Tag Archives: World War I

Parade’s End, part two

It took me a while to finish all 4 of the Parade’s End novels by Ford Madox Ford.  I will say, though, that each one is shorter than the last.  It’s a bit like Michelangelo, who made the first frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling too big, and had to make them smaller and smaller as he went, to fit all of them on.

Parades End. Call Sheet # 39,40 and second unit on morning of th

Unfortunately, these books are not the perfect works of art that Michelangelo’s frescoes are.  The first two were complicated, often lacking in emotion, and frequently difficult to read.  Following the plot was a bit like being pulled along by the hand too fast to look around and see what’s going on.  If I hadn’t seen the miniseries before reading the book, I would have been even more confused.  Ford is not great at 2 very practical things that make reading easier–making it obvious 1-who is speaking, and 2-when events are taking place.  Two very easy things for writers to make clear, but when got wrong, the whole flow of narrative and the magical telepathy that reading is…just doesn’t work.  You are constantly jumping back wondering–did she say that aloud or just think it?  And…is this in the past? Did I miss something?

While I enjoyed the first two books, despite these little niggles, the second half of the tetralogy is more difficult to love. For one thing, they barely feature Christopher Tietjens, the crux of the four-novel plot.  He isn’t seen until the last few pages of The Last Post, action revolving instead around those closest to him–his brother, his wife, and his mistress.  And also, for some reason, his brother’s wife.

The third book, A Man Could Stand Up, starts with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, learning that the war is over, and learning that Christopher, her star-crossed lover, is still alive. But it shifts back in time for the second half of the book, having the reader join Christopher on the front.

Parade's End

Here is where Ford puts in some of his grimmest memories from his time in the war. He led a very similar life to Tietjens. He worked for the Propaganda office, drumming up blindly-patriotic enthusiasm for the thought of killing zee Germans. Leaving that office, he enlisted at 41 years old, and was sent to France. When you read Tietjens experiences of the unbearable and uncountable deaths around him, you just know that Ford is writing from his own experience. Here’s a passage that was particularly difficult for me to stomach, and left me with mental images I never wanted to have:

‘It was different from sleep: flatter. No doubt when the applled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs…well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that…but you collapsed inwards.  Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-gray or mud-colour. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth.’

Time shifts again, and we’re back to Armistice Day, and Christopher and Valentine want to be together. They no longer care for the formalities of propriety and avoidance of scandal that held them back before.  Though many try to talk them out of it, Valentine finally becomes his mistress.

The fourth book, The Last Post spends most of its time in the heads of Christopher’s brother, the brother’s wife, and Christopher’s wife.  We see little of Valentine and even less of Christopher.  We learn everything through hearsay, which I find really annoying.  These two characters pine for each other for nearly a decade, live through hell and find each other again. They finally can be together and…we don’t really see much of it.

Most of the last novel focuses on the future of Groby, the Tietjens’ family estate. This does make sense, as most of this series of novels is about the future of the British ruling class, rather than just being about the Tietjens. Still, it’s easier to deal with a novel when the point of it isn’t thrust in your face at the expense of aspects you’re truly interested in.

Mark Tietjens, the eldest brother, is paralyzed (though it’s unclear how much of his immobility is psychosomatic), and has no children. Therefore Christopher is the next in line to inherit Groby.  And his child the heir after him–if the boy is his child.  That question is never adequately answered, but we’re led to believe he is definitely not. And the house, the symbol of the aristocracy will be further ruined by its passing onto the illegitimate son, brought up a Catholic (a horrible thing in British opinion of the time).

Christopher is married, but not living with his wife.  Instead, he is living with Valentine, pregnant with his illegitimate child. They barely have enough money to support themselves, after Christopher’s business dealings go wrong.  Groby and all that symbolizes the old guard of British land-owning aristocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of Sylvia, Christopher’s horrid wife.  She has rented the ancestral home out to a vulgar American, who had the gall to cut down a very large and beloved tree on the property.  In short, Sylvia continues to torture Christopher however she can, even from afar.

Most of this final book is about how the world has changed, instead of how the characters have changed.  Indeed, the male characters haven’t changed that much at all.  They aren’t adapting well to this new world that has been forced upon them. Mark Tietjens has completely given up on society and refuses to speak to anyone ever again.  Christopher is trying, and largely failing, to support himself and Valentine by selling old furniture.  The women on the other hand…the women can adapt.  Valentine worries about what she’s got herself into, being a pregnant mistress to a disgraced aristocrat.  Understandable.  But she has embraced Christopher and chosen him over respectability and frigid chastity.  Sylvia proves also fairly adaptable. She feels it’s probably time to stop torturing Christopher.  To divorce him (a big change for her, as she is Catholic), and to marry the General that has always admired her and will be an easier target for her endless need to irritate.

If you’re wondering where all of this was in the miniseries–it wasn’t.  Tom Stoppard left most of it out.  The Last Post is a real controversy  among critics of Ford’s works.  Graham Greene omitted it entirely from an edition of Parade’s End that he edited.  It’s a love or hate book, the literary equivalent of cilantro.  I didn’t enjoy it.  We see Mark as a stubborn invalid, we see our bad ass suffragette, Valentine, reduced to a nervous pregnant woman, worried about money, possibly regretting her decisions.  It’s nice to know that Sylvia eventually would have given him the divorce, but nearly every other thing in the 4th novel could be left out and the character arcs would still be complete.  It’s extra stuff, it’s not needed, and it takes the place of what might be a better denouement for Christopher and Valentine.

So that left me quite disappointed.  When I watched the miniseries, I thought the ending too sharp and too quick. He comes back from war, a leader among his inferior soldiers, and shares a dance with his (implied soon-to-be) mistress.

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Now I see why it ended that way.  Everything else that Ford Madox Ford adds afterward  really isn’t about the 2 of them. It’s about England, and it loses some of its potency by focusing on the culture rather than on the people.

 

 

 

Parade’s End, part I

parade's end bookIt’s been about a year since I watched the Parade’s End miniseries on HBO. I had never heard of Parade’s End before then, though the name Ford Madox Ford sounded familiar. Anyway, it is supposed to be one of the definitive books about World War I, probably right behind All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, that one is written from a German perspective, whereas Parade’s End is so quintessentially, entirely, inescapably British.

Parade’s End is actually a tetralogy–4 novels. To make my life easier, I’m splitting this one into two posts. This one is about the first two books in the series: Some Do Not… and No More Parades, from 1924 and 1925 respectively.

The first book opens with two men in a train-car. A brand new, gleaming, perfect train car, with two men of a class who ‘administered the world’. One of these men is Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch in the miniseries).

The reason Ford opens with this gleaming, punctual, swift train carriage is the same reason I was very interested in this book.  I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian era, which is (technically) 1837-1901, the period that Queen Victoria reigned.  For a while, nearly 15 years, the incredible success of the Victorian era spilled over into the new 20th century. England started the century at its absolute zenith. By the end of WWI, that reflected and lingering glory is mostly gone. Ford sets his novel in those last moments of England’s place as the world superpower. Just before it all falls apart.

The basic points of the story (of all 4 books), revolve around 3 characters. Christopher Tietjens is a brilliant, honorable, slightly belligerent, extremely stubborn Tory from Yorkshire.  His wife, Sylvia, is a conniving, sadistic, painfully beautiful and selfish woman, who married Christopher out of desperation (she was pregnant with another man’s son).  In the miniseries, she was played by Rebecca Hall (who looked so beautiful in it that it makes me want to throw myself out of a window):

pocket-mirror-parade-s-end-sylvia2

If the books were set in high school, Sylvia would be the Queen Bee, the Regina George. The other woman in Christopher’s life is Valentine Wannop, a bad ass suffragette.

8015647016_03c759c327_zI have already decided that this will be my Halloween costume this year, because suffragettes are my heroes, and how often in life do you get a chance to wear a sash? Valentine is innocent and young, but she’s also very strong, very smart, and incredibly capable.

First of all, I must say that Ford Madox Ford is awesome at writing female characters. He gives them the same amount of agency, of morality, of wrath, and variability, that he gives to male characters. They are not paragons or whores, they are complicated and multi-faceted, and that’s lovely to see. Especially from a book that is set 100 years ago.

But I also have to say that Ford Madox Ford is not great at creating an easy-to-read narrative. He does not hold your hand and walk you through the craggy bits of rock to get to the plot points he has scattered about. He jumps back and forth in time, from soliloquy to dialogue with very little direction for the reader. You have to pay attention and hold your end of the bargain in order to follow where he goes.  But if you can follow, you get a lot of great tidbits and aphorisms.

Remarking on the famous stiff upper lip of English people, he talks about ‘self-suppression in matters of the emotions’, how in small matters, the Englishman ‘will be impeccable and not to be moved’, but in ‘sudden confrontation of anything but physical dangers, he is apt …to go to pieces very badly.’

And Christopher Tietjens is very much the epitome of that sort of English man.  Even in his own thoughts, he is strangely blank about emotions. It is difficult for him to even think some of the horrible thoughts that come upon him, such as the fact that his son and heir is probably not his child, and that he was tricked into marrying a witch of a woman, and now his own sense of duty and honor prevent him from divorcing her.  Sylvia, being a Catholic, will definitely not be divorcing him.

Tietjens is in love with Valentine Wannop very quickly after they meet. But even though his wife has strayed from him, multiple times, he cannot bring himself to do something as dishonorable as cheat on her.  Even though most men think it normal (‘there’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have a girl…’), and the gossip mills already believe Valentine has had his child in secret. He knows Valentine loves him, and ‘his passion for her was a devouring element that covered his whole mind as the atmosphere envelops the earth’. But the two of them are too moral to begin an affair.

The one chink in that resolution is when Christopher is on leave, back from France during the beginning parts of the war. He’s about to leave again, and he does ask her to be his mistress. Ford makes a point to show how this 19th century honor falls apart relative to the awful truth of World War I. The terrible truth of the outrageous body count, the long and pointless fight on the front, and the number of soldiers returning home in pieces. But the two never get their night together.  There are some people who do that sort of thing, but these two are very clearly part of the eponymous ‘Some Do Not’.

Though the action of this tale starts before the war, and much of the action revolves around the two women who are (obviously)  not in combat, the entirety of this story is about the war.  It’s about a type of life that existed before the war–Sylvia’s type of life. Society, money, pretty gowns, shows of imperial might, often a real lack of morality…  After the war, it doesn’t exist anymore. That old way of living in the height of the English Empire has slipped away. Though many don’t realize it, it’s already gone by the time the war begins. Ford talks about this in a lot of different ways.  He has Tietjens reminisce about God, comparing him to an English landlord, ‘Benevolently awful’, and heaven is an English Sunday.

The ‘Parades’ in the title, refer to specific military drills and marches, but also to anything with former pomp and circumstance. The last generation was able to cling to tradition, ceremony, ritual.  All of that gave them an inflated sense of purpose. After World War I begins, all of that illusion is gone. There can be no real sense of importance in elaborate dinners or literary salons or royal occasions, in a world where people were blown to bits by howitzers or burned with mustard gas.  Or making it back to England, but blind or broken. That world just stops existing once it is confronted with the utter destruction of the War.

We see part of Christopher’s experience in the War during these first two novels.  Ford shows a complete chaos, organizationally. First, Tietjens is asked to manipulate statistics to show incorrect numbers of men that England was supplying to the allied front.  He refuses to do so, and resigns his place at the Statistics office. He ends up in France, in charge of sending men out to the front line.  More chaos.  He gets conflicting orders about where and when the men should go. They head out in one direction, and come back 6 hours later, because the French resistance has blown up the bridge they need to cross.  General Campion, a senior officer and Christopher’s godfather, also expounds on the chaos of the English forces. Campion proves he is not as honorable as the English like to believe they are (he ‘was not overpoweringly sentimental over the idea of the abandonment of our allies’). It better suited English interests to protect the Eastern colonies, rather than helping the French on the Western front. But if the English did abandon France and Belgium to their fate, they would run into a serious problem getting the English troops back across the channel. The French would attack them when they attempted to retreat.

Some of the best scenes of this story are the utterly ludicrous things that happen in war.  Tietjens and his fellow officers, educated in Latin and in poetry in elite schools, are ill-prepared for the realities of war.  In a moment of strange desperation, Tietjens and another officer both try to prove their intellectual worth by utilizing those skills, which are of no other use in this time and place. As Tietjens says later, ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth’. Tietjens describes himself as ‘the English public schoolboy’. And look how ill-prepared he is for life in this new world that dawned in the 20th century.

At the end of the second book of the series, Tietjens is about to head to the front lines, after his wife has come to France to embarrass and harass him. Bored with only torturing him, she also makes eyes at several other young men hovering around the army-commandeered hotel.  She comes all the way to war-torn France to see if she can make her husband grimace.  Well, she does.

The thing to understand about Sylvia is why she wants to make her husband grimace. She, not unlike Estella from Great Expectations, measures her power with men in the pain she can cause them. It is difficult to make Tietjens cringe with pain or insult, so she must resort to despicable behavior to do so. For her, it is proof that he still cares for her, if she can cause him pain. It’s not admirable or pleasant, but I think it’s fairly easy to see how a woman, brought up to be a society darling, graced with incredible beauty, might learn to interact with men this way.

So even though he is a brilliant man, with good connections and money, Christopher is off to the front to put his life at risk because of some ludicrous idea of honor. Sylvia, who really does want him to love her (and shows it in the only way she knows how), refuses to loosen her grasp on him. Valentine vows to erase him from her mind, because there is no reason to believe he will come back from the front.  And all the characters are miserable, forced by morality to do things that can only destroy them in future.  I know what happens next, because of the miniseries, but reading the books will hopefully add another layer of depth and comprehension to the story.

Parade’s End Miniseries

Parade's End

The miniseries Parade’s End played on UK TV way back in August.  I have been impatiently waiting for it to come to American TV ever since.  HBO had the rights for months, but they finally decided to play the thing last week.  Instead of a weekly installment, HBO played the 5-part miniseries over three days.  I’m not certain why they decided to wait 6 months and then squeeze the miniseries into the middle of the week, but whatever. I was just happy to see it.

Parade’s End was adapted from a series of four books written by Ford Madox Ford, in the 1910s and 20s.  After seeing this miniseries, I intend to read all of the books. The characters were spectacularly well done, and I can only guess the books are very good.

I love a BBC period drama, but obviously the main draw for me in seeing this one was Benedict Cumberbatch.  He plays one of the three main characters, a man named Christopher Tietjens.

ChristopherTietjens is an incredible character.  A firm believer in the truth, in honor, in fair-play, and everything simultaneously morally righteous and annoyingly priggish. He has a habit of making corrections in the margins of his encyclopedia. His know-it-all-ness is alternately tedious (especially to his wife) and funny.  Benedict always seems to play characters smarter than everyone else in the room, and Tietjens is no exception.  Some of the best moments in the series are when he confronts and out-thinks corpulent blowhards and moronic busybodies.

He embodies everything stereotypically British–stiff upper lip (literally, Benedict barely moves his upper lip for the entire miniseries), honorable, more capable of showing affection to horses than people–but he is also a man that hearkens back to the past. He admits that he loves the idea of a more agrarian, simple society that he believes Britain embodied in the past.  He reminded me a bit of what I know of Churchill.  He clings to Tory ideals that don’t really reflect the society in which he is currently living.  He doesn’t like the changes that are coming up in society at the beginning of the 20th century.

And that is the central theme of this miniseries. The title reflects the end of the society as drama, as pomp and circumstance.  The upper classes are breaking down, the institutions of nobility, of patriarchy, and of marriage are falling apart.  All the Anglican ideals to which Tietjens adheres most fervently are disappearing from ‘modern’ society.  This is the last gasp of that Victorian culture that was so prevalent just ten-twenty years earlier.

There are two women in Christopher’s life, and neither are much like him.  His wife, Sylvia, is almost his antithesis.  She is Catholic, feisty, vapid, lascivious, and tremendously bored.  She is played by Rebecca Hall, who looks so astonishingly beautiful in this miniseries that I’m convinced she has been sent specifically to make the rest of us mortal women feel bad about ourselves.

Sylvia

It’s difficult to determine who is less pleased with this marriage, which is doomed from the start.  After a fling with Christopher while in the midst of a long affair with a married man, Sylvia discovers she is pregnant.  Not wanting to be ruined in society, she marries Christopher.  Being something of a martyr, and a truly honorable man, Christopher marries her despite knowing there is a chance the child is not his.  He resents her at the same time that he is bewitched by her appearance and her joie de vivre.  She resents him for being so (to borrow an anachronistic term from the 1950s) square, so emotionless.  She is constantly (especially in the beginning of their marriage) trying to provoke his anger and jealousy.  He never gives in to his emotions.

At first, I found Sylvia difficult to like.  She is like a petulant child, acting out in the hope of a reaction from disinterested parents.  For me, it seems obvious that people so utterly bored with life must be very boring themselves.  But as the series continues, she improves.  Her independence alone must be commended, considering when she lived and how she lived. Though she first finds Christopher a bore, it’s obvious she loves him too.  No one wants their husband’s attention that badly unless they care. No matter how misguided and immature her actions are, all she can hope is that it will provoke a reaction in her husband.  She does truly want to work it out, and I found myself sort of hoping it would.

But then there is Valentine, a young suffragette that Christopher meets. Valentine is everything that Sylvia isn’t and vice versa.  She is played by Adelaide Clemens, soon to star in the new Gatsby movie.

ValentineIn some ways, it’s strange that Christopher would be attracted to a revolutionary woman.  Women’s suffrage was a pretty revolutionary idea, and you can see clearly in the miniseries that the majority of people thought suffragettes were whores.  They were trying to undermine the status quo, and that’s never going to gain you popularity with most of society.  That Christopher, so conservative and old-fashioned, is attracted to Valentine is explainable because she is an honorable and honest person.  Unlike Sylvia, who is all about manipulation and misinformation, Valentine has the honest naiveté of every young revolutionary.  She is immediately attracted to Christopher because (in my opinion) she recognizes a similarly moral person in a vastly immoral society.

This being a British period drama, the love triangle is unconsummated for 99% of the miniseries.  This is not Team Edward vs Team Jacob.  The majority of the miniseries sees Christopher trying to repress his feelings for Valentine because he is married and despite his wife’s unfaithfulness, he refuses to break his marriage vows.  He does not even want to divorce her, because he just doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do, in any circumstance.

This love triangle is interrupted by World War One, and that event is the catalyst for all the change we witness in British society in this era.  Entire generations of men gone to war and coming back wounded physically, destroyed emotionally, or not coming back at all.  The romantic and chivalrous ideal of Victorian society cannot stand up to the reality of WWI.  Parade’s End makes this perfectly obvious.  Christopher, irritated with illogical bureaucracy, resigns his government job and enlists to fight.  In one scene, the incongruous nature of Victorian society meeting 20th-century war is highlighted particularly well.  In a fit of exhaustion, stress, and emotional trauma during an air raid, Christopher claims to be able to write a sonnet in under 3 minutes.  His education in the classics, in poetry, in languages, would have made this quite simple for him. He completes his task, and his fellow officer (a former scholar) claims to be able to translate it into Latin in under 3 minutes as well.  This is the sort of exercise their education has prepared these upper-class men to do.  So they are doing it, in the middle of war-torn France with bombs dropping all around them.  And for the most part, this was painfully true.  No one was prepared for the carnage of WWI, but I would guess the officers least of all.  Working men would have seen terrible things in the course of their much rougher lives.  Officers (whose positions were earned through social class or purchased for them) would have come from more educated, but more sheltered backgrounds.  But they were still there, in the trenches, with just as much chance of being shot or blown in half.  As with any war, the pointlessness is overwhelming, but WWI was especially pointless.

The miniseries ends with the end of the war.  Christopher makes it home, but the society he knows is largely gone.  And England did change almost entirely during those years, far more than the US did.  The upper class lifestyle of landed nobility tried to continue to hang on afterward, but things were too different and the century rolled on without them.  The miniseries did a great job illustrating the end of that era. Christopher doesn’t hold so tight to his Anglican morals when he comes back; he sees where they are useful, but he makes his own morality now.  He allows himself to fall in love with Valentine, and he lets Sylvia go.  The miniseries ends with their relationship finally being consummated, and Sylvia contemplating a divorce.

Because of the time period, there are many comparisons between Parade’s End and Downton Abbey.  I like Downton Abbey a lot, but comparing the two is ridiculous and not going to make anyone happy.  For the record, I thought Parade’s End was mature, thoughtful, subtle, and meaningful.  It was for adults; it was perhaps for the slightly disenchanted.  Downton Abbey has proved, especially with season 3, that it is more of a soap opera than anything else.  It is an exceedingly well-done soap opera, but the characters and the drama veer often into the melodramatic and the ridiculous.  Its portrayal of World War I had a high casualty rate, but barely scratched the surface of what is generally believed to be the most horrifying part of that war–the pointlessness of it.  If you really compare the two, Parade’s End is like literature, and Downton Abbey is like a very well-done glossy magazine.

Reviews have all been pretty good regarding Parade’s End. Everyone is agreed that the acting is superb and the cinematography beautiful.  I think that the accent Benedict Cumberbatch puts on, though probably very accurate to the period, might put some people off.  It sounds comical to a modern ear, and can take you out of the moment.

My real problem with the miniseries lies either in the editing or writing. I don’t know enough about how these things are made to tell you which.  There’s some sort of disconnect in what’s presented to the audience, and we don’t get the whole story.  We see snippets of larger themes and problems the characters are working through, but we don’t get the whole story.  It’s hard to understand sometimes why they are doing what they are doing.  Sylvia goes to France, to the middle of the fighting, to visit Christopher during the war.  It’s fairly obvious that she wants to win him back, and for a moment it looks like it might work.  But he is irrevocably in love with Valentine by this point, and though he and Sylvia get a moment of rekindled affection and respect, it turns to nothing.  The next time they meet, after the war, there is very little trace of it in their interaction.  Sylvia is either sick or pretending to be so; Christopher does not care.  They are back to their old interaction–she wants his attention and his outrage, he doesn’t want to show it.  There are lots of moments where the interactions don’t all add up, don’t flow in an even keel.  I imagine this is the trouble of condensing what were four books into a short miniseries, but it’s hard to tell for sure.  It was difficult to feel the emotional reward and cathartic release at the end of the miniseries because of these strange missteps sprinkled throughout.  One of the reviews I read, here, describes it really well, saying that the ‘connective tissue’ of the story is missing.  That’s exactly how I felt.  The various limbs of this story were not adequately connected.

It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t always rewarding.  It was interesting and gave me a lot of things to think about.  I cannot wait to read the books, which will have the connective tissue.

Movie review: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of ArabiaUsually, 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.