Lawrence of Arabia is often remembered for its immense scale, staggeringly large and well-coordinated set pieces, and other such enormities – like the 258-day shooting time. But a less-often mentioned aspect of David Lean’s 1962 epic was the one-man story: Peter O’Toole, who died five years ago today. While this film was sprawling, it was simultaneously intimate and intricate. A mosaic of personalities built O’Toole’s sensitive yet maddened presentation of T.E. Lawrence, a man who has been made into many things: propaganda, vulgar exhibitionist, and just maybe a messiah.
O’Toole was required to build a performance that had to avoid becoming washed away in the massive scale of the picture; he needed to be human enough for audiences to empathise with him whilst being a large enough presence to become the miracle that Lord Faisal (Alec Guinness) so desperately needed. And as he was given the task of playing this complex character when Marlon Brando and Albert Finney turned down the role, his opportunity seemed extraordinary. But after his performance in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) he became the clear choice for Lean and producer Sam Spiegel as the man with that delicate balance of gusto and sensitivity.
Having a lifelong interest in military history, O’Toole become a scholar on the life of Lawrence. He studied Seven Pillars of Wisdom obsequiously in an effort to get as close to the man as he possibly could without meeting him. But Lawrence was a man whose literal history and myth became somewhat intertwined; he had the ability to do things beyond the wildest expectations of his superiors, which fuelled this mystical flame.
The 227-minute running time gives the space for a staggering arc to unfold, with all the nuance and tiny progressions that bring audiences to empathise with the title character so deeply. In the beginning of the film we see a cocky young soldier playing match tricks, explaining simply that “the trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Then we see a bulletproof young worker, ready to explore the sandy expanse. Robert Bolt had the wonderful talent, honed through years as a playwright, of writing powerful yet natural dialogue, his statements simple but always intriguing and provocative. He filled the script with empirical and religious subtexts that weren’t directly being glorified, but challenged by the conflict that unfolded in Lawrence throughout the film.
And this is where the magnitude of O’Toole’s performance exhibits itself full-frontal. He was able to be be soft and charming and, through the grooming of his superiors, fell into what some may later have described as a Messiah Complex. The menagerie of contradictions and complexities in the character may be indicative of this mindset. He was a man who seemed devoted to impressing those he commanded or chose to serve, yet someone who felt he should be the first man to cross Nefud Desert, considered uncrossable by the Bedouins. Lawrence did the unthinkable, but it becomes distorted by myth as to whether this was a result of his genuine military inventiveness, or whether he was simply able to rewrite what was already written.
This growing reputation is evident in O’Toole’s portrayal as he grows more exuberant and ambitious, while falling too deeply into the desert. The attack on the Turkish caravan plays a key part in Lawrence’s fall from grace. O’Toole communicates all the madness and despair occupying Lawrence in a moment when all the confusion and ego becomes too much, when it becomes unclear where his loyalties lie, or whose loyalties he has come to expect. Not many performers have possessed the talent and presence to fill a 65mm frame with their face and a bloodied dagger, wordlessly saying more than any could with a long expositional monologue. Shots like this are a constant reminder of the calibre and condition of the film legends behind the production.
But still, Lawrence’s final decline was a disarming and sombre experience. The exact chronology of Lawrence’s time has been made fairly ambiguous through conflicting histories, but it is largely agreed that the time spent in Dera’a in November of 1917 marked the collapse of Lawrence’s career. In the film, Lawrence is here tortured by a group of soldiers. O’Toole withholds all emotion from his capturers trying to break his spirit and his body. Lawrence arises a shivering leaf of a man, cowering to each touch and having now lost the ego that made him successful, and O’Toole completely convinces audiences of this mental shift.
This film marked one of the rare occasions that a crew of filmmakers came together with an exceptional vision and executed it to a T. David Lean, Robert Bolt, Sam Spiegel, Freddie Young, and Anne V. Coates each enabled the character to burst out of the screen with exemplary fashion, alternately inspiring and disappointing us. O’Toole will always be remembered as Lawrence. He touched audiences with his sensitivity and charm through this role, and his impressive legacy was rewarded in the end with the Honorary Oscar after being nominated seven times. Performances like these, however, are not validated with trophies or cheques, but rather are appreciated by each audience member that leaves the theatre remembering those desperately savage blue eyes, feeling the tumult in every frame, and ultimately recognising their equal – someone who was ultimately just a man.