David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia goes beyond the category of film; it is an experience. At three and a half hours it is an epic story of adventure, the sensationalizing of war, and the power of the individual.
T.E. Lawrence is a British military officer, sent to Arabia to report back on the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Lawrence, with his lanky frame, and cheeky, insolent manner does not adhere to the archetypal war hero. He is very well educated, likeable, and kind. In Part One of the film, Lawrence plays the hero’s part beautifully. He is fueled not by patriotism, but by his desire to create peace and restore beauty for the people and land of Arabia. His charm and intellect help him in accomplishing a great feat uniting the divided Arab tribes in the pursuit of freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Once they have crossed the vast Nefud Desert in order to take Aqaba, Lawrence is dressed in pristine white robes, a symbol of status and respect awarded to him by the people he now leads.
Part Two of the film is a much more critical examination of the “Western Savior” role Lawrence has taken on. The brutal battle scenes are a central aspect of the last half of the film. After taking Aqaba, Lawrence returns to Cairo, dirty and shaken by what he has seen and done. He requests to not return to Arabia, but his commanding officers, aware of his great accomplishments, coerce him into returning so that they may now use him as a tool to bring down the Ottoman Empire. There are powers at play in the British military that are much greater than Lawrence’s power as an individual.
Lawrence dons his white robes and his role as leader once more, now joined by an American reporter, Jack Bentley. Bentley wants to give the world a hero to cheer on and support. His camera and articles capture a great conqueror, confident and proud in his action and his cause. In reality, Lawrence is quickly losing himself and the compassion and morality he held at the beginning of this crusade as is visually illustrated by the soiling of his white robes. He is no longer fit to wear them.
Lawrence loses the power he gained from the respect of those around him like Sherif Ali and Prince Fiesal, as well as the power from his own confidence and idealism. As he loses his vision of a united and free Arabia, so do the people he led. Lawrence is drained from the intense stresses of war and the manipulation by his government. He walks away, leaving the greedy and ruthless politicians to capitalize on the discord between the Arab tribes.
Lawrence began as a man of glorious purpose with virtuous goals, but the cruelty and viciousness of war and its political component exhausted him of his motivation and compassion. Does compassion have its place in war or does war defeat such a concept? Can the individual change the course of history without attracting the intervention of a greater power?