David Lean’s epic biopic begins with the death and funeral of its subject T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole). By beginning here, we get to see the many different opinions of his character. Some think he was a hero, some think he was a coward, some think he was a patriot, some think he was a traitor. Then we get to see his story and learn that he was a man so complex and self-contradictory that the people who argued against each other about him at his funeral were actually all right.
When we first see Lawrence we learn the trick of his success before we get to see any of his success. He says that his trick is “learning to not mind when it hurts.” As portrayed by Peter O’Toole, he did have a very thick skin for physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, all of which he experienced intensely. His thick skin is both a blessing and curse to himself and to the people around him. He had a passion for justice, fighting for people being oppressed, but when he’s put in the position of executing someone, he finds out that he enjoys killing people but he desperately hates that enjoyment.
While liberating tribes throughout the Arabian Dessert, he does so more for the benefit of the people living there than for the British army he’s supposed to be subject to. He’s a rebel for his interpretation of justice, not willing to protect his own country when he believes their wrong but willing to stir up a lot of trouble among the Arabian tribes in order to make countercultural points where he believes they’re wrong. He says he’s equally loyal to England and to Arabia, but watching I think the truth is more that he is equally disloyal to England and to Arabia. While many times, he does have the best interest of others in mind when he does his exploits and accomplishes what is the best for others, his primary motivation is always to gain attention for himself.
His countercultural actions are strongest with regards to his view of respecting life. The Arab soldiers will say things like “it was written, the will of Allah” when someone is killed. Lawrence responds, “Nothing is written, except what I have written up here (pointing to his head).” Ideologically, Lawrence confronts a view that disrespects life, although his own actions often do not show any more respect for life than that of the Muslim Arabs he works with. Theologically, he attacks the belief that God is to blame for warfare, violence, and injustice. The problem is, again, the Arabs aren’t the only ones that need this confrontation. Lawrence isn’t a determinist, he won’t blame God for his decision, but he’s also not that great at taking responsibility for his own failures. He loves taking credits for his exploits, and as helpful to many parts of Arabia as some of them were, he still likes to think he’s more important to that success than he really is, not willing to give credit to others. He would like the world to think that he single-handedly liberated multiple countries, which of course is not what happened.
Most of the movie takes place in the Arabian Desert, but we get a view of English militaristic nationalism that Lawrence opposed. This was common during WWI in England and is very similar to the white nationalism cropping up in the U.S. over the last few months. The types of beliefs that Lawrence confronted are very similar to the twisted thoughts expressed in our country right now (all Muslims are terrorists, poor people just need to spend their money on health care instead of iPhones, immigration officers are doing good work getting rid of the “bad guys,” etc.). Even if motives were self-seeking, Lawrence’s values were mostly good whether he lived up to them or not. The movie helps us evaluate our own values and to confront ourselves as to whether our values are healthy or not, and if they are healthy, whether or not we’re living in them.
The opinions expressed about Lawrence at the beginning of the movie are all true because he was, like all people, a complex mix of what is good and what is evil. Of course, this is a movie, and I don’t know a lot about the real T.E. Lawrence, so I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but it hardly matters. As a work of art, we see a complex person that in many ways we want to be like and in many ways we want to avoid being like at all costs. In watching it, we learn more about ourselves because what we like about him and what we despise about him will probably tell us a lot about what we like and despise about ourselves.