Only recently has the bond between war and honor begun to fray. For millenia men have treated that most basic equation as gospel, but we’ve reached a point where the anti-war proselytizing, the media exposure, and the blurred lines between right and wrong have engineered a far more nuanced view. The realities of war have been planted deep into the fiber of our consciousness, allowing us to ponder the ways that it can adversely alter a man, even degrade him, without the interference of combat’s putative virtues. T.E. Lawrence is a man changed by war, and this volatile metamorphosis from intellectual dandy to merciless leader of desert warriors lies at the center of David Lean‘s arresting classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
The film begins with Lawrence’s funeral, and myriad exchanges that present him as a Citizen Kane-type notable, a beloved bewilderment whose changeability became his defining characteristic. This prologue contains plenty of substantial exposition: Lawrence was in the First War, he played a key role in the Arab Revolt, he was a hero. But what it tells us about the character himself—specifically his enigmatic nature, even to those who knew him best—is far more important. Because Lawrence was a man who didn’t know himself, in a time and place when existential self-reflection was considered a weakness.
Journeying from the safe tedium of the British army offices to and through the arid vistas of the Arabian desert is transformative for Lawrence. His journeys are long, and David Lean’s cameras tend to linger whenever they find Peter O’Toole astride a camel in the midst of that great emptiness, not simply lending a stark resonance to the monotony of desert travel, but capturing the fluid colors and textures of the magnificent desert landscape. This world, and the men who come to follow Lawrence (or “Awrence”, as he’s affectionately known), denote a lifestyle that is effectively the opposite of his motherland’s dour humidity and elegant stiffness. And while his endearment to this nation and its people has the spirit of authenticity—particularly in the case of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), whose journey with Lawrence through the crucible of the Nefud Desert creates a blood bond between the two men—it has far more to do with the vainglory that comes once Lawrence adopts the role of pale-faced prophet, a messianic master of war who will bring the Arabs to freedom.
This relationship between the leader and his men sits at the heart of Lawrence’s story, as the emotional and cultural distance between them create a magnetizing force. It’s helped, surely, by Lawrence’s efficacy and easy brilliance, but in war, this unknowability and self-assuredness conspire to build a leader of men where before stood only a charming eccentric. Lawrence feeds off of the grandiose rhetoric his men construct for him, and when he has faith in himself he can do great things. But when that faith is tested (as it must be), Lawrence falters, and so does the faith of his army, leading him to reconsider what he once thought to be canon. This is the most compelling element to Lawrence. This is what makes him—for a modern audience anyway—a character we can relate to, because all of us struggle with the fluctuation between confidence and doubt. It is the nature of modern man to compare himself, to measure his worth against that of his peers, over and over and over again, stopping only in exhaustion or apathy. As Lawrence of Arabia comes to a close, Lawrence is exhausted. He has seen the truth of his standing in the world, and all it took to find it was a war.