Lawrence of Arabia (2/2) The Tragedy

This is part 2 of my analysis of Lawrence of Arabia. So make sure you read part 1 first.

That Scene…

The scene where Lawrence is captured by the Turkish Bey in Deraa is in the running for the most infamous scene in cinema. This is due to the unspeakable (especially in ’62) subject matter. Its brilliance is in the way the filmmakers were able to imply the rape which occurs there without actually showing anything explicit. For those that aren’t aware, the real-life man attested to this in his own autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, so this isn’t me over-analyzing, or the film being melodramatic. Anyway, in the scene itself, this ulterior motive is first apparent when the Bey openly acknowledges that Lawrence must be a deserter. Rather than investigating further as you’d expect a military officer to do, he playfully muses that “A man cannot be always in uniform.” The entire time, the Bey comments on Lawrence’s eyes, talks about his own loneliness, and has Lawrence’s clothes ripped off. The Bey begins to prod and fondle Lawrence’s body (“your skin is very fair”), and we see a shot-reverse-shot in close-up of his wet lips curling into a smile and Lawrence’s wide-eyed horror at what’s happening.

After the Bey is hit in the groin and retreats, he has his men beat Lawrence. They stretch open his legs and one of the men leers openly as the whipping commences, both of which would seem like unnecessarily lewd details if there were not more to the scene. Perhaps the most significant detail of all, we see Sherif Ali pacing around outside, desperately hoping his friend makes it out of this situation. Ali doesn’t seem particularly disturbed though, until the sound of the beating stops, when he looks through the window in horror at what his friend is enduring.

After the “beating” is done the soldiers throw Lawrence outside into the mud, visually signifying that he has been “dirtied” or “defiled.” Lawrence lays there in obvious anguish, where if Lawrence (whom the film has established has a massive bounty on his head) had actually escaped with only a whipping, he’d probably be elated to have gotten off so easy. Remember that this is a man who spoke flippantly, even proudly, about a gunshot wound just moments after an attempted assassination in an earlier scene, Such a narrow escape would have inflamed Lawrence’s already grandiose sense of his own abilities, just as getting shot (but surviving) had done earlier. The reason it doesn’t is because the soldiers injured Lawrence in such a way as to destroy his sense of self–however mysterious that may be–when they gang raped him while the Bey watched.

Fall From Grace

Lawrence’s drastic change in character from that scene on should be enough to convince anyone of what really happened if the visual cues hadn’t already. He goes from being overly confident and a fanatical supporter of the Arab cause to a visibly traumatized and suddenly doubtful wretch. He can’t sleep or eat, has the trademark thousand yard stare, and must be reminded of his mortal bodily needs by Ali. (Which is metaphorically significant when considering that, just before Deraa, Lawrence was earnestly talking about walking on water and moving mountains.) Lawrence begs General Allenby to be reassigned, he admits he’s only an ordinary man and not even an Arab. This is a sudden and complete repudiation of everything Lawrence believed in and represented to his own followers up to this point in the story.

After being convinced to return to Arabia, Lawrence’s supposed fear of bloodshed is gone. He dismisses Ali’s concern about the victims of British shelling with a curt “they’re Turks.” He leads his men in a massacre where we see him knowingly and eagerly killing men with their hands up in surrender. During this atrocity, Lawrence comes face to face with Ali on the field and runs from his friend in sudden self-awareness and shame at his own actions. This is because Ali was Lawrence’s biggest admirer almost from the beginning, and the man who told Lawrence that he could write his own destiny. To Lawrence, Ali is a reminder of his own high ideals and potential, both of which he has lost sight of since the rape at Deraa.

While we never had a clear picture of the man to begin with, this certainly isn’t the same one who, at the end of Act I, was so shaken about his part in Gassim and Daud’s deaths. Or the same man who had to beg his allies to stop shooting at the beginning of Act II. To emphasize this even further, Ali spitefully throws Lawrence’s own condemnations of the Arabs (“barbarous and cruel”) from their first meeting back at him, now describing Lawrence himself. Just before the butchery, Ali had vehemently insisted to Bently that Lawrence was still the same man as he had been after Deraa, only “humbled.” While it’s never directly stated, we can gleam from this role reversal (and their strained relationship thereafter) that Ali has come to rescind that assessment. The man Ali admired so much up to now is gone.

After it’s all over, Lawrence goes from loving his adopted country to praying that he never sees the desert again. He openly questions why he’s being promoted to Colonel, and is crestfallen that his attempts to unite the Arabs into one country have failed. There are maybe five great “downer endings” in cinema that I know of, where protagonists who’ve lost everything are brought as low as they could possibly be, and Lawrence watching Allenby and Feisal at the negotiating table after the Arabs have abandoned control of the city is certainly one of them. This is because Lawrence now thinks so lowly of himself and his own actions that he openly questions his own promotion and purpose; he’s going home but not with what he wanted (as foreshadowed by Audda Abu Tayi’s line from earlier in Act II.)

A Universal Betrayal

In this way, Lawrence serves as an excellent character study of how a gentle, idealistic, educated young man was completely broken by war. It is a microcosm of how modern war traumatizes those who’ve experienced it firsthand. But more than that, it’s also an excellent parable for the attitudes before and after WWI. In the beginning, Lawrence craves adventure and believes this expedition into Arabia will be “fun.” This is similar to how most believed WWI itself would be a quick, glorious adventure. Instead, as we all know, it quickly became a hopeless, pointless meat grinder. The idealistic outcomes hoped for by previously subjugated peoples (and Woodrow Wilson with his 14 Point Plan) came crashing down in the face of English and French colonialism. This is symbolized in the failure of the Arab National Council to form a functioning government and instead reduced to quibbling over a pumping plant as the prize of the Arab army’s sacrifices. Lawrence himself, for all his extraordinary travels in the Arabian desert, dies a decidedly ordinary death in a motorcycle accident.

Let’s return to the other characters’ contradictory opinions about Lawrence again. I think they represent another way that the world cruelly takes good people, chews them up and spits them out again–not just in the context of war but in general. Look at the way General Murray talks down to Lawrence simply because he (Lawrence) is different from his (Murray’s) expectations of what a man should be. Or how Mr. Dryden goes to bat for Lawrence to get the Arabia assignment because of his appreciation of Arabian culture, only to later deride Lawrence for serving the Arabs’ best interests. Allenby only talks up Lawrence in his presence in order to manipulate him into fighting a war. Bently is only reverent of Lawrence because of his own selfish interests, same as Prince Feisal and the Arabs, who are happy to benefit from Lawrence’s exploits and then go home when he needs them most. The British medical officer wants to shake the hand of the revered hero Lawrence represents, but lashes out against the down and dirty exploits Lawrence had to actually do to enjoy that reputation.

All in all, people only care about what they can get out of you, not your own needs. People will work with you for years (the army in this case, but this applies to any workplace) without ever bothering to know who you actually were. It’s not merely the Arabs, but the world itself that is “greedy, barbarous and cruel.”


  1. *Lawrence* may well be my all-time favourite film! I remember reading this pair of essays a while back and enjoying them immensely. In a just world, you would be a famous critic by now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can add nothing to your commentary. I loved the film, and developed a curious mixture of admiration for the man as a symbol, archetype and question. I think maybe, like you, I asked myself some moral questions besides.

    I am told, on an auxilliary note, he was an accomplished writer with presumably fascinating heterodox ideas regarding divinity which lead to censure in some events. But my research has gone no deeper than basic web turnout, thus far – his work lies on my long list.


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