A picture hangs on the wall over my word processor as I write this. It is a picture of Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, from the movie Lawrence of Arabia. He’s on camelback, leading his battle-maddened bedouin in their final dash to Damascus. He’s at the height of his glory as a desert god, and just about to crumble into madness. The picture serves for daily inspiration; it also acknowledges a shaping influence in my life. By my best reckoning, over the years I have seen Lawrence of Arabia about 20 times. Soon I’ll go see it again, as it has been rereleased in a pristine new print with almost 30 minutes of edited footage restored. The critics are talking about how, seen fresh after many years, Lawrence is after all a major work, a great movie. This is no news to me. For me, Lawrence of Arabia is more than a movie. It is a way of life.
It started when I was nine years old, in 1962, when my mother took my brother, my sister, and me to see Lawrence of Arabia in its premier run at the Woods Theater in the Loop. I was a rather introverted child, not that excited with the world I lived in, and movies were an entry to a world I liked better. I liked Rome and Atlantis and old England and warfare from any time but my own. So I was already a movie fan–but what happened to me that day was something different.
From the first scene–that overhead shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle sitting on the cracked concrete, which baffled my vision so that I thought I was looking at a marble tabletop–it expanded my young awareness not only of what a movie could be but of what I thought life could be. Lawrence of Arabia reached down deeper than any other movie I had seen before (or since, for that matter) into that core of longing for “something else” that kept me–and that I think keeps most people–coming back to the movies, that unspoken promise of a leap into the Big Life. That longing also happens to be the motivation of the movie’s poor, confused hero. (T.E. Lawrence, had he been born some decades later, would probably have been a great movie fan.) That longing, I think, is also a spiritual impulse. Lawrence both aroused and satisfied that elemental yearning for transport.
The epics that I already liked so much–the movies about Rome and Hercules and the Bible–had clued me that the Mediterranean was the natural home of spectacle and mystery. But they were one step removed from reality–too fantastic, too distant in time, or too low-budget for me to trust completely. But I could believe in every square inch of Lawrence. In a way that other movies had not, Lawrence combined the old “cast of thousands” lavishness with the illusion of historic and cultural authenticity. This was mostly in the detail–saddlebags and goatskins; compasses, globes, binoculars, and pistols, bedouin robes and British uniforms; antique trains and armored cars; scrubby desert plants and rippled, windblown sand. Everything in Lawrence looked both awesome and authentic. Everything was more detailed, more nuanced, richer than it needed to be–and as a result was more completely convincing. I came away believing that history–and by extension, individual lives, maybe even my own–could really become epic from time to time. This was exciting news.
But even more intriguing, Lawrence purported to show how you got there–how this leap was made by a real (and, in the beginning, not terribly impressive) person, in real history; and at what price. This was of great interest to me. Thomas Edward Lawrence was an odd, lonely young man, the illegitimate product of an affair between an Anglo-Irish baronet and the family housemaid. Lawrence grew up enthralled with the mystical medievalism of William Morris and the other fin de siecle British aesthetes (throughout his guerrilla campaigns in Arabia, he kept an edition of Le Morte d’Arthur in his saddlebags). At Oxford, he was recruited and groomed as an intelligence agent for a sort of secret foreign office, made up of Arabists and liberal imperialists who wanted to organize the Arabian peninsula into Britain’s first independent nonwhite dominion, like a Canada or Australia of the Middle East.
Lawrence’s yearning for a great modern quest found an outlet in his mentors’ plans for liberating the Arabs from four centuries of Turkish domination. After Turkey entered World War I on Germany’s side, Lawrence’s faction saw their chance, and encouraged Arab nationalism. When the sharif of Mecca declared a revolt against the occupying Turks, Lawrence, who had been working as an archaeologist in the Middle East, wangled his way into a position as a political liaison officer between British and Arab forces. Handed this freakish chance for what appeared to be adventure on a mythic scale–a chance to enter into the epic–Lawrence ran with it, dressing as a bedouin sharif and over time becoming one of the theorists and guerrilla leaders of the revolt. The Arab revolt helped the Allies defeat the Axis in the Middle East and was the matrix of the first modern Arab states in the region.
As a result, Lawrence became first a hero worshiped unreflectively, and later in the century a symbol of the now-famous divided modern self. He was a “prince of our disorder” (as Harvard psychiatrist John Mack titled his excellent Lawrence biography), whose “last crusade” dramatized how 20th-century self-consciousness undermines all efforts at noble action. In particular his career seemed to show the final wreck of the old mythical view of the world that expected to see the hero’s self-transforming exploits also enacted in objective events. Lawrence’s Middle Eastern “illicit adventure” (the title of Jeffrey Myers’s book on Lawrence) was one of the milestones in the long emigration of adventure from the exterior world to the inside of our heads.
This understanding of Lawrence’s career was largely Lawrence’s own, expressed in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s fantasia on the desert war. Lawrence was an intellectual, a gifted writer, and a cripplingly introspective analyzer of his own psyche; and he made some awful discoveries about the nature of modern adventure during his stint in the Middle East. This director David Lean chose to show when he came to make a movie about Lawrence. Blowing up a troop train in the desert is grand fun–but there are civilian casualties and inconvenient survivors who have to be hacked to death with swords. Leading the revolt of an oppressed people against a corrupt tyranny is a noble crusade–but maybe you’re just doing it because you like to hurt people, or to get hurt. Lawrence poses in white, silk and gold like the risen Lord himself among the illiterate nomads who worship him; but when he gets back to headquarters, the people who knew him before just stare and snigger.
Now, as an adult, I understand this. And in a way, as a boy I did too. But the thing is, Lean didn’t stop there; he didn’t entirely snigger along with those British officers, as most filmmakers of his sophistication and his era would have done. True, he wanted to show the cost of trying to live out a boy’s dream of adventure. But to do that he had to show its value, too. And, oh, did he do that. Here was the adventure in spades, the Big Life that you might well pay such a price to get.
Lawrence of Arabia is pure high enthrallment from the first moment to the last. Lean created a world down to its smallest sensuosities–the creaking of saddles, the snuffling of camels, the glare of desert light, the dust on faces, the sound of a single gunshot clean and startling in the vast emptiness of the desert, the creaking of tent poles in the night wind. That completeness enabled me, while sitting there in the dark, to surrender entirely to that world. I got thirsty as the bedouin troops crossed the An Nafud Desert. I felt Lawrence’s ecstasy in first seeing those fantastic endless breakers of sand. Each incident unfolded with an exalted hallucinatory realism, like N.C. Wyeth on film: Lawrence and his bedouin guide making camp in the desert sunset; an already traumatized Lawrence leading the camel carrying the bedouin boy as they approach a deserted British depot in swirling white dust on the Suez Canal; the bedouin camp under the moon, the epitome of strangeness and foreignness; Lawrence emerging from the desert furnace with a man he has rescued, as his one loyal bedouin servant rides joyous circles around him. And best of all, the first appearance of Ali (Omar Sharif)–out of the flickering cobalt distance, a small trail of beige dust ever so slowly materializing into a soundless black rider apparently floating over the sand.
In all this I found an entirely credible counterpart of those Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle novels I loved but didn’t believe, those oddball Edwardians of King Solomon’s Mines and The Lost World following adventure’s call just over the edge of the empire, to places where the very land suggested states of the soul. Those heroes could never quite go back to normalcy again. Rider Haggard’s Leo Vincey goes to Africa and finds the immortal beauty of Ayesha, who invites him to bathe in the fires of immortal life. Peter OToole’s T.E. Lawrence–another clean-limbed, golden-haired product of the British universities–found the desert.
“No Arab loves the desert,” Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal cautions Lawrence. “There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.” But of course, the movie’s Lawrence does need nothing–at least the kind of nothing that Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young created. The critics may have really believed that Lean simply wanted to compile a lot of coffee-table-book shots of the Jordanian outback; Homer and Timothy Leary and Joseph Campbell would have known better. It is the epic environment incarnate, the mythic theater, an ultimate country, a place fit for gods to play (humans regularly are dwarfed to near-invisibility in the movie). Lean found a weird dreamlike geometry and texture in the land; in the end, he turned the desert into one of the most consistently and elegantly realized otherworlds in popular art.
O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence has been my image of tortured genius ever since. Lean and writer Robert Bolt obviously intended to make Lawrence’s famously enigmatic “psychology” a focus of the movie. And they threw out suggestions of psychic disorders thick and fast–from simple arrogance to megalomania; visionary trance; sadism, masochism, and a few highly oblique suggestions of homosexuality; climaxing in outright psychosis and ending in something like catatonia. But in all this, they never actually said what was troubling him.
This absence of explanation was, in theory, a big problem, and has hung up the critics ever since. But it worked very differently in my actual experience of the movie: O’Toole’s Lawrence transcended the whole issue. His magnificent face–by turns brooding, tormented, enraptured, vicious–became an emblem, not of an annoying unanswered question at the center of the plot, but of a central mood of mystery that charged the whole movie, a mood that linked the character with a potent tradition. He was that figure of romantic myth–the doomed quester, the Byronic man of mystery, the extraordinary man with a tragic hidden flaw, whose greatness was also pitiable and terrifying. I was too young to know that there was implausibility in Lawrence behaving more like Arthur Rimbaud than an envoy of the British Empire. For me, war was adventure and adventure was the road to magic, and warriors were poets.
How I wanted to be like him. How I ransacked the libraries for books about him. How I ravaged my mother’s linen closet looking for old bed sheets I could cut into kaffiyeh and burnooses. I returned to those books and to the movie obsessively. My secret inspiration through the 60s was Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence made me a hippie–Lawrence’s flamboyant antiauthoritarianism shaped me at least as much as Mick Jagger’s, and my psychedelic adventures were a natural outgrowth of those epic yearnings first stirred by the film. When I went to Britain after college, my first pilgrimage outside of London was to Cloud’s Hill, Lawrence’s cottage, and to his grave in the Dorset countryside. I wanted it all to have happened just the way it did in the movie; I delighted in the similarities I found between the history books and the movie (O’Toole was a startling ringer for the young Lawrence), and tried to ignore the discrepancies.
And of course it didn’t really happen that way. (Though in one sense, I think the movie is very accurate–this is Lawrence’s desert war as he saw it, what the war would have looked like from the inside. Only rarely does the point of view pull away from Lawrence to show his bedouin horde as a tiny raiding party.) Lawrence spent the rest of his life trying to reorient his quest from the outside to the inside of his head. Lean in a way finished Lawrence’s job by doing that work for the rest of us, translating Lawrence’s disastrous effort to act out the hero’s story back into a brilliant adventure of the imagination and spirit. For me, the secret appeal of movie magic was always that it contained some hint of the holy. Lawrence of Arabia was my first encounter with the sublime, and I’ve had half my head in that wide country ever since.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.