David Lean and Robert Bolt undertake the monumental task of developing T.E. Lawrence in their epic film, a man eluding simple explanation. An outsider among British and Arab cultures alike; Lawrence is a loner, a thrill seeker, headstrong, yet intelligent and idealistic. He is enigmatic.
A man racing along the English countryside gives us our first impression of Lawrence as thrill seeking to the point of recklessness, punctuated with his demise. This daredevil aspect contrasts with the reflections on his life at the funeral, where a survey of the British officers paints Lawrence in iconic fashion, an ideal, not a real person. Then a reporter describes him as a “shameless self promoter.” Lawrence, of course, defies all these simple characterizations.
When the real story begins, Lean and Bolt elaborate on Lawrence through a series of relationship dynamics. Lawrence garners contempt from the British officers in Cairo, seeming to try their patience. His willfulness regarding authority contrasts with the benevolence he shows to his guide in Arabia, giving the man his pistol and drinking water at the same time, as an equal. Both relationships convey Lawrence’s dissatisfaction with his own culture and his eagerness to adapt to the rougher Arab lifestyle.
The film’s core conflict comes into focus on the horizon in the lone figure of Sherif Ali, who kills Lawrence’s servant while still a blur, giving the audience faceless act of violence for a first impression. Ali does not respect this “desert-loving Englishman”, and Lawrence does not trust Ali’s savage ways. The cultural clash begins, with these two at its epicenter.
The forebodingly named “Sun’s Anvil” will mold Lawrence like a black smith’s weapon, setting the stage fore his climactic acceptance into the Arab clans. Throughout their trek across its white sands, Lawrence and Ali remain competitive. Lawrence makes bold statements and Ali demonstrates his superiority through actions such as waking Lawrence; but when Lawrence goes back to retrieve a lost clan member, he performs a miracle in clan’s eyes.
They burn his old clothes and bestow him white robes in their fashion and a new name “El Lawrence”, but what Lawrence does immediately after receiving these vestiges of acceptance makes for a curios contrast to his hard heroic previous actions. He gallops away and, once alone, proceeds to stroll around in a schoolgirl fashion, trying out his new dress and status. The warrior persona drops, replaced with a childish smile and effeminate strolling gait, prancing around in circles.
This moment of jubilation shatters with the sound of another gunshot, introducing Audu abu Tayi. Within a few lines of dialogue we know how little progress Lawrence has made. The desert is a vast place and winning over one clan is just the beginning.