There is something irresistibly conservative about Lawrence of Arabia. The film is almost Biblical in its morality and, as played by Peter O’Toole, T. E. Lawrence is very nearly the ultimate military leader: a man of honor, courage, endurance, and resourcefulness. The contrast between the fighting in the clean open spaces of this World War I film and the muddy meat grinder of trench warfare in Europe seems to validate both halves of Churchill’s remark that “war, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has become cruel and squalid.” Just last month, Peggy Noonan singled out Robert Bolt’s screenplay as “a masterpiece.”
Yet the 1962 film, which is being reissued this fall in a high-definition Blu-ray box set to mark its 50th anniversary, is, in its politics, both fraught and oblique. Its two parts (before and after the intermission) resonate with very different messages, and conservatives who thrill to the heroics are in a sense missing the ultimate, more tangled point. Though director David Lean was not overtly political (and Bolt, the author of A Man for All Seasons, was a liberal who briefly belonged to the Communist Party as a young man and who spent time in jail during the filming of Lawrence after being arrested in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest), the movie teaches a conservative lesson almost despite itself.
Most of the glory of the film rests in Part I, when Lawrence, a young lieutenant sent to gauge the interest of an Arab prince named Faisal (Alec Guinness) in leading a British-backed revolt against the Turks, instead builds his own guerrilla army and seizes the Red Sea port of Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire in a surprise land attack through a desert even the Bedouin called impassable. This first part is as pure and splendid a film as has ever been made. In the second half, the action becomes more choppy and chaotic, and much more of the story is told in dialogue instead of pictures, action, and music. Too much of the action takes place in cramped interiors. The skies grow cloudy and the sand starts to look more like dirt, as if the landscapes are polluted by diplomatic skullduggery — but this is a fortunate coincidence. The first half was filmed largely in Jordan, but, worried about costs, producer Sam Spiegel abruptly ordered Lean to shut down production in Jordan in 1961 and move the crew to Spain, where most of the second half was shot under autumn skies.
The second half is centrally about politics rather than adventure. Lawrence’s effort to secure self-rule for the Arabs (a prospect never seriously entertained by his betters) breaks down amid petty squabbles among the various tribes, and under the Sykes-Picot agreement Arabia is carved up by the British and French. Lawrence departs in a cloud of failure, presaging the sense of moral exhaustion, disillusionment, and futility that would shortly overtake 1960s and 1970s cinema.
If Part I is about possibility, Part II is about probability. Part I is about the individual, Part II about his place within a group, and groups of groups. Conquering becomes negotiating. Honor turns into treachery. Purity of purpose becomes a din of competing interests. “There’s nothing further here for a warrior,” Prince Faisal tells the much younger Lawrence dismissively near the end. “We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men — courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men — mistrust and caution. It must be so.”
#page#Yet the second half, for all its disappointments, is a useful lesson in modesty, a correction to grandiosity. Lawrence’s main accomplishments turn out to be mere sideshow, his legacy a lesson in overreach. When Barack Obama declared Lawrence of Arabia to be one of his five favorite films, he was probably doing what most of us do: He was remembering the glorious, uncomplicated first half. It’s easy to picture Obama thrilling to Lawrence’s dedication to advancing the independence of a subjugated people, the scene in which he brings an Arab boy into a racist British officer’s club demanding service for them both, the idea of a solitary unknown from nowhere arriving to reshape history. As for the second half, well, when Lawrence says, “I know I’m not ordinary. . . . All right, I’m extraordinary!” who does that sound like? (Hint: It’s the man who declared, “It’s very rare I come to an event where I’m like the fifth or sixth most interesting person.”)
Lawrence, to borrow a word associated with Obama, thinks a reset can occur simply by wishing it. His outrage at learning of the Sykes-Picot agreement occasions this admonishment from the cynical diplomat played by Claude Rains: “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth, but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
Few great films end so anticlimactically. You might not even remember the final scenes. Beaten and superfluous, Lawrence simply trickles out of the desert, his last line a barely audible “Hmm?”
The Lawrence of the film (who differs from the historical Lawrence in key respects) was unlike other soldiers in that he didn’t want merely to win the battles that would decide the war. He sought to reimagine the map. Within his legend of derring-do is a disguised cautionary tale about falling for romantic utopian ideals. Mentally chart Lawrence of Arabia against The Ten Commandments and you’ll notice that Lawrence and Moses move in opposite patterns: One is born low, rises quickly, and concludes in obscurity; the other is raised as a prince from early childhood, is sent into exile, and, through the grace of God, leads the chosen ones back to freedom. Lawrence is an anti-messiah who prompts us not to confuse gods and men.
As conservatives, we are constantly reminded (and remind others) that a man doesn’t exist independent of history, culture, or tradition, that there can never be a reset or a Year Zero or a clean slate. “Nothing is written,” Lawrence famously declares, referring to the future, but this is arrogance speaking again. Lawrence is disdainful of how much future probability is already inscribed in the past. At an especially grandiose moment in the film, he declares, “They can only kill me with a golden bullet,” but Lawrence was not even a tragic hero. It was a 1935 motorcycle accident on the way back from sending a telegram, and not hubris, that killed him. Lean’s breathtaking open vistas are finally a reminder of man’s limits.
– Mr. Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.