Usually, I am not the type of person very interested in ‘epic’ films. I like classic movies, but they tend to be the sort of film that is very intimate in scale (Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window). The big epics that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s (The Ten Commandments, Spartacus) have never particularly interested me. Maybe this is partially because the action usually revolves around war or religion, two topics I prefer to ignore in life.
I decided to watch Lawrence of Arabia, despite it being set in war, because its a very interesting look at the British in a different context than you usually see. A British officer who embraces a different culture and sees them (especially a culture that would have been called uncivilized at the time) as equals, and understands their interests. A look at WWI not from the trenches in France, but from the periphery of the Middle East. A look at the history of a region still obviously in conflict. I saw T.E. Lawrence’s portrait when I visited Oxford, and I was fascinated by the legend.
This is definitely an epic film, with multiple battle scenes, a huge cast, and tons of footage shot in amazing and exotic places. I find that the more ‘epic’ characteristics were irksome to me, but the film had enough human interaction to sate my need for character-driven action. I think that it actually reminded me a lot of Bridge Over the River Kwai. It dealt with a foreign culture and its relations to the British, and the lunacy that war can create in any man.
So, who was T.E. Lawrence? A British officer, educated but insolent, stationed in Cairo during World War I. That much is verified by historical accounts. The film takes license with other areas of the history, so I won’t presume to know much about T.E. Lawrence, the man. The character, however, is a very interesting man. Very interesting and very human. He’s showy, arrogant, but also very smart and very capable. I’d wager he’s a great chess player.
Lawrence is given an assignment to meet with a Prince Faisal, a leader of some of the nomadic tribes in Arabia. He impresses the prince by seeing the conflict and the decisions from the perspective of the Arabs as an independent nation, not just from the perspective of the British as needing their support. He doesn’t just pay perfunctory respect to the prince, but actually respects and comprehends his difficult position. The British are offering to supply arms and training to fight the Turks, against which the Arabs are getting completely slaughtered. How do you fight planes with a horse and a sword? But, in exchange for the weapons and training, the Arabs would become more or less a garrison under the British Army’s control, and cease to be an independent state.
A little note for the sake of political correctness–I realize that Arab is not a term I should be using to describe all of the people in the movie, who were not in any way united, and were from diverse tribes and cultures. On the other hand, the movie refers to them that way partially because Lawrence’s biggest challenge and biggest hope is to achieve a unified nation that can defend and regulate itself outside of British control. So, I’m using the term to reflect that and, honestly, to make my life simpler in writing this. No offense intended.
Carrying on. Lawrence suggests that the Arabs try to take control of the city of Aqaba from the Turks, and use this as a point from which to defend themselves without falling under British rule. Consider how amazing this idea is coming from a product of a culture that had literally spent the last 150 years trying to turn the entire map red. The culture that said ‘The sun never sets on the English Empire’. It’s an amazingly incongruous idea from a Brit of that era. But nonetheless.
Lawrence sets across the desert to try to accomplish his goal. I won’t recount the entire rest of the plot, but here are a few general themes. As Lawrence sees it, the main problem the Arabs have is infighting–the different tribes kill each other over rivalries, over access to water, over eye-for-an-eye justice systems. While they fight one another, it is far simpler for them to be ruled by someone else, or to be defeated by the Turks. Lawrence seeks to unite them in the fight. In order to do so, he has a few strategies–he (knowingly or naively) becomes a symbol of power and courage, and attracts what are essentially disciples in his war, he offers the spoils of war in the form of the pillaging of supplies (from horses and food to fine clocks and guns), and he does whatever he can to avoid the flare-ups of tribal hostilities. A pivotal scene is when a man from tribe A kills the man from tribe B. Under law, the murderer must be killed. But if someone from tribe B kills the man, then that man must be killed. Etc. Lawrence has no choice. He kills the man. Justice is served and no further deaths need occur. But that is the form of justice he must embrace in order to achieve his ends. Eventually, the Arabs and Lawrence do gain control of several key cities (but not without incredible loss and bloodshed of a gut-wrenching variety) and they set up their own government instead of allowing British rule. But it cannot last, no matter how desperately Lawrence hopes for compromise and peace and something resembling democracy/a parliamentary republic. It’s a failure in the end, and the British swoop in to gain control over the area.
What this process, this fruitless journey does to Lawrence is very depressing. He is fairly likeable at the beginning, perhaps because he is a non-conformist who dares challenge authority even while surrounded by feckless bureaucrats with no sense of responsibility for what they are doing in that region. Once he begins to ‘go native’, adopting cultural mores of the Arabs (the wearing of robes) and abandoning those of the British (shaving daily), he becomes almost saint-like. This is personified by his flowing white robes, shining in the desert sun. His image begins to tarnish when his guerrilla warfare becomes more dirty and brutal (validating the British sense of fair play). He begins to have blood soaked into his robes. First, by a bullet that grazes his arm. Then by the blood of others in his brutal assaults on the Turks. When he is caught in Turkey and whipped repeatedly, blood soaks through his robes for days afterward. After this incident, even when he returns to his British army uniform, the blood soaks through. Like Lady Macbeth, it won’t wash clean. This is a fairly obvious allegory for how his soul is becoming tainted and dirty from his actions. The blood soaking through his uniform is clearly saying that even when he goes home to England, he won’t be able to brush off the blood on his hands. By the end of the film, when he has bribed and cajoled thousands to their deaths and to participate in the deaths of others, he’s useless to the Brits and the Arabs, and is more damaged than can be described.
So is the message of the movie that this is an uncivilized area of the world unable to govern itself? I hope not. Considering what this journey does to Lawrence, I think it means that anyone from outside the culture, no matter how much they know about it or feel they can understand or adopt it, they cannot control or change it. Change, if it should come, must come from within. It has to be in the minds of the people themselves, and not something which they are steered toward by an outsider. I think that’s a good message.
People that don’t like Shakespeare might point to the difficulty they have understanding it, but no one can deny that reading/watching Shakespeare can provide endless different interpretations of the same play. I’m not a fan of the epic movie, and this movie wasn’t really an exception in that arena. On the other hand, it has given me a lot to think about, and in that way, I think it was a really excellent film. Very thought-provoking.
A note, though. IT’S FUCKING LONG. It’s nearly FOUR hours long. And bleak. Just a warning, if you’re thinking about watching it. Make sure you don’t have anything else to do that day.
There are a million other things I could say about this movie. The locations they chose are amazing and give you an incredible sense of the scale of these massive deserts, and what sort of culture might be able to endure such a harsh climate. The acting is superb–Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guinness as Faisel, Omar Sharif as Sheriff Ali. Some of the best acting I think I’ve ever seen. I could also talk for an extended period about the utter nonsense of having Alec Guinness play the King of Syria/Iraq. In brown face. It doesn’t sit well with a modern sensibility. Not quite as terrible as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but pretty bad. I’ll spare you my ruminations, however. The bottom line: despite its faults, it’s a movie worth seeing.