Just because a movie has excellent cinematography and a rousing soundtrack, it should not automatically be heralded as a classic. Lawrence of Arabia has been considered a triumph of film-making since its release, and it is still widely regarded as a masterpiece of cinema. Unfortunately, people forget that a movie has to exceed on all levels: acting, storytelling, directing, etc. for it to be a timeless classic. This movie in particular fails hard in several areas, and there is no way in hell it should be considered a masterpiece.
Lawrence of Arabia tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British megalomaniac who tries to single-handedly win independence for the Arab people in World War I. Yeah, that’s right, the main character is one of the most self-centered characters in the history of film. He’s a product of his time, that’s for sure. Being a white, British male, he believes wholeheartedly in the superiority of his race and culture over all others. The British were the masters of colonialism, and Lawrence falls in line with this attitude hook, line, and sinker.
I know what you’re thinking, all three of you who have seen this movie: LOL BUT BRIK IVE SEEN TIHS MOVEE AND LAWRNCE WANTS ARABS TO BE EQUAL TO TEH BRITISH LOL! Well, sure, you’re partially right. Lawrence spends a considerable amount of time helping the Arabs and spouting dialogue proclaiming he wants the Arabs to be independent. He lives with them, dresses like them, eats their food, and they consider him to be one of their own. But that absolutely does not mean he feels like he has become one of them. Oh, no, he still believes, absolutely, in his superiority.
Take, for example, the following lines. After about two seconds of prodding from a British officer, he states, “All right, I’m extraordinatory.” A bit later when talking about leading the Arabs into battle, he states, “The best of them won’t come for money, they’ll come for me.” And when talking about seizing Damascus, he states, “I’m going to give them Damascus.” You notice, he didn’t say, “We’re going to take Damascus.” No, he said he was going to give it to them. As if he was the only one who mattered.
The whole movie, he talks about how great and wonderful he is, and everyone totally feeds into it. The Arabs and the British both do nothing but heap praise onto him for three and a half hours. It’s no wonder he’s a complete narcissist. Hilariously, after he is captured and tortured by enemies, his close friend describes him thusly, “He is the same man, humbled.” If this is Lawrence at his most humble, I’d hate to see him at his most egotistical. He’d probably end up a James Bond villain or something.
When the Arabs achieve their final objective and take Damascus, the tribes gather in a large room and try to unite. And who better than to unite Arabs than a white British man? For all his talk about equality and brotherhood, Lawrence feels that he’s the one to bring everyone together. He doesn’t even attempt to let them do it on their own. He’s running the goddamn Arab council in the absence of their Prince. He wasn’t promoted to that spot, or told he could do that in lieu of the Prince. Nope, he just assumed that no else is as fucking great as him, so he might as well do it.
The movie is kind of weirdly funny in how it treats some serious topics: namely war, death, and torture. Lawrence is tortured, and of course being ZOMG A TOTAL BRITISH BADASS, he doesn’t even wince at the lashings he’s given. And the next day, he’s sullen until he has some breakfast, and then he’s back to his usual self. Gee, I don’t know why people complain about torture so much, I guess they’re just a bunch of giant babies. The war is treated oddly in that the battle scenes are almost completely glossed over. I think the human toll, the death and violence, would be something the film would want to spend more time on. Instead, there is virtually no fighting in the war. Finally, death. There is a scene near the end when Lawrence snaps and orders his men to massacre a bunch of bad guys. The acting portrayed by Peter O’Toole in this scene is beyond cheesy. It’s like blocks of Gouda, Cheddar, and Monterey Jack all rolled into one. He looks giddily constipated as he is surrounded by the deaths of men, which only occurred at his order. I suppose this was meant to be the most somber part of the film, but the acting makes it a near parody. On a side note, O’Toole’s performance throughout the movie is completely bizarre. He plays Lawrence as an aloof, effeminate control freak. It is certainly unique, so I guess that’s something.
The thing that really perplexes me is how everyone loves this movie, yet hated Avatar, when essentially they tell the same story. In Avatar, the white male human becomes the savior of the inferior alien race, he unites the disparate tribes, and leads them to victory over the evil bad guys. It smacked hard of colonialism and the ancient trope of the white hero who saves the savages. Yet, Lawrence of Arabia does the same thing and it is lauded as a cinematic masterpiece. So what if this is based in reality? It’s the same story. Why is Lawrence’s tale of The White Savior lauded while Avatar’s tale of The White Savior panned? As I’ve said in the past, there is no consistency amongst nerds and film-goers. I, myself, am wildly inconsistent, so I should know.
I think it’s the casual racism of the film that bothers me the most. It tries to show the Arabs with respect, but it does a terrible job. Two of the three main Arab characters are white guys in brown-face makeup (one of them is Obi Wan Kenobi). The rest of the Arab characters may actually be Arabs, but they are largely relegated to extras who have virtually no lines. One of the film’s larger messages is that the Arabs are a “barbarous people” and they cannot be tamed. Despite the heroic white British male trying his best, not even he is able to fully unite these backwater hicks. And if a white British male can’t do it, well, then no one can. They’re hopeless. What a crock of shit.
Lawrence of Arabia is a really mixed film. Yes, it does have amazing cinematography, and yes, it does have a fantastic soundtrack. As long as I’m saying yes to things, yes, it has cheesy acting, yes, it is bloated in its unnecessarily long running time, yes, the main character is a narcissist, and yes, it is incredibly racist. As a fan of movies, I can appreciate the first two, perhaps even the third in a way, but the final part, the racism, is what I can’t stand. It just doesn’t fly today. I think the worst part is that Lawrence of Arabia is a racist movie, and it doesn’t even realize it.