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? 

Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole, and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia”

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.) 

LAWRENCE

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.” 

LAWRENCE

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.

LAWRENCE

No, Dryden. It’s going to be fun.

DRYDEN

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.

LAWRENCE

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.

SHERIF ALI

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.

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15 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on June 23, 2021 at 5:32 am

    This film is so chock-full of great examples of theme and story structure. On these Wednesday mornings, I like scanning my environment and what I’ve seen or read recently, and seeing what overlaps with the ideas Steve is laying out. Today’s:

    Ray Boomhower, a friend and senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press, puts out a daily post around literary birthdays. His post today, from Erich Maria Remarque, born on this day in 1898: “No soldier outlives a thousand chances. But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.” So here we are with the theme of destiny.

    Second, I was yesterday revisiting Annaka Harris’s book “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” She references research that has EEGs showing cortical activity signaling impending movement about a half-second before subjects feel they made a conscious decision to move. That is, how much of our action in the world, which we think our conscious mind is driving, is in fact being driven subconsciously — and what does that say about free will? Kind of a tangent, but applies to some degree to the idea of destiny.

    In the film and its portrayal of a journey of self-discovery and destiny, there is of course this pivotal “Who ARE you?” moment, as Lawrence, on his journey of destiny and the extraordinary, struggles with trying to *understand* that destiny. Who am I? Am I a British intelligence officer or am I a Bedouin warrior? You can even hear the dichotomy in the music in this scene, as the arching and dramatic Arabic sounds lapse into some kind of limp British martial trumpets.
    https://youtu.be/p9Uwau7rB8Q?t=43

    • Joe on June 23, 2021 at 5:35 am

      Also, great conversation between two tribe members here: Kate Stanton on Maureen Anderson’s “Doing What Works” podcast: http://maureenanderson.com/audio/061221hour1.mp3

      Enjoyed Kate’s references to Tesla: “If you wish to understand the universe, think of energy, frequency, and vibration.” Also her reference to Flaubert and “be orderly in your work life so you can be disorderly in your creative life” (I think that was the quote).

      • Maureen Anderson on June 23, 2021 at 10:01 am

        There were also multiple references to Steve’s work! He’s apparently taught Kate and me (almost) everything we’re still learning.

        In Derek Sivers’ new book, How to Live, he says everyone has a “great book.” For some it’s the Bible. For others it’s Think and Grow Rich. For me it’s The War of Art. If I could read only one thing over and over for the rest of my life, that would be it.

        I think of this blog as The War of Art, Illustrated. It isn’t quite as much fun as learning in person would be — but man, is it close!

      • Kate Stanton on June 24, 2021 at 6:58 am

        I haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, but I will plan on watching it now. I watched The Maltese Falcon after Steven’s blog and I loved it.

        Thank you Joe & Maureen! I had a wonderful time on the Doing What Works show 🙂

  2. Sam Luna on June 23, 2021 at 10:03 am

    Saw the restored version in the theater a few years ago—-think it had an intermission. I had previously seen it as a teenager in a small art house cinema and fallen asleep. But on the rewatch as an adult I finally “got it.” I really, really got it. Greatest movie ever? Yeah, quite possibly.

    Thought of this group this past week watching a documentary on Amazon Prime called “Nothing Changes: Art for Hank’s Sake.” Speaks to everything The War of Art’s about. Check it out.

    https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Changes-Art-Hanks-Sake/dp/B07SMB6Q8N

    • Joe on June 23, 2021 at 6:43 pm

      Thanks, Sam. Put it into my queue.

  3. L>R> Gardner on June 23, 2021 at 11:49 am

    Oh boy. One of my all-time favorite films, that no one watches anymore, or even has heard of…just try renting this in a video store. Seventeen year old clerk-“HUH? Can you spell that?”
    Swear to God it happened.
    Anyway, thanks for the mention of the Roseanne Cash book. Truly loathe contemporary country music but like the old mountain music. Could not imagine what a country music star could have to say of interest to anyone. BUT, wonderful book. Will now try to listen to her music. Thank you Steve!

  4. Joseph Davidson on June 27, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    Lawrence, unlike most films, has aged very well. The reason, there are no women in it. Women’s dress, hairdos, and way of talking immediately give away the era of the film, not the era that it’s about but when it was made. Lawrence only contains the timeless patter of military men.

  5. lgardner on June 30, 2021 at 10:03 am

    That is a very interesting comment. So, why do those things keep changing? I’m guessing the desire of attention, for one. The continual signaling one gender to the other. For better or worse, the qualities women admire in men have not changed at all.
    The film has indeed aged well. Watch it at least once a year.

  6. among us on June 30, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    Great article, I think I have the same opinion as you. I hope you will have many more good articles.

  7. carla kuhn on July 21, 2021 at 12:32 pm

    Some thoughts to offer, rather off the cuff. Just curious, Steven. Have you come across Extraordinary Women in your readings? I would think they are out there and that their hero journey captures the same spirittual awakening to the power of self. After seeing this moving gahzillions of times and, later, reading his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, what intrigued me was that he knew the power of his awareness. And yet, he was (in hindsight) a captive of the times. Did he not pause to acknowledge this? (Grateful am I) Is the context of physics, is this the tension between matter and anti-matter? Gluons between protons and neutrons? He recognized the swell of empire-building opportunities in the midst of WW1 chaos, but his efforts to urge Arabic tribes to unite, in effect, against the white man were ultimately dismissed, militarily, politically, and then historically. Extraordinary Men and Women, it seems, struggle with the awareness of their brilliance (we all have) but like the gold ring on a carousel, serendipity may or may not extend your reach.

  8. happy wheels on August 7, 2021 at 2:28 am

    Is the context of physics, is the tension between matter and anti-matter? Gluons between protons and neutrons?

  9. Alice Cooper on September 16, 2021 at 2:00 am

    Great article, I think I have the same opinion as you. Thanks.

  10. Lorryy on October 20, 2021 at 1:03 pm

    This is a cool saying “be orderly in your work life so you can be disorderly in your creative life”

  11. Kiingston on October 20, 2021 at 1:12 pm

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