T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) distinguished himself in the military campaign in the Middle East during the First World War, battling the Turks in an extraordinary example of bravery and persuasion, but now he is in his forties he has retired to rural England where he likes to ride his motorbike along the country roads. Alas, that was to be his undoing, and he suffered a fatal accident, which brought out a spate of national mourning in the United Kingdom, though the mourners at his funeral were not all necessarily of a consensus as to what Lawrence was like as a man, or even what his legacy was. To better understand him, we must go back to when he was stationed in Cairo, and volunteered for a one-man mission into the desert...
There used to be a cliché that said important, epic films had a cast of thousands, though it very rarely applied and probably never will again now that computer graphics mean there's no need to hire hundreds of extras for your battle scenes and crowd assemblies. But Lawrence of Arabia genuinely hired a massive amount of people to stand before the camera, not all with speaking parts but contributing to the sense this was a production not to be ignored, it was just too huge, it stood as a colossal achievement whatever you thought of its subject. Not everyone agreed Lawrence was a hero, and among those not entirely sold on the idea was director David Lean.
What he did believe was that here was a fascinating historical figure, and had an inner life rich enough to enormously influence what was going on around him - that ability to command a large amount of individuals into a force with one goal must have appealed to Lean too, of course, since that's what he was doing on his increasingly mighty movies, and the perfectionist in him was getting to love a challenge of guiding so many elements to create a cohesive whole. With Lawrence, he had a subject who would be controversial enough to drum up interest among the audience - the effects of his machinations would be felt for a long time afterward in the world - yet he needed someone who embodied all those aspects.
For that he cast a relative newcomer to the film industry, Peter O'Toole, seeing something of the messianic in him that suited the role down to the ground. Thus Lawrence affected the actor's career for ever on: he would never play some ordinary bloke, it seemed beyond him when his persona was so larger than life yet oddly controlled and contained, a wealth of intellect sparking behind those striking blue eyes. It was assuredly one of the finest instances of finding the right actor for the role ever seen in a major motion picture, and by all rights should have secured O'Toole an Oscar, but he was to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride in that respect until the Academy felt sorry for him and gave him an honorary one. But make no mistake, he was brilliant here.
There's something supernatural about the transformation of Lawrence from a lowly soldier in an office job whose sense of humour marks him out as a rebel to some kind of establishment figure who feels extremely conflicted about the path that gets him there. By the end of the movie, he's not simply haunted by his experiences, he is possessed and aware nothing can exorcise the terrible sensations he went through, most importantly the bloodlust he couldn't hold in check that both drove him on and disgusted him. But at the beginning, he wins us over with his self-effacing charm and willingness to go the extra mile - many miles, in fact - to immerse himself in the desert culture and make up his mind to bring together tribes that previously would be pitted against one another.
Crucially, he is convinced he is working for the greater good, yet this was very much a post-Suez Crisis film and Lean subtly (and not so subtly, eventually) called into question how much benefit the British actions, and Lawrence's in particular, had genuinely achieved. It's easy to get lost in the spectacle of this, Maurice Jarre's majestic music and the vast landscapes somehow appropriate to the tumultuous emotions the characters are going through, and individual sequences such as the arrival of Omar Sharif's character from the distance seared into cinema history; also worth mentioning Sharif's fierce nobility here was responsible for making him the first Arab movie superstar. The other actors were well chosen also, so much so we forgive Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn playing races different to their own, the sheer pressure of history made up for that. But so did the sorrowful conclusion that men of war are not content, the ones like Lawrence can barely live with themselves unless they are convinced of their cause, take away that conviction and you have a sorry state of affairs.