Recently, I heard on Classical MPR the Main Title music to the movie Lawrence of Arabia. My first thought was “Oh, I love that music!” My second thought was “Oh, I want to watch that movie again!” I’ve seen the movie countless times — I stopped counting at 30 times years ago, a substantial time commitment because the movie is 3 hours and 45 minutes in length — but I love it. It’s my all-time number 1 favorite movie. Best seen in a theater with a big screen, the last time I saw it in a theater was in 1989 after the restoration, and I went with an acquaintance who had never seen it. The screen was curved about a third of the way up each side so we had the sensation of being surrounded by it. I was in heaven.
Why on earth do I love so much a movie with no female characters, set in the unforgiving heat of the Arabian desert, and full of war and politics?
First is the music. Maurice Jarre composed the original soundtrack music, and it functions in an almost operatic way, revealing the emotional grounding of a scene, revealing character, moving the story forward. The movie begins with a black screen, then music — drums signaling that this movie is not set in America or Europe, and then the lush strings playing Lawrence’s heroic theme. The overture ends, there’s a pause, and then the Main Title begins with the opening credits over symphonic drums that explode into a light-hearted almost dancing theme of Lawrence the Englishman. These two Lawrence themes are intertwined throughout the movie, right up to the end credits when Lawrence drives away from Damascus in a jeep. The continual use of these themes underscores the purpose of the movie — to reveal who Lawrence was.
Second is Lawrence himself. The movie actually opens with his death, but how he dies is important — it shows his love of speed and risk-taking. The scene following his official funeral involves various characters who had been a part of his life commenting on him, and a reporter asking questions about him. The reporter asks the same question: Who was Lawrence? He doesn’t mean the historical figure, but the human being, the man, who was he? The movie then jumps back in time to Cairo which was where Lawrence began his Arabian adventure. He’s young, a bit ungainly, an outlier, but smart, and desperate to get in on the action in Arabia. Lawrence hasn’t a clue what he’s getting into, but he plunges in head first. The risk-taker. The story encompasses Lawrence’s service during the Arab Revolt against the Turks while the First World War raged in Europe.
What he does and what happens to him in Arabia as he unites successfully the Arab tribes against the Turks changes him. The good-hearted Englishman is ever in conflict with the heroic soldier, and he learns how powerless man is in the face of events other men have set in motion. What do men do when they feel or are powerless? For years I thought the movie was about the folly of men at war and in politics, but I think it goes deeper than that. It’s about the effects that one man’s actions have on another, and it’s about power.
Third is the film-making. Freddy Young, the cinematographer, shot every scene for the richness of the landscape vs. the encroachment of humanity. Anne V. Coates gave the cinematic world the “match cut,” the famous cut between Lawrence holding a flaming match to the sun rising over the desert. That was a first. David Lean and his production crew had to find ways to shoot scenes in the desert in appalling heat, with wind whipping the sand into every little crevice and threatening to damage expensive cameras and other equipment, as well as shooting moving scenes — long tracking shots. A special camera dolly on tracks, called a Wickham dolly, was created for those long tracking shots. The result was worth all the hard work and frustrations. The look of this film is magnificent, rich, almost romantic. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize early on that the dialogue in this movie is sparse but to the point except when Dryden, from the Arab Bureau, speaks. I loved Dryden. He has some of the funniest lines in the entire movie, and I’ve never been certain if they were intended to be funny. But there are long sections without any dialogue at all (which is one reason the music is so important).
Lawrence of Arabia is a biographical movie about a young British soldier sent into the Arabian desert who played a pivotal role in the Arab Revolt against the Turks. How did that experience affect him? Change him? Who was he? The set-up for the biographical exploration occurs after his funeral at the beginning. The movie presents one view of the man. Lawrence of Arabia is NOT a historical documentary about the Arab Revolt, nor is it a movie of Lawrence’s book about his experiences in Arabia The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I know people who don’t like the movie because it is not historically accurate or that it didn’t follow The Seven Pillars of Wisdom closely. I think if you want a strictly historically accurate movie about something, you seek out a documentary. The title of the movie is the giveaway that it’s a movie about the man, not the history.
The real Lawrence of Arabia — T. E. Lawrence.