Lawrence of Arabia

Gary Kamiya writes about "Lawrence of Arabia" for Salon's Personal Best Movies.


Gary Kamiya
March 21, 1997 11:19PM (UTC)

sand. An ocean of sand, without beginning or end, motionless, stretching across a vast screen. The strangeness of the harsh, limitless Earth, the strangeness of a human soul, blown up into a scale beyond familiarity, beyond knowing. A single drone note sounds, always, under "Lawrence of Arabia": The world is deep, deeper than we had been aware. It is the only movie I've ever seen that makes it impossible to forget that we are all crawling around on a big ball of metal and gas hurtling through a void.

Every art form has its "virtue," a special property, a single thing it does better than any other. Film's virtue is showing pictures of the world. And the pictures in David Lean's masterpiece are exalted. No other film I know -- not "Eraserhead," not "Gone With the Wind," not "Red Desert" -- overwhelms the eye, and the mind's eye, like "Lawrence." You drown in it. It is stupefying. You stumble out of the movie -- whose length is as majestic as its subject -- dazed by a vision of implacable splendor and horror, dazed by vision itself.

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In one sense, then, "Lawrence" is "about" nothing but the desert. But it is also about one of the most enigmatic figures in history -- T.E. Lawrence, a highly educated British army officer who, operating on his own initiative, led Arab tribesmen in a guerrilla war against the Turks in World War I, returned to England, wrote an amazing, unfathomable book called "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom," joined the Royal Air Force and died in 1935 in a motorcycle accident. Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky's Ivan or Conrad's Kurtz, Lawrence strived to be, as he put it in a letter, "greater than mankind" -- to somehow break through the limitations of ordinary existence by sheer will. Did he succeed? Fail? He struggled, mightily, then died.

Perhaps an actor can only capture gleaming facets of a diamond-hard personality like this. In a performance that becomes more evocative, more densely textured with each viewing, Peter O'Toole captures dozens of them. They glint and shine for an instant, then vanish.

Some critics have assailed "Lawrence" for being murky, muddled, unsure of what it is saying. There is some justice to this criticism. But this is that rare film whose weaknesses are not only swallowed up by its vast, disturbing ambition, but somehow become part of its strengths. Lawrence's dark, inchoate vision does not fit neatly into the "epic war film" box. It does not fit into any box. His goals are turned against themselves, alien, never entirely known even to their possessor. They stand above and outside. Straining, sweating, "Lawrence of Arabia" reaches toward them.

Two mysteries collide in this film: The earth and the human soul. It doesn't resolve them. It couldn't. We can't. It is a telescope aimed at the unknown. It is a huge film.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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