Lawrence of Arabia (1/2) The Mystery

I love Lawrence of Arabia, and the titular character specifically. While Jimmy Stewart is my overall favorite actor, Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence is the greatest piece of acting ever captured on film as far as I’m concerned. I always identified with Lawrence as portrayed here since my first viewing at 13 years old. From not fitting in (“I’m different”) to the vague effeminacy, to the manner of speech (like the inappropriate Themistocles reference–nobody ever got my references and quotes in school). For a long time, I really wanted to dress as Lawrence for Halloween, with the beautiful white robes and everything. However, I never felt like I’d be able to do that safely, since nobody would get the reference and would assume I was trying to be edgy by dressing as “a terrorist.”

I first started seriously delving into film as an artform, and appreciating its history, around the summer after 7th grade (2006). The impetus happened when I came across Lawrence on TCM late one night, though I wasn’t able to stay awake to finish the whole thing. That following Thanksgiving though, I finally caught the film again, and from then on watching it every year before the holiday was a personal tradition. In those days, it felt like Lawrence was the first film that “belonged to me” in a sense. Nobody else in my family had seen it, nor had any of my friends. It had a unique significance to me alone, and since then I’ve been a huge film buff. Unfortunately at the time, none of my school friends shared that interest, and I wasn’t able to get excited for the vacuous blockbusters they loved anymore.

So, Lawrence of Arabia is the movie that made me love movies, for better or worse. It just so happens that I’ve been aware of this film now for exactly half of my life. Now, as a tribute, I’d like to share some of my thoughts rewatching again all these years later:

The Most Elusive Protagonist in Film

I love the contrast of an intimate character study set against the vast expanse of a desert in 70mm. The story opens with multiple characters who will play important roles later in the narrative gathered at Lawrence’s funeral. However, none of them are able to recall Lawrence himself in any detail. Multiple times in the movie, Lawrence is asked “who are you?”/”in whose name do you ride?” and similar questions about his identity or intentions. There’s that big scene where Ali offers him a new name and claims he (Lawrence) can write his own name/clan. Ali later calls Lawrence “a conqueror, […] prince […] man,” all of which are rejected by the recipient, who offers no identity of his own in return.

The cinematography and visual materials outside the film also establish this important motif of Lawrence’s mysterious inner self. The original release poster has Lawrence’s face blacked out. The final shot of Lawrence in the film itself is through a shaded/dusty windshield so our view of him is seriously obscured, as if we still don’t have a clear view of who he really is even after all that we’ve seen. It’s a far less heavy-handed examination of the idea that no single word (such as “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane) or experience (like the Arab Revolt and WWI for our protagonist) can truly define a man’s life.

The objective glimpses we see of Lawrence’s character are very contradictory. He’s at times cocky bordering on megalomania:
“I’m going to give [their freedom/Damascus] to them!”
“I know I’m not ordinary […] I’m extraordinary!”
“they can only kill me with a golden bullet!”
“do you think I’m just anybody Ali? Do you?”
“I shall be at Aqaba, that is written–in here.”

Yet we also see the softer side to Lawrence too, like the moments I shared in the linked video above which demonstrate his effeminate mannerisms. He’s not above singing a silly tune and listening to his own echo. He prances about in the new robes, admiring the soft, flexible fabric and his shadow, almost like a woman preening in the mirror. Lawrence’s self-conscious reaction to being interrupted by Audda betrays the vulnerability of that moment, how Lawrence almost certainly would not have acted that way in front of other men for fear of their reactions. Most significantly, he takes a fierce protectiveness to two orphans (Farraj and Daud) everyone else was happy to leave behind. My favorite understated moment in the film is when Lawrence clasps Farraj’s shoulder and says in an affectionate tone “won’t we?” [in response to his earlier boast about getting to Deraa before the British reach Jerusalem.]

Lawrence has a supposed fear of bloodshed, as mentioned by Mr. Bently, confirmed by Prince Feisal and evidenced by his grief-stricken reaction to Daud’s death in quicksand. However, this information is contrasted sharply when Lawrence himself admits to enjoying the act of executing a man. One could argue he was exaggerating in order to convince the General to send him home, but his own face is contorted in such a way that I believe it was a sincere confession. Lawrence also admits to killing more Turks than was necessary at Aqaba, and later in the film he leads a slaughter outside Damascus. In addition, he’s driven to laughter by the sight of the Turkish military hospital and the British medical officer’s reaction to it.

Lawrence has more than his fair share of admirable traits, but there’s something “off” about him. The movie never delves into this in too much detail, it’s just an unspoken, inconvenient reality that hangs over the war hero shown to the world in Bently’s propaganda. Nobody wants to admit it’s there, and somehow that vagueness makes me feel more than a little uneasy about admiring Lawrence as much as I do. I believe this contrasting element was intentional, and the three dimensional portrayal of Lawrence makes the film a lot more fascinating than it would have otherwise been if he were a straight forward “good guy.”

Contradictory Assessments

To further confuse matters, all other characters also have contradictory opinions of Lawrence throughout the film. Jackson Bently offers perhaps the kindest description of Lawrence that we see: “he was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior.” But in his next breath he also calls him a “shameful exhibitionist” and to top it off, his last words to Lawrence in the movie are to call him a “rotten man.” Prince Feisal seems reverent of Lawrence throughout the story, but only says “what I owe you is beyond evaluation” when Lawrence is out of earshot, as if he can’t bare to admit how much of his success is due to an Englishman. Like Bently too, in his next breath Feisal also admits that he’s glad to be rid of Lawrence. Allenby seems doubtful of Lawrence when the man’s not around: “not like that poor devil–he’s riding the whirlwind“/”they do or he does?” but when face to face, he plays into Lawrence’s ego, even calling him “the most extraordinary man I’ve ever met.” The British medical officer who slapped Lawrence across the face (when he thought Lawrence was an Arab) asks to shake his hand in the next scene, and calls him “a very great man” at the funeral. Finally, even Sherif Ali, who was closer and more laudatory of Lawrence than anyone else, leaves the film saying he “fears” Lawrence. Ali rebukes Lawrence after the massacre outside Damascus, in the National Council meeting and ultimately the two part on very shaky, unresolved terms.

These are not isolated examples either. Even one-off minor characters such as Lawrence’s peers in Cairo (William Potter and Michael George Hartley) can’t help but offer contrasting assessments of the same man for us, when one calls him “balmy” and the other defends him (“he’s alright.”) Later on, after coming to feel as though he no longer belongs among the Arabs, Lawrence has a brief but significant meeting with two other British compatriots. After trying in vain to fit in with them, he overhears his colleagues remarking that he “lays it on a bit thick.” This causes Lawrence to question where he belongs, if anywhere at all, and adds a further contradiction to his character.

So as a result, even if you respect or identify with any supporting character in the film, you still can’t use their opinion to help you sort out how you’re “supposed to” feel about Lawrence.


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