The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Lawrence of Arabia


It’s no secret that the generation of filmmakers that produced George Lucas love the work of David Lean. Lean produced brilliant works like Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, but none more so than the masterpiece of Lawrence of Arabia.

Obviously, these films all hold some significance to Star Wars right off the bat in that each of them feature to varying degrees Alec Guinness, the man who brought life to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lawrence of Arabia, though, seems to be the most obvious influence. Never before in cinema had anyone truly captured the oppressive feelings of the heat and the desert like David Lean did in that film, and it’s no trick to see the sand dunes of Tatooine as an analogue of the battlefields across the desert backdrop of Lawrence of Arabia.

Many moves from David Lean’s epic were cribbed for sequences on Tatooine. The shot of Mos Eisley from the distance as Luke and Obi-Wan look from on high reminds one instantly of shots looking down at Damascus. Shots of Tusken snipers looking down at speeders moving below echo the same sorts of shots in Lawrence of Arabia.

While Lawrence of Arabia is a complicated film dripping in nuance, it still shares tonal and thematic similarities with the Star Wars films. You have a world where there are people on the front lines fighting a war, paying with their lives, while the politicians wring their hands and make things difficult in the background. Palpatine in The Phantom Menace could be seen as something like Claude Rains’s character, Dryden, in Lawrence of Arabia, both manipulating all sides toward the center. While Dryden has a slightly more benevolent purpose, he resorts to means no less malevolent than a Sith lord to obtain those ends.

At the beginning of the film, T.E. Lawrence himself (played to iconic perfection by Peter O’Toole in his debut role) might be seen as a much more capable counterpart to Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio, at least in the beginning of the film. He’s dropped in the desert with very little sense of direction and is quickly abducted by a roving pack of nomads who end up bringing him to Prince Feisal, played by Alec Guinness. Sure, the jawas are hardly nomadic Arabian warriors, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (also played by Alec Guinness) is just a wizard and a crazy old man, not a prince, but the route is the similar, even if the stops along the way have been altered.

Perhaps the most direct homage to Lawrence of Arabia in the Star Wars saga comes in Attack of the Clones. Right before Lawrence of Arabia‘s intermission, we’re treated to a scene that shifts the tone of the film and makes you aware that Lawrence is in over his head and those we thought were his allies might have been manipulating him the whole time. The scene (featuring Rains’ Dryden at his best) takes place in the Cairo Headquarters of the British Army, which was filmed at the Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain.

This same shooting location would serve as the backdrop for scenes of Naboo in Attack of the Clones. But Lucas takes the homage one step further. They don’t just film in the same location, they match the shot and the motion. In Lawrence of Arabia, Dryden (Rains), General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), and Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) discuss politics while walking toward a moving camera with the columns on the right side of the screen and the building on the left. The scene is matched almost exactly (with a bit of a special effects touch-up to make it seem more like Naboo) when Anakin and Padmé arrive on Naboo and discuss Padmé’s political career.

Padmé herself could be seen as an analogue for T.E. Lawrence as well. She retakes Naboo with all the same surprise and shock that greeted Lawrence when he took Aqaba after crossing the desert and Damascus after that. No one thought she was a capable warrior and the bureaucracy behind the scenes worked constantly to undermine her success.

Lawrence of Arabia is a beautiful film, a masterpiece in its own right, and one of my favorites. It’s wonderful to see its influence seep into the world of Star Wars. The film is rated PG, there’s nothing terribly objectionable about the film. All of the most horrifying acts are implied off-screen. It is a very long movie, though. If you’re thinking of watching it with kids, consider spreading it out over two nights with the intermission as your break. This is another classic I’ve shared with my son and I think were both better for it.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on twitter.

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