Under Her Eye review: Lawrence of Arabia

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Read the shortlisted Under Her Eye reviews then vote for your favourite.

As part of Stylist’s Under Her Eye initiative, we’re on the hunt for three new female film critics. We asked aspiring reviewers to send in a 450-word review of their favourite film – and after an overwhelming response, we’ve whittled it down to a shortlist of 20. 

Read one woman’s review of Lawrence of Arabia below and click here to see the other entries and vote for your favourite.

Blisteringly beautiful; accompanied by a magnificent score; chock full of choreographed clashes; shot in CinemaScope with Super Panavision 70 and a cast of more than a thousand, numerous leading lights and one very, very handsome lead (Noel Coward famously quipped that if O’Toole had been any prettier the film would have been ‘Florence of Arabia’)… in its sheer length and ambition Lawrence of Arabia advertises its own epic claims. 

It would have been all too easy for such a project to have been hoisted on its own petard – a victim, like Lawrence himself, of its own overweening ambition – to have been just a gorgeous, hollow thing. Remarkably, it isn’t. It pulls it off. Which is in itself, as Steven Spielberg has called it, ‘a miracle’.

In many ways Lawrence is a ‘picture’ of its time. In the very beauty of its cinematography and its panoply of accents and ‘blacked up’ ethnics, it does not manage to avoid the pitfalls of exoticisation and orientalism. Its elevation of Lawrence as a complex, highly individualist psyche struggling with his White Man’s Burden; its historical inaccuracies, reducing power relationships and fraught regional histories to the outward manifestation of that private psychic struggle; all this and more could well place Lawrence of Arabia in the list of The Unwatchables for future generations. But my goodness, what they would be missing.

The film’s politics are riddled with ambivalences. Ostensibly an endorsement of the aspirations of Arab nationalism, it was nevertheless banned by many Arab countries as disrespectful. The ‘natives’ are portrayed as desert tribesmen too absorbed in internecine bickering to organise without the help of their adopted white son, Lawrence, and when given a chance to administer Damascus themselves they are incompetently unequal to the tasks of self-governance and public administration, happy to abandon the city to colonial rule. 

The resonances of these ideological tropes are still with us in the recent and on-going history of the region, and there are obvious problems with this western vision of the desert as a place to play out its own psychodramas, as there are with the flattening out and diminution of historical complexities to the end of what is essentially a character study of one man.

Nevertheless its tragic structure allows Lawrence to be clear-sighted and unflinching about the hard political and economic realities of history. In its honesty about the limits of individual freedom and action – of even the most personally courageous and idealistic of characters – it is a profoundly political and even radical film. This is what makes the film transcend the debates about historical accuracy which surround it. 

The question is not whether Lean’s Lawrence is a ‘true’ depiction of T.E. Lawrence; the Lawrence of the film is a symbol of the idealism which founders in the face of personal trauma and self-doubt, which are in turn, creations of a far more powerful political and historical order than the individual idealist - or egotist - had reckoned with. No film has ever shown with more terrifying honesty, the way that history intertwines with personal narratives, exacting its revenge on individuals who dare to cross the thresholds and established cultural boundaries and think they can, with impunity, don the robes of another culture. 

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