Note: I talk about scenes in the film so there are MILD spoilers.
Yes, Lawrence of Arabia is remembered for desert vistas and sweeping battle scenes. The cinematography is unforgettable, the scale vast. In many ways, it defines "epic," but at the center of Lawrence of Arabia there is a real historical person who was also a hero worthy of classical Greek tragedies: a man whose virtues are his downfall. A lot of people seem to miss this, and often I think fans of the movie even miss quite why there is nothing else out there like it. Every aspect of the film, from the narrative structure to the staging of shots, revolves around exploring not just what T.E. Lawrence did but why he did it, and what it cost him.
The desert is a recurring image, but it's not simply a stunning landscape. Shots linger on vast emptiness, and suggest a blank canvas on which Lawrence can paint whatever he wishes. Profoundly alienated from his family and home culture, Lawrence pulls on the robes and persona of the man he might have been, if he'd been born an Arab. The deeper his insecurities reach, the farther his ambitions must go. He conquers the desert, and the desert conquers him, demanding payment for every personal triumph.
The desert and the visuals of Lawrence of Arabia work in relation to the narrative, characters and themes in a way that would be impossible without 70mm film, without the long, lingering shots that make the desert itself a character. The desert shifts and changes, shimmers and conceals, as mysterious and indefinable as Lawrence himself. Peter O'Toole's performance is mirage-like, with emotions flickering and disappearing. Just as some shots linger on a vast and empty desert, others linger on his face, frozen in a moment of internal conflict.
Director David Lean cuts together close-ups and wide-angle shots to reflect the dual nature of his film as vast epic and intimate portrait, as when Lawrence journeys through the furnace heat of the desert to rescue a lost man. Consider the sequence. A speck in the distance; Lawrence's eyes, lit up in relief and vindication; the man, who has expected to die, almost literally rising from the dead; they move toward each other, two specks becoming one; and finally: the impersonal specks become human beings again.
Robert Bolt's screenplay is elegantly structured to show that the desert exacts a personal price for every public triumph, and that Lawrence's inner and outer identity are constantly in conflict. Lawrence captures a Turkish seaport by crossing the Nefud desert, but this success has required him to execute the very man whose life he just saved from the desert. Returning to Cairo to announce his military triumph, he helplessly watches a young friend drown in quicksand. Grieving and stunned, Lawrence approaches the Suez Canal and is seen by a British motorcyclist. To this man, Lawrence is a speck on the horizon, and when he calls, "Who are you?" we know this is the very question Lawrence is asking himself. The more Lawrence accomplishes, the more of a stranger he becomes to himself -- an unknown speck in the desert within.
Eventually Lawrence must come in from the desert, and rejoin his own race-and-class divided culture. This time, Bolt hides the theme of identity in a way that can only be noticed when the film is seen more than once. At the end of the war, and the movie, a British officer shouts racist insults and slaps Lawrence down to the ground because he is dressed in Arab garb. A few days later, when Lawrence is wearing a British uniform, this same officer is proud to shake Lawrence's hand.
Still later -- but seen at the opening of the film, at Lawrence's funeral -- this very British officer professes his great respect for Lawrence and berates a reporter, who really did spend time with Lawrence, for daring to be cynical about him. And the theme of identity comes full circle. Much as Lawrence fought for ideals his own people did not understand and against personal conflicts few would see, Lawrence of Arabia remains a film of many secrets, offering something new to discover on each viewing. It is the dual nature of Lawrence of Arabia, as an epic and as a personal exploration of the mind, that lifts it to a level of poetry made from images and dreams.
Ironic that the film is like its hero: often celebrated but rarely understood.