Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s epic film from 1962, is inevitably associated with the cult of the hero. This masterpiece, recounting the amazing feats of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War, and showered with Academy Awards, seems at first glance to fit the mold. But in fact, Lean quite deliberately breaks it, and this has caused a good deal of misunderstanding. The picture’s impeccable craft—superb photography, sound, editing, music, and production design—practically needs no comment. It boasts a hypnotic lead performance by Peter O’Toole, with fine supporting work from Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness. It is arguably the finest achievement in the widescreen format (in this case, Panavision). Lean’s camera placement and composition, his patient dramatic sense, the intelligence and subtlety of the performances that he elicits, inspire admiration if not outright awe. Ironically, though, the film’s magnificent scope and beauty has tended to obscure its unusual purpose. For the figure at the movie’s center is not the unconflicted hero of popular fiction, but a deeply ambivalent and eccentric loner who becomes permanently scarred by his adventures.
Lean’s subversion of the hero myth is spelled out clearly by the contrast between the movie’s two parts, separated by an intermission. (Those were the days, when they had intermissions.) The first part depicts the ascent of Lawrence the hero—gaining the trust of the Arab fighters through understanding of their ways, the daring trek across the wastes to take Aqaba, his incredible rescue of the comrade who has been left behind in the desert, and his death-defying journey to Cairo. In the midst of this, we see hints of what is to come—Lawrence hates the imperialism of his own country; he identifies with the Arabs to the point of donning their garb; he is intensely revolted by his own attraction to violence and killing.
In the second part, Lawrence has become unbalanced by his success. He falls prey to messianic delusions. A traumatic experience in Deraa, where he is briefly captured incognito by the Turks, closes him off even to his friend Ali (the Omar Sharif character). The love of battle overrides his strategic sense. Lean supports the shift in mood with stylistic changes. The rhythm is choppier, with an almost impulsive quality. His camera movement becomes restless. A sardonic note sounds, especially in the character of the newspaper man played by Arthur Kennedy. Even Maurice Jarre’s gorgeous musical theme becomes muted in tone, sometimes sounding tentative or sinister. The picture ends in a most unusual way for an epic – with anticlimactic understatement.
Lawrence of Arabia is in fact the portrait of a man’s collapse, and through that an indictment of the collapse of sanity which is war itself. The tragedy of this conception, and the intelligence with which it is executed on screen, makes it unique among film epics. David Lean employed the art of the spectacle in a new way—to reveal the suffering and the waste behind the facade of glory. He used the mythic mode to explode the myth. That’s what ultimately makes the film a masterpiece that will endure, long after many other epics have become outdated.