of the Extraordinary Man shaping history. This is the Koranic concept, voiced throughout the film by numerous Bedouin characters including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) by the phrase, “It was written.” Meaning that God alone, or Fate or Destiny, determines the outcome of events. Lawrence of course rejects this.
Nothing is written.
And his incredible feats—crossing the uncrossable Nefud desert, capturing the uncapturable Turkish port of Aqaba, etc.—seem to bear this out.
Truly, for some men, nothing is written unless they write it themselves.
What’s fascinating to me about the filmmakers’ choices is that, in the end, the narrative they craft (which they could have shaped in any number of other ways) cedes the case that Fate is the ultimate decider. Events as they unfold, including Lawrence’s destiny, apparently were “written.” Lawrence, for all his vision and genius and charisma, can’t seem to escape his own fate … or that of the Arab kingdoms in that era.
What makes this movie so great (in my opinion it’s #1 all-time), above and beyond the scale and majesty of its production, beyond its writing and acting and directing, is the depth of its Understory—the power of what the story is REALLY about.