For people of my generation who went into film as writers, directors or practically anything else, no movie was of deeper import, of greater inspiration, than Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before that was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and simultaneously Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) and then later The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), but an argument can be made that Lawrence was the greatest of all.
Nothing of recent vintage approaches any of these. Cinema is in decline for a variety of reasons. And now Peter O’Toole, the last of the trio with director David Lean and writer Robert Bolt — make that quartet with cinematographer Freddie Young — who made that masterpiece, has died. (A fifth party, Omar Sharif, who played the charismatic Sharif Ali, is still with us.) Yet Lawrence remains as evocative as ever. Why?
The film has remarkable resonance, since it was based (rather loosely) on the book by T. E. Lawrence, which had, as its core subject, the West’s relationship with what, until Edward Said wagged his angry finger, was called the Orient. We are living through the continuing conundrum of that relationship more than ever now and will be, we can assume, for years to come. So moments in Lawrence could not seem more contemporary, as when Lawrence, via Bolt, Lean and O’Toole, says:
Tribe against tribe? Where have we heard all that before? Back in 1962, who among us knew about Sunni versus Shiite (or the Howitat and the others, for that matter)? In 2013, who among us doesn’t?
Well, a lot of low-information voters, but I’ll wager not too many of them are fans of Lawrence of Arabia or even know what it is. But there is a more important message in Lawrence that resonates across the ages. It is the leitmotif about “what is written,” what is preordained by God or Allah. Lawrence, for me, is a movie about free will with a tragic twist. Brave as Lawrence is, at the end, and foreshadowed in the beginning, he dies by driving too fast on a motorcycle.