Notes on Lawrence of Arabia

Notes on Lawrence of Arabia

Jul 2023


There’s an early scene where Lawrence leaves a band of Bedouin people to go look for a man who was lost in the desert. He does this despite fierce warnings that after the sun rose, he would almost certainly die. The film seems to admire this choice, despite that Lawrence has no local knowledge and zero reason to think he knows better than Bedouins. This is a strange thing to celebrate.


A lot of the scenes feel timeless, almost like something from Stanley Kubrick.


Except, just when you’re starting to enjoy the creepy desert vibes, inevitably some strings start to swell and then get very loud and produce music that feels—to me at least—incoherent with what’s on screen.

(I have a similar issue with Michael Mann’s films. How do people enjoy Heat when 40% of the screen time is music at twice the volume of the dialog?)

So, I propose: Can we please have a slider to adjust the volume of the score independently of the rest of the audio?

The obvious objection is “artist’s intent”. But it’s hard to take that seriously when we’re allowed to watch movies on our phones with subtitles because listening to words is too hard.


Lawrence of Arabia was directed by David Lean. Three years later, he made Doctor Zhivago. While a commercial success, it met withering reviews on the grounds that it trivialized the Russian revolution. Lean was allegedly so upset by these reviews that he said that he’d never make another film. (He lived another 26 years and made only two.)

But today, Doctor Zhivago is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Is that because those criticisms were wrong? I don’t think so. We’ve just decided that trivializing the Russian Revolution doesn’t matter that much and the film’s strengths are more important. There’s a lesson there somewhere.


Here’s something that happened during John Roberts’ confirmation hearings for Chief Justice in 2005:

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): You agree we should be finding out your philosophy and method of legal reasoning, modesty, stability, but when we try to find out what modesty and stability mean, what your philosophy means, we don’t get any answers. It’s as if I asked you what kind of movies you like. “Tell me two or three good movies,” and you say, “I like movies with good acting. I like movies with good directing. I like movies with good cinema photography.” And I ask you, “No, give me an example of a good movie,” you don’t name one. I say, “Give me an example of a bad movie,” you won’t name one. Then I ask you if you like Casablanca, and you respond by saying “Lots of people like Casablanca” You tell me “It’s widely settled that Casablanca is one of the great movies.”

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman): Senator Schumer, now that your time is over, are you asking him a question?

Charles Schumer Yes. I am saying sir, I am making a plea here. I hope we’re going to continue this for a while. That within the confines of what you think is appropriate and proper, you try to be a little more forthcoming with us in terms of trying to figure out what kind of justice you will become.

Arlene Specter: We will now take a 15 minute break and reconvene at 4:25…

Judge JOHN ROBERTS (Chief Justice Nominee): …Oh, Mr. Chairman, could I address some of the…

Arlene Specter: …Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I didn’t hear any questions, Judge Roberts, but you…

John Roberts: First, Doctor Zhivago and North by Northwest.


After the events in the movie, the Real Lawrence wrote a book called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, you will not find seven enumerated wisdoms, but rather an account of his adventures between 1916 and 1918.

In Wardi Rum in southern Jordan, there is a rock formation called the Seven Pillars (Photo from Tomobe03):

the seven pillars

Except that formation was named after the book. Apparently, the title is a reference to this passage from Proverbs 9:

Wisdom hath builded her house,

she hath hewn out her seven pillars:

She hath killed her beasts;

she hath mingled her wine;

she hath also furnished her table.

The conventional interpretation of this is that Wisdom has a huge elegant home and she is throwing a huge party with all invited to feast on her understanding. Though Proverbs 9 ends with a very confusing passage that seems to warn of the dangers of thinking yourself wise.

One reviewer of this book said, “Lawrence somehow manages to be self-deprecating and completely arrogant at the same time”.


Can we all just decide that Lawrence of Arabia is the fourth and final Indiana Jones movie? I’m sure we’d be happier.

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