“Lawrence of Arabia” by David Lean

This article is also available in: Italiano

One of the biggest blockbusters in the history of contemporary cinema, “Lawrence of Arabia” will allow us to fully discover one of the greatest and most ambiguous men in the entire Middle East

Lawrence of Arabia

The story begins in Egypt, in Cairo, where, during the First World War in 1916, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), an English officer, works as a cartographer. He is a man with a great humanistic background, an expert in architecture, a lover of Arab-Islamic culture.
He was given a mission: to arrive in Arabia, contact Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), who works as a consultant to Emir Faysal (Alec Guinness) and then serve as a bridge between the Arabs and the British in the fight against Turks. For Lawrence it is the opportunity to immerse himself in his beloved desert, where he makes important and strategic friendships with various Arab tribal leaders, in particular with Sheriff Alì (Omar Sharif) and with Awada Adu Tay (Anthony Quinn), indomitable warrior and leader, with the intention of carrying out the orders received.

Lawrence Arabia

In carrying out this complex mission, often in a manner inconsistent with traditional military codes, Lawrence will transform the Arab revolt against the Turks into a guerrilla war, and then into a real war. Leading the Bedouins towards the conquest of Damascus, not without disappointments from the British government, he soon became a myth, a legendary figure increasingly conquered by the spirit of Arab independence, with the belief of being able to transform the desert tribes into a great nation.

The film

“Lawrence of Arabia” is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most iconic films of sound cinema by far, a real milestone in epic films, especially those set in the desert of which it remains a constant point of reference. The work is, in cinematic terms, almost perfect, going to combine all that was fantastic at the time, allowing the viewer a 360 ° immersion in the life of the British leader.

Lawrence Arabia

Music, photography and great dialogues, the film manages to enchant in all its guises, fueling the viewer’s fascination with these places and the Bedouin world; a feat that was then very successful, especially at such levels, so much so that he won 7 Oscar awards, but was nominated for 10 (including best supporting actor for Omar Sharif). Furthermore, as evident from the first scenes, there is also an attempt to show a truly complex character full of contradictions, absolutely more truthful and realistic than many other films that are contemporary to him.

Hero or criminal?

In fact, many will attribute greatness to Lawrence’s death, while remaining undecided as to whether he is positive or not. Throughout the film, in fact, there will be many moments in which this will not be very clear and defined, leaving the viewer with this arduous task. Obviously, being an English film, there will undoubtedly be a tendency to see him as a “hero”, but the director’s effort to show every side is evident, including the barbaric executions carried out against Ottoman civilians and soldiers.

Lawrence Arabia

The latter will also be judged heavily by the character of Omar Sharif, who will not be able to refrain from criticizing those who supported for integrity. In the end, Lawrence will also go to the Damascus hospital, observing the countless Turkish soldiers who are dying of starvation and finally realizing who he has become; emblematic that, right here, he will be slapped by a British doctor for his shortcomings, but then being thanked by the same (who had not recognized him before) once wearing civilian clothes.

The arrival of colonial politics in the Middle East

However, those who are harshly criticized are not so much Anglo-Saxon soldiers, but rather politics, the real criminal of the conflict. In fact, the strong criticism of the power games in Cairo is evident, during which British and French are preparing the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, ratified at the end of the war with the unfortunate Treaty of Sevres. With these negotiations, the Middle East and the Islamic world will be completely dismembered, leading to the balkanization still visible to everyone.

Lawrence Arabia

Without the latter, we probably would never have heard of the many small states that make up the area, including, of course, Israel that was born from the British mandate in Palestine. These agreements will destroy for years the concept of “a nation for the whole Islamic world”, perfectly fulfilling the barbaric policy of “divide and rule” and give rise to tensions that still split the Middle East today. In light of this, it is very complicated for this site to give a completely neutral judgment on the character, given and considered the impact that his actions, albeit generated (at least initially) by a sweet and naive love for the Arab people, had on the rest of the world. It will be very interesting to read Lawrence’s writings to better understand his figure but, like the characters in the film, having to make a judgment, we can only define it as “great”, certainly the most correct.

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