Lawrence of Arabia is repeatedly ranked as one of the finest films of all time, and when one compares it to such overpraised items as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, a strong case can be made for putting it at the very top of the list.
It makes little sense to mention CITIZEN KANE and CASABLANCA together. First, most film critics don't regard CASABLANCA as one of the greatest films. They recognize it as a movie favorite, formula done to perfection. It is what is now often referred to as 'iconic'. The way Bogart and Bergman wear their hats, gaze at one another, and say those perfect lines in the misty airfield. Familiarity done to perfection seems fresh and unique. Likewise with MIDNIGHT RUN. It isn't original but done so well that it stands head and shoulders above the rest.
In contrast, CITIZEN KANE is held in high esteem because it broke the rules of the studio but established the law of what cinema could be in the hands of an artist. With Welles' bold and experimental approach, his background in Shakespearean theater, and his knack for popular entertainment(especially in radio), the film welds together modernism, classicism, and populism. And for all its quirks and innovations, it is all of one piece. One can ignore its aesthetic qualities and enjoy it like a Hollywood movie. What Welles did was unprecedented, especially at the incredible age of 26 and in his first outing as a film-director. There is more genius in the opening of CITIZEN KANE than in all of Lean's works(and many others). Of course, genius isn't necessarily best on all occasions, and at times Welles seemed more enamored of showing off his magic than focusing on the story.
CITIZEN KANE is 'overrated' in the sense that it has showed up on movie lists as the obligatory 'greatest film of all time', but it cannot over-rated because it, like several other Welles' works, is superb beyond belief. Also, it's arguable that CITIZEN KANE is the first work that fully absorbed and utilized all the earlier innovations into one package and, furthermore, added its own share of innovations that in quality and quantity equaled all that had gone before. But that's only focusing on the technical and expressive details. In writing, performance, social commentary, and psychological insight, it not only possesses grandeur but depth. Not for nothing has it been said that no other film inspired so many young men to become film directors.
It's telling that Welles compared his film-making with music above all other arts. His works are like concertos or symphonies with classical and modernist touches. The thing that makes music more 'fragile' and difficult than the other arts is the significance of every moment. One false step could be fatal. A painting, novel, and drama can be marred by intermittent flaws but still convey the overall significance and meaning. But one false note can ruin an entire performance. It sticks out as a disruptive and disjointing element. Most movies weren't made like music, and this is why they work despite the flaws. One focuses on the story and characters. But because Welles infused his visuals with a musical sense, aura and mood had to be sustained for duration of entire scenes. Images aren't merely joined together but woven together, much like elements of music. Even more remarkable was his juggling of the consonant and dissonant elements. To maintain continuity and harmony isn't difficult. It's even easier to create instant dissonance. Any dada-ist could do that. But to create dissonance and then fit the fragments into a rollicking narrative, that was something only Welles and few others could do. Not that LAWRENCE OF ARABIA would have been better movie in Welles hands as he might have gone off in tangents at odds with the central story. After all, one appreciates a Welles film more for the film-making than the film-as-story.
I am hesitant to speak of “the greatest” anything, just because I have not seen everything. But when I think of some of my personal favorites—Vertigo, Network, Rashomon—I can’t honestly rank any of them higher than Lawrence of Arabia.
Even if you've seen everything, the notion of 'greatest anything' is of course ridiculous in the arts because of 'apples and oranges' and personal preferences & biases. How can one compare Robert Bresson with Sam Peckinpah? They were different species of men. So, while we can speak of the great works, there's no such animal as the greatest work. As to why CITIZEN KANE occupied the top slot for so long, it was due as much to cultural significance as to artistic merit. It was the first of its kind in Hollywood and has inspired film-makers ever since. Also, Welles came to be regarded by critics and scholars as a tragic hero who fought the system and sadly lost. So, a tribute to CITIZEN KANE is a recognition of what Welles might have achieved had the industry had been kinder to a genius such as he. Similar considerations explain why RASHOMON is ranked so high. Akira Kurosawa's greatest achievement is SEVEN SAMURAI, but RASHOMON opened the floodgates of Japanese cinema to the world.
NETWORK strikes me as inferior Lumet. Like some of Billy Wilder's lesser works, it tries to have it both ways. It panders to the audience as pop satire; it's more bark than bite. Sidney Lumet's greatest work, I would argue, is PRINCE OF THE CITY. In 2012 Sight & Sound Poll, VERTIGO topped CITIZEN KANE, which isn't all that surprising as the two most admired film directors among critics and scholars are Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. And many believe VERTIGO is Hitchcock's greatest work, with which I would concur even though I prefer his other, less gloomy, works.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is undoubtedly a magnificent work, and I would count it as among the greatest. And yet, it was also when cracks appeared in Lean's reputation that would really crumble with DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. What a difference a few years make. The most notable anti-Lean voice in the US was Andrew Sarris who praised THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE over Lean's work that he found overly elaborate, predictable, tedious, and (worst of all sins to an auteurist) impersonal. Even though Sarris went overboard, there was more than a kernel of truth in the hits against Lean and his methodology. Furthermore, this was the early 60s when intellectuals, critics, and impassioned youth caught the eye of new trends in cinema, much of it foreign, mostly European(and partly Japanese). World cinema in 1960 erupted with a debate about LA DOLCE VITA vs L'AVVENTURA, and the French New Wave produced dashing works like BREATHLESS and JULES AND JIM. Even the Old Masters were moving in a new direction, e.g. Hitchcock with PSYCHO. And Bunuel was starting his great second(or third) act. To be sure, Sarris and his school admired John Ford and Howard Hawks but precisely for their personal pride in 'classicism'. Sarris admired Godard for his radical approach but also appreciated Hollywood auteurs sticking to their guns despite the changes all around them; it was seen as a kind of integrity, remaining true to their personal visions, classic or radical. In contrast, Lean came under criticism for sitting on the fence. He seemed both hopelessly old-fashioned and sensitive to shifting opinion. To his detractors, he seemed too stodgy to remain a force in film, and his effort toward greater sophistication and 'modernity' seemed half-hearted and perfunctory than genuine and committed. One might say Lean was caught between the Old and New just like Lawrence between the British Empire and Arab Aspirations. In a way, the rather muted and gloomy ending of the movie anticipated Lean's own fate.
When LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was released, the cultural shift hadn't yet been completed, and for the most part, he was praised by critics who had a 'humanist' tendency to laud serious works with important themes. They could tell it was a work of intelligence, expertise, taste, and respectability. (It was why Stanley Kramer rode so high in the 1950s and early 60s though he sucked at film-making, which can't be said for Lean. He made SERIOUS movies like INHERIT THE WIND, ON THE BEACH, and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG. For some reason, Otto Preminger got a pass even though his later works were also grandiose middlebrow balancing of classic Hollywoodism and the New Sensibility. I suppose he was seen as more 'personal'.) But while the consensus praised LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, some key voices dismissed it as outdated, bloated, strained, and ultimately conventional. And by the time DOCTOR ZHIVAGO came out, the majority of the critics were hostile, even though it was a mega-hit with the audience, like SOUND OF MUSIC. (Later, with RYAN'S DAUGHTER, Lean failed with both critics and the audience and gave up film-making for 13 years until he returned with PASSAGE TO INDIA.) In a way, the anti-Lean invective that took hold in cultural circles was a replay of the Cahiers du Cinema's attack on the Cinema of Quality in the 1950s. The Cahier critics spearheaded by Francois Truffaut preferred European personal artists and Hollywood's vulgar populists(and eccentrics) but detested anything tasteful, respectable, safe, and 'bourgeois' churned out by the post-war French film industry. They appreciated the vulgar vitality of Howard Hawks, the playful perversity of Hitchcock, and the intensity of European artists like Roberto Rossellini & Ingmar Bergman. What they couldn't stand was the soulless professionals who crafted movies like Swiss watches. The Cinema of Quality wasn't without technical finesse but lacked personality, originality, the stuff of life, and creative spirit, or so the Cahier critics argued. (Of course, once the fizz went out of the French New Wave, Truffaut made films very much in the manner of Cinema of Quality, e.g. TWO ENGLISH GIRLS and STORY OF ADELE H. Perhaps the Cahier diatribe against the Cinema of Quality, which produced its share of excellent works, was mostly an expression of youthful frustration of not being able to make one's own films.)
More than anyone, David Lean was the perfect target for a Anglo/American variation of the backlash against the Cinema of Quality. After all, no one doubted Lean's technical expertise, his keen eye, and his craft. But it also implied that he was more an engineer than an artist(or even an entertainer). Also, the middlebrow sensibility(of Lean's favored writers) suggested Lean was more a moralist than an artist, and not even a honest or good moralist at that. Bolt's screenplay can be praised for thoughtful balance of perspectives, but it's a tad too fine-tuned, as if to skirt any real controversy. It touches on matters without trying to fully crack open any of them. Thus, the movie can be seen as a paean to British Imperialism and a critique of empire. Does this result from genuine complexity and thoughtful ambiguity or refusal to get down-and-dirty with the truth? Given these considerations, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is best enjoyed as a superb piece of middlebrow storytelling, the best of its kind, than a genuine work of art, if art is defined as something personal, original, bold & daring, exploratory, revelatory, and/or uncompromised. From its very conception, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA could only be a compromised work. One might even say it's a high-toned version of 007 fantasy, albeit with homoerotic overtones.
There are elements in the movie that suggest at art, especially concerning the psychological shading of Lawrence and the tormented contradictions of his motivations(and his dread and thrill in discovering the 'dark side' of his character). But they are not fully explored because the work is about archetypes(and stereotypes) than about individuals. This is also the problem with Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW. It has artistic qualities but ultimately it's about types than traits. Despite the complexities, the kidnapper is the classic villain. In contrast, consider the deviants and psychos in Shohei Imamura's INTENTIONS OF MURDER and VENGEANCE IS MINE. Devoid of moral formulations(often pat or smug), they take a colder-eyed and sharper view of what makes the sick tick.
But then, as the characters say in THE WILD BUNCH, "I wouldn't have it any other way." Another director might have made better art with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but devoid of middlebrow compromises, it might have made for less entertainment. Still, it's a popular movie in service of respectability than a respectable movie in service of populism. No wonder Pauline Kael had special praise for works that blended artistic qualities with populist appeal. She loved BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH, and THE GODFATHER, but she disdained LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for its genteel restraint in service of respectability and good taste. It was more a monument than of vital moments.
At any rate, while some works are marred by artistic compromise with commercialism or respectability, others gain from the fusion of artistic truth and popular myth. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is one of those great compromises, comparable to the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich. Arguably, Shostakovich could have done greater work without Stalinist censorship; on the other hand, he might got lost in self-indulgent experimentation. After all, Francis Ford Coppola's greatest work is the compromised GODFATHER films whereas his full-blown creative endeavors like RUMBLE FISH and ONE FROM THE HEART got lost in the hall-of-mirrors of his 'genius'. Likewise, Peckinpah did best in the spirit of compromise with films like THE WILD BUNCH than when he did everything his way, like with BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, a real mess. And CHINATOWN is a real standout, far superior to most of Polanski's personal follies. And John Lennon was better as artist-entertainer than a full-blown artist.
Still, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA has to be seen as a limited work, like any giant epic made with Hollywood backing. Come to think of it, the only Hollywood-backed epic film of the 60s that could be deemed utterly uncompromised is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. (THE LEOPARD, ANDREI RUBLEV, MARKETA LAZAROVA, and PROFOUND DESIRES OF THE GODS, true artistic masterpieces, were made outside Hollywood.) There, Kubrick conceived of and pursued his vision to the max, and he probably got away with it because the project was so unprecedented. The producers were probably too confounded or bewildered with Kubrick's concept to formulate any pointed objections against it.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is comparable to SPARTACUS, EL CID, and CLEOPATRA. All of them have moments of awe and grandeur that only Hollywood-backing could deliver, but the general rule, then as now, was that bigger the budget, bigger the scrutiny and lesser the freedom. No one wants to spend that kind of money in a wild gamble. (Michael Cimino was one of the few directors who got both the greens and the greenlight with HEAVEN'S GATE, and it sunk a studio.) Even though LAWRENCE OF ARABIA goes somewhat further than most of its kind in terms of verisimilitude and cultural accuracy, it is still within the paradigm of what Edward Said called 'Orientalism' and Hollywood exotica. It isn't so much that Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn played Arabs — Arabs are Caucasian, Alec Guinness was chameleon-like, and Quinn's odd features made him plausible in various guises — as the range of Arab attributes, though broader, are still within the generic range of Hollywood assumptions. One might say the character of Ali(Omar Sharif) is an exception, but he is less a character than a foil. Later, the emergence of his more humane side says less about him as character than about Arabs in general, i.e. just like the enlightened Brit Lawrence has a savage side to him, the barbaric Arabs have some good sides too. This is a bit pat, like featuring some Good Arabs in EXODUS. It's perfectly acceptable on middlebrow or 'mid-cult' grounds, however.
Everything about this film is epic
This is a plus and minus with all such works. On the plus side, there is the obvious grandeur, superior production values, and sense of awe. But it also means more supervision over the artistic process(understandable given the cost), the weight of logistics, and sheer exhaustion. Coppola lost his mind halfway through APOCALYPSE NOW. Kurosawa's RAN is tremendous in parts, but the focus on scale led to fatal neglect of the main character, which sinks the middle. Nicholas Ray who made his reputation as an outlier sensibility later got lost with production values. KING OF KINGS is essentially just a big(and dumb) Biblical epic. And he totally lost his way(and ton of money) with 55 DAYS IN PEKING. (Same goes for Carol Reed. The man who made such remarkable films as ODD MAN OUT, THE THIRD MAN, FALLEN IDOL, and OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS later got mired in club-footed projects like AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. In a similar vein, Lean's earlier movies are in some ways more expressive and inspired than his later ones. GREAT EXPECTATIONS is probably the best thing he ever did.)
In a way, David Lean was fortunate to be making movies like THE BRIDGE ON RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. He was in the right place at the right time. Especially with the advent of TV and people moving out in droves to the suburbs, Hollywood had to offer something bigger to pull the audience back into the theaters. In the past, people went to movies to see just about anything. But, once people could see 'anything'(including movie reruns) on TV, they had less reason to go to the movies(and the main passion among youths became pop music). So, Hollywood banked on making bigger movies with ever increasing production values. If something on the scale of GONE WITH THE WIND was rarity back in the days, the super epic became the staple of Hollywood in the latter half of 50s and the 60s. In a state of crisis, Hollywood figured on making fewer but bigger movies. And some of them paid off, like TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN-HUR, SPARTACUS, EL CID, and to a lesser extent KING OF KINGS. But some of them bombed and bombed big. CLEOPATRA drew in the crowds but still couldn't recoup its cost. Also, after awhile, people were no longer dazzled by epics. They became standard and were usually about the Roman Empire or something out of the Bible done in the usual style. Most movies based on Biblical material were dreary due to the combo of stuffy reverence(lest they offend any group) and dimwit pontificating. It reached both apotheosis and nadir with George Stevens' THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, the snail-paced sanctimony of which was unbearable to most(but it led to Dwight MacDonald's funniest movie review). Some of the quirkier and perverse spin on Biblical material, like Robert Aldrich's SODOM AND GOMORRAH, failed with American audiences. Taking on an epic project was to take on the role of Atlas. Too much load on one's shoulders, made worse by Hollywood's pressure to keep it mid-cult, washed for the unwashed. The idea was to elevate the unwashed to the middle, flattering the middle for its interest in 'serious' stuff, and ignoring anything above that. For all that, there is enough in movies like BEN-HUR, EL CID, and even CLEOPATRA to make them memorable. And some moments rank as among the greatest in cinema. The chariot race in BEN-HUR still outshines anything of the kind done lately with CGI. EL CID is robust and roars like a lion. Who can deny the delirium of Cleopatra's entry into Rome?
Still, it's no accident that the epic not only buried the career of Nicholas Ray but stifled Stanley Kubrick to no end in SPARTACUS. It's many times bigger than THE KILLING and PATHS OF GLORY but also many times smaller in inspiration. Kirk Douglas made sure of that.
Taking on the role of Atlas with epic film-making tends to diminish the human element, eccentricity, and/or mercurial ingenuity. It's like a weightlifter can't do gymnastics. Too often, scale itself takes center-stage in epic-film-making, with everyone reduced to pieces on the chess board. This is why most Hollywood epics are dull, made worse by acme formulations. The sense of bigness infects everything. Every step, every gesture, every syllable. Everything is loaded with importance, significance, meaning, or portent. It's like watching a gigantic painting than a spontaneous narrative. It weighs everything down. It's like watching a royal procession or some pageantry than a story. It's no wonder that some of the more entertaining epics are lower-budgeted. B-movie epics with only pretensions of grandeur. They had more elbow room to convey something like life. The original 300 SPARTANS is no masterpiece(far from it), but it's more fun than Anthony Mann's THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, which is impressive but like a massive wall.
Now, it is possible to make a film both epic and intimate, grand and personal. Or big and eccentric, like with Sergio Leone's big Westerns. But then, Leone didn't quite have the budgets and had to make do with less, which afford him more freedom. Also, in having created his own sub-genre, he could make up his own rules. Another way to make an epic come alive is through intensity of focus. In many ways, SEVEN SAMURAI wouldn't qualify as an epic but for its length. Almost the entire film takes place in a single village of poor farmers. The heroes are seven swordsmen, none of them featured as larger-than-life, and the the villains are a ragtag bunch of bandits. Yet, just like a culture in a petri dish is a universe under a microscope, the crisis of one village becomes a story of epic proportions. It feels like a battle for the ages. No wonder it's been called by some as the greatest war film though technically outside the genre. THE WILD BUNCH presented another way to approach epic material. As most of the movie is about a band of outlaws on the run, it is limited in scope. And yet, with the outlaws riding through a Mexican Landscape locked in a civil war, it crosses paths with larger events. It seems incidentally epic. (And even when working big, Peckinpah directed actors to remain idiosyncratic than put on epic airs. This may have owed to his feelings about authority, like when Dutch says "Eh, 'Generalissimo', hell! He's just another bandit grabbin' all he can for himself." In other words, 'great' or not, people are people, they shit and wipe their ass. In contrast, Lean retained the English schoolboy's respect for authority.) Also, by amplifying the emotion and action, Peckinpah found epic qualities in violence itself. The opening and ending shoot-outs feel apocalyptic. He drew inspiration from Elia Kazan's VIVA ZAPATA, one of the most earthy and rip-roaring political movies. In the case of the ambitious but failed ALEXANDER, Oliver Stone sought to capture both the man and the god of his lifelong hero. Stone played an array of Greek gods to mold his vision of Alexander, mama's boy and conqueror of the world, but mixed signals go haywire.
Lean's treatment is Apollonian, and we can admire the control, the order, the meticulousness from start to finish. And yet, one could argue that Lean was too clean. Nothing seems found or spontaneous. Everything seems ordered, measured, calculated, and polished. Lean was like goldfinger. Nothing really feels natural. It's as if the Arabian desert had been combed over by an English schoolmaster for the slightest blemish. Even blood and sweat seem carefully applied, just like even rags in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO seem tailored by the costume department. Peckinpah was known as a stickler for detail, but his world seems pungent and used. You can almost smell the chili peppers hanging on the wall in PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID. In contrast, even the rough-and-tumble seem carefully choreographed in Lean's epics. Thus, the action in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, magnificent as it is, lacks the vivid spark of, say, the battle scene in Welles' CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT or Peckinpah's MAJOR DUNDEE.
It's true that LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is epic on so many levels, but this has usually been a bane than a blessing in the genre. When everything is writ large, it's more like looking at architecture or pageantry than a human story filled with intimate details and foibles that make life interesting. Consider THE LAST EMPEROR. Grandiose, impressive, and colorful, but the human story of Puyi is almost of secondary interest. History treated him like a pawn in imperial struggles, and Bernardo Bertolucci treats him like a model in a fashion show. Neither history nor the film cared to understand the real Puyi. Dismissive of anything unworthy of epic polish, the graceful John Lone was cast as Puyi, who in reality was a funny-looking guy. Thus, what was really an absurdly tragicomic story is turned into exotic romanticism. Even the quirkier moments are enveloped in the fabric of epic events, overlooking the perverse comedy of Puyi's situation from birth to death. Granted, the world of privilege is contrasted with dingy re-education in a communist prison, but even here, the result is less human story than big lesson about the meaning of it all. In contrast, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, despite its meandering middle, never loses touch with the tumultuous feel of life despite its journey through big events. (And Stone's NIXON is an epic political tale that moves back and forth with ease between the grand and the minute.) Rendering everything epic had a deadening effect on most giant epics of the 50s and 60s(and thereafter). LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was the rare exception because it's so stunning to look at, has tiptop acting with a memorable script, and the haunting presence of Peter O'Toole, a revelation or 'miracle'. Still, as wonderful as Freddie Young's cinematography is, I find Leone's treatment of the desert in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY more inspired. For Leone, the desert is both grand arena and a sandbox.
the script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago) and Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai) is a supremely masterful screen adaptation
It is a fine script with many memorable lines. On the downside, it does feel scripted and overly rhetorical, never natural. It's like even the lowliest Arab is a vulgar Shakespearean. There's a stagy feel to the whole thing. Like Gilbert & Sullivan's MIKADO(the subject of Mike Leigh's TOPSY-TURVY), the movie remains within established conventions in dealing with the exotic. All said and done, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is staged history than explored history. Unlike Oliver Stone who really sat down and pored through Nixon materials to access and re-imagine the inner-Nixon, the creators of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA gleaned the great man's life and exploits for just enough material suited for epic entertainment. It is ultimately a survey than a surgery. Thus, despite some measure of psychological insight and political complexity, it's more about show-and-tell than seek-and-find. In a way, the movie gives the audience precious little beyond what one expects from such a work. Still, given the mediocrity of most epics of the period, it(along with KWAI and ZHIVAGO) stand out as the gold standard.
The Arabs in the movie are real enough but only 'enough', and sufficiency only goes so far. They are more than caricatures but don't quite break the mold, like the Burl Ives character does in THE BIG COUNTRY. Anthony Quinn may have the best line in movie history, but Burl Ives surely delivered the best speech ever.
Lawrence was a nationalist, not an imperialist. To fight the Turks, he favored aiding Arab nationalists rather than spending British lives to conquer territory and resources in Mesopotamia. But, against Lawrence’s own intention, Seven Pillars also makes a case for empire, a case that Lean’s film clearly reinforces.
Why not just say he was both? Indeed, most British back then were nationalist and imperialist. They were clearly nationalist in defending the Mother Country. They were proud to be Anglo and white back then. But they also took great pride in the Empire. And from the beginning, the British justified empire-building by recruiting local nationalisms or proto-nationalisms, sometimes constructed by the British themselves, not least by interpretations of archaeological findings, i.e. the British understood the natives and their histories better than the natives did themselves, and the Brits were there to restore them to their former glory. Brits took over India but also justified the takeover in terms of liberating the Hindus from the Muslim Mughals. Wherever the British(or the French) went, they aided local tribalism against regional hegemonism. But whites did the same in the Americas. They would support one Indian tribe against the more powerful tribe hostile to white settlers. In World War I, stoking Arab Nationalism was useful in justifying European takeover of what had been parts of the Ottoman Empire, just like US and Israel have toyed with Kurdish nationalism in recent years. Globalists claim to hate nationalism but have no problem encouraging ultra-Ukrainian nationalism against Russia, only to weaken Ukraine at the same time by spreading Globo-Homo there. It's sort of like STAR WARS. It's ostensibly about Rebels vs the Empire, but the Rebels are also an imperialist power that rules over diverse folks. When Germans fought French and the British in World War II, it was empire vs empire.
Furthermore, the notion of 'Arab Nationalism' was fuzzy because Arab-ness was never a clear-cut ethnicity, let alone nationality. Besides, unlike European nations, Arabs didn't even have a sense of borders. They fought more over 'whose well' than 'whose land'. Many tribes remained nomadic, not least because it's hard to put down roots in the desert where hardly anything grows. Indeed, what excites Lawrence about the Arabs is that he, in poetic reverie, regards them as the pirates of the desert, like the Brits were once swashbuckling pirates of the seas. Lawrence is a restless wanderer, and he's drawn to Arabs for their mobility. To him, the camels are like boats on sand, and he will be the Ahab of the Arabs.
Third, there is a strong element of Nietzschean self-mythologization: what Aleister Crowley calls “auto-hagiography” and the Arabs call “blasphemy.”
And yet, the Arabs don't seem to regard him as a blasphemer but a blessed man, even by Allah. Unlike Christianity that was mostly about humility and guilt, Islam has venerated the great warrior, the man of pride, the derring-do seeker of fame and fortune.
Indeed, what's fascinating about Lawrence is the ambiguity, part cynical vanity and part heartfelt passion. He is a both a loyal British agent(who stirs up Arabs against Turks for British Imperialist designs) and a semi-traitorous maverick hellbent on leading the Arabs not only against the Turks but the European imperialists as well. He's never entirely one thing or the other, which means he's always both, which in the end is too much of a burden.
The Lawrence of myth is part of a tradition: The white man who goes 'native', identifies with the other side, and fights for their cause. It's there in DANCES WITH WOLVES and THE LAST SAMURAI. Also in THE MISSION and the toddawful AVATAR. But if most such movies have the hero fully switching loyalty to other side, Lawrence remains on both sides, partly because Anglos and Arabs were uneasy allies but also because of his dual nature.
In a way, he serves his own vanity by manipulating both camps. Initially, he is having fun and thinks himself too clever by half for the others who can't keep up with his stunts. But as time passes, he comes to realize the limit of this 'fun' and comes to realize that playing 'god' isn't the same as being god. And, it dawns on him that he was being played by them as he was playing them. He's as much a pawn as the king(or queen). Also, his British superiors crack his code. They sense his vanity and stoke it to send him back into the field. They go along with the charade that Lawrence will do it for the Arabs. On some level, a man as smart and savvy as him must realize that the British promises aren't worth the paper they're written on, but he chooses to believe because his vanity blinds him to the truth.
On the symbolic plane, Lawrence overthrows the three Abrahamic faiths by rejecting their doctrines and reversing or rewriting their central stories with himself as the hero.
There is something of the classic pagan hero in Lawrence's boldness(that turns into hubris), but his success also owes to the chameleon-like ability to make himself acceptable to Arabs on their own terms. Also, in the heat of battle, few ever stuck to spiritual dogma. When did Christian Knights heed the teaching, "Turn the other cheek?" While Lawrence is clearly different, he becomes a hero among the Arabs because he's adept at playing 'more Arab than Arab'. He acts like he understands the Arab soul more than the Arabs do and goes the extra mile to get them what they really want(but don't know it yet). Also, it's wrong to bunch the three Abrahamic Faiths into one. Christianity arose as heresy against Judaism, and Islam rose as heresy against Judaism and Christianity. Thus, heresy is intrinsic to the Abrahamic tradition.
After a memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the crème of the British establishment, a priest asks if Lawrence “really belongs here,” which introduces the theme of Lawrence as an outsider.
Would a priest be concerned about a man's social status? After all, many saints were of humble background and spent(or gave) their lives doing undignified work among the poor and the wretched? It seems the priest's concern has less to do with Lawrence's social background or standing than considerable notoriety that accompanied the myth. Controversy always trailed him.
As for Lawrence's geo-political significance, it was surely exaggerated, especially in the context of World War I. One of the most memorable lines in the movie is "...this whole theater of operations is a sideshow! The real war's not being fought against the Turks, but the Germans. And not here, but on the Western front in the trenches! Your Bedouin Army - or whatever it calls itself - would be a sideshow OF a sideshow!"
True enough. Ottoman Empire was an insignificant power and in fast decline, comparable to Italy in World War II, more an albatross around Germany's neck than a real asset. The fate of World War I was decided in eastern France when the US finally entered the war. Lawrence's romp with the Arabs against the Turks had almost no bearing on the outcome of the war. Also, Lawrence or no Lawrence, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I would have delivered the 'liberated' Arabs into the hands of European Imperialists(until they immolated themselves in World War II and/or were pushed out by US interests or USSR influence during the Cold War). In the larger context, it was of no consequence that Lawrence and the Arabs blew up some Turkish trains. It didn't matter if they or the British military took Damascus first. Indeed, Lawrence realizes this victory all came to naught. His ragtag bunch of Arabs can't manage anything, and the 'adults' take over in the end.
So, despite the victories and moments of glory, Lawrence wasn't a very consequential figure in history, Arab or British. He romped around not only in a sideshow(the war against the weakened Ottomans) but a sideshow of a sideshow(among the Arabs who blew up some trains and sacked a few towns after Ottoman forces had already been depleted and scattered). Then, why did he become such a famous figure? This is where the factor of personality, celebrity, hype, self-promotion, and myth come into play. It's like Yukio Mishima became world-famous not only for his writing talent but his knack for self-promotion. Same with Ernest Hemingway. Surely, other American writers were just as good or even better, but Hemingway knew how to make himself larger-than-life. Not just an author but a man of adventure, a philosopher who lived by the 'code'. It also goes for Sam Peckinpah, whom Pauline Kael called the 'youngest legendary director'. Peckinpah, like Jean-Luc Godard, understood the art of the mystique. A figure comparable to Lawrence is Che Guevara. Guevara didn't achieve much. He wasn't crucial to the victory of the Cuban revolution. His African adventure came to nothing. He made insane remarks during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His Bolivian insurgency was a complete failure and led to his death. And yet, he had the look. A handsome guy whose mug was caught in that famous photograph. Also, he always emphasized the unity of theory and practice. He was both mind and body. And he always pushed to the limits and dreamed big. So, his life and death became the stuff of legend, i.e. he didn't so much lose but sacrificed his body, Christ-like, for the Revolution, and his soul lives forever.
The real Lawrence wasn't tall like Peter O'Toole, but he was rather handsome, and he was a writer and intellectual. He was also a flamboyant narcissist who mugged for publicity. Had Lawrence been an ugly bald guy with a paunch who won battles for the Arabs but lacked charisma and didn't pontificate about his exploits in writing, would he have become the stuff of legend? Unlikely. But then, if Che Guevara looked and talked like 'Pachanga', would he have been so idolized? Also unlikely.
And part of Lawrence's neurosis and insecurity has to do with his uncertainty about the Real Him. Is he becoming famous for his actions or are his actions becoming famous because of HIM? Actions create the cult but the cult validates actions. This is certainly true in the arts. Merit makes an artist's reputation, but then the reputation alone carries him(even as the works become increasingly dubious, culminating in man-as-parody like Andy Warhol).
Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence as slightly autistic
He seems more amused and aloof than 'autistic'. An 'autistic' person is obsessively immersed in some detail, whereas there's an aura of zen-like detachment in Lawrence. It might be seen as smug but for the fact that Lawrence seems genuinely interested in matters and affairs.
He also has a masochistic side. He likes to extinguish matches with his fingers. “The trick . . . is not to mind that it hurts.” It is a small exercise in self-overcoming, a hint of greater things to come.
It also serves as contrast between theory and practice, a hard lesson he learns later. With matches, he is the master of his pain. He controls the flame and can blow it out at any time. But as a captive of the Turks, the pain(and humiliation) is beyond his control. He goes from the god of pain to its slave.
Lawrence’s commander, General Murray, despises him as an overeducated misfit, but a civil servant Mr. Dryden (a composite character played by Claude Rains) values his intelligence and language skills.
'Despises' is too strong a word. He mostly seems irritated. On the one hand, he has the advantage of rank and age, but Lawrence is clearly highly intelligent and gifted. In other words, superior. So, what is an inferior man of superior rank to do with a superior man of inferior rank? Not an uncommon problem. Besides, it was normal for superiors to dress down inferiors in British society, especially in the institutions. It began in boarding schools and reached the uppermost boardrooms, which is why Lawrence doesn't take any of it seriously. It's just the British way.
Lawrence tells Dryden that he thinks this mission will be “fun.” Dryden says that the only people who find the desert fun are Bedouin and gods. His unstated premise is that Lawrence is neither. Lawrence flatly declares, “No, it will be fun.” If Dryden is right, and Lawrence is not a Bedouin, that implies that Lawrence thinks of himself as a god.
True, Lawrence has a god complex but he also becomes a 'Bedouin' in 'cosplay' sense. After all, he becomes Lawrence of Arabia. He dons Arab clothes and prances about as a fellow cutthroat. Homos are into role-play(and trannies are into role-play with the other sex). So, Lawrence is man playing god, a white man playing Arab or 'Bedouin'. So, the 'fun' has more than one implication. The 'fun' is in the role-playing itself as if the Arab adventure is a costume-ball in the desert. Paradoxically, Lawrence feels freer in the role of an 'Arab' because, despite their tribal-traditionalism, Arabs are less orderly and thoroughgoing than the 'anal' British. Also, unlike in British society where men must be gentlemen, Arab men can do as they please simply as men. In addition, there is always an element of 'freedom' in a foreigner taking on another culture. He becomes neither his original self nor entirely the other self(as he is a foreigner). He enters a limbo or liminal state where identity becomes a matter of whimsy than fixed loyalty. No wonder Justin Trudeau loves to put on different dresses and be 'gay for a day', 'Hindu the next day', and then an 'American Indian', 'Muslim', and etc. What was once relatively novel among men like Lawrence has turned into a global cosplay. (Alec Guinness, who was homosexual, seems to have enjoyed dressing up in other cultures.)
Lawrence, especially due to his social background as bastard, has a weak sense of self and finds refuge(and fun) in playacting across cultures. Also, his homo side loves to don different dresses. It's no accident that homos love stuff like Mardi Gras. The film MISHIMA begins with the famed/notorious author donning different masks. Consider Ludwig II. He didn't just love operas but lived as if he was in one. And consider the homo-psycho in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. He's a master of guises.
Why are homos like this? They are naturally flamboyant and get ooh-la-la carried away. Also, their sexual ambiguity makes them feel male and female. This fluidity makes homos useful to the deep state as homos are less rooted and love to travel around the world not only to bugger different buns but to playact and have 'fun'. Take Donald Richie, the American ex-patriate in Japan who wrote books on Kurosawa and others. He loved being an outsider because the ambiguity lent him freedom that eluded him back home. Today, homos may feel less this way as they are accepted and even celebrated everywhere in the West. In the past, however, homosexuality was considered a sin and was a serious crime. So, white men like Lawrence found sexual exploits in other parts of the world where law and order were in a state of disarray. Also, among the poor, you can buy favors for a few bucks.
At any rate, Trevor Lynch's highest regard for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and ALIEN COVENANT(as the best of the ALIEN series) is rather interesting. Both movies feature characters with a god-complex. The latter ends with the triumphant android walking down the corridor(as if its Valhalla) to Wagner no less. Does TL share in the god complex or something?
Crossing the desert to find Faisal, Lawrence’s guide Tafas is killed by Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking at his well. You see, Tafas is from the wrong tribe. This prompts a bit of political philosophy delivered with autistic frankness that borders on the suicidal, given that it is spoken to a man holding a smoking gun
Not really. Lawrence isn't entirely green about the way of the Arabs. He knows Tafas was a small Arab. He could tell Ali is a big Arab by his attitude and demeanor, a man of some importance who knows something of the larger world. Tafas the small Araba was totally mesmerized by the sight of Lawrence's pistol. In contrast, Ali is handy with guns, hitting a man from a distance on camel-back. Ali tells Lawrence that he can drink the water and even offers guidance. So, Lawrence picks up right away that Ali is a player. He's in the fight against the Turks, and it simply wouldn't do to kill a British officer as the British are on the side of Arabs. Lawrence knows he isn't talking to some bandit but a chief whose role is to work with and aid the British. So, Lawrence's speech isn't autistic but rhetorical. It's his way of scoring some points. Ali has the gun and the status in these parts. But Lawrence can show himself to be the man of ideas and vision. Arab kills an Arab, and Lawrence shames the Arab for killing another Arab. Not that Ali cares what Lawrence says in the moment, but it reverberates later as Ali comes to realize that Arabs need something more than tribalism to overcome the threats posed by world powers. After all, the irony of Arab Nationalism was it was stoked by empires far bigger and more powerful than the Ottomans in decline. In a way, Lawrence is playing the neo-Muhammad figure. Muhammad and his followers did great things because they persuaded various Arab tribes to set aside their differences and join in the Jihad. But tribalism lingered in the Middle East, just like ethnicism remained in Europe despite Christianity, leading to various internecine wars among the Europeans, something that Napoleon and Hitler sought to overcome with a uniting message: Enlightenment principles or recognition of Aryan Supremacy.
So, at least politically, Lawrence is more a 'Muslim' than Ali is, for whom the tribe comes before common faith. Lawrence doesn't preach Islam but he offers a uniting principle by which Arabs can transcend their tribal hostilities and distrust.
Usually, a sign of autism is the failure to see the bigger picture due to immersion in minute details, like with Dustin Hoffman's character in RAIN MAN. Lawrence is the opposite of 'autism' because he sees the bigger picture.
Throughout his adventures in Arabia, Lawrence’s dream of a rising Arab nation is stymied by tribal rivalries and blood feuds.
There's a kind of irony. One might think there are seven ways of seeing the world. Individual-centrism, family-centrism, kin-centrism, tribe-centrism, nation-centrism, and universalism. Thus, to attain the wider and grander sense of identity and loyalty, one has to move up the ladder from individual to family to kinship to tribe to nation to the world(or all humanity). And yet, the agent of the movement upward is often the cult of the great individual. People into tribalism don't just move up the ladder to nationalism. Rather, a great individual comes along and makes the various tribes pledge their loyalty to HIM, the great man, and through him the transformation is achieved. At least in the movie version, the slaves couldn't unite without the leadership of Spartacus.
For tribal Judaism to birth universal Christianity, there had to be the figure of Jesus Christ. While petty individualism is about 'me', a transition to a higher plane of identity and loyalty usually requires the Great Individual whose cult and legend bring together peoples who might have distrusted and killed one another. Alexander brought together the Macedonians and Greeks. Napoleon, for a time, brought together the Europeans. Muhammad brought together the Arabs. It wasn't just a matter of universalist credo but the power of charisma. American populism went nowhere until Donald Trump arrived on the scene. And it is the cult of MLK that holds together the coalition of various peoples of color and whites of both parties. So, while one must abandon one's petty individual-centrism to arrive at a higher loyalty and wider identity, it is generally through the cult of the Great Individual. And Lawrence seems eager to play this prophetic role. It goes to show that any movement won't get anywhere with ideas alone. Those must be embodied in the figure of the Great Individual, and this is why Jews especially feared Adolf Hitler because he had that magic-touch with the masses. And in his comical way, so did Donald Trump. Jews hate 'bad' ideas but what they fear most is the coming of the Great Man who can articulate and embody those ideas. This is why Jews are eager to spread cuckery among white males so that no such figure can arise among them. Without such figures, 'white nationalism' will remain just ideas on the page. People read books but follow leaders. No leaders to follow, no movement.
An irony of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is that, even as Lawrence lectures the Arabs about their petty tribal ways, Europe itself is engulfed in a white-versus-white war that would end up killing 17 million people. Also, Germans are allied with Turks against other Europeans, and UK & France recruit nonwhites to fight Turks and Germans. It seems whites are also plagued by an inability to come together as one people and bury the hatchets.
Of course, the UK played a key role in this dilemma as its policy was the 'balance of powers'. If the moon has a stabilizing effect on geology and life on Earth, the gravitational force of UK had a disruptive and destabilizing impact on Continental affairs, i.e. just when the Continent seemed to unite around some idea or individual, the UK aided counter-veiling forces to spread dissension across the Continent once again. So, it's rather odd that the British would be preaching Arab unity in the movie. What they did to the European Continent was to sow seeds of discord.
On autistic principle, Lawrence rejects Ali’s help in finding Faisal, preferring to risk it on his own.
It's more a matter of pride than principle. Also, having pored through maps and gone on personal journeys, Lawrence isn't a complete novice when it comes to the desert. He also has a compass. In a way, he's foolish to reject Ali's service, but it's also a smart move. Their first encounter was a battle of wills and competing visions. Had Lawrence accepted Ali's offer, he would be in debt not only to Ali's guidance but graciousness. After all, Ali killed Lawrence's aid but bears no ill will toward the Englishman and offers his service. Lawrence is unwilling to let Ali gain the upper-hand. He wants to show Ali that he's a man of pride and will. Ali could have taken the compass, but Lawrence reminds him of honor, something Ali can't ignore. It's one thing for an high-born Arab to kill an Arab hick(Tafas) over a trifle, but Lawrence, an Englishman, is another matter. Ali recognizes Lawrence as a peer and hands back the compass.
When Lieutenant Lawrence reaches Faisal, he is ordered by his British military advisor, Colonel Brighton, to say nothing, observe, and report back to Dryden. But Lawrence is irrepressible. As an autist, when he has ideas, he can’t keep them to himself, which intrigues Faisal.
The autistic mind is usually trapped in a single idea or methodology. It's like Hoffman's character in RAIN MAN tries to solve the "Who's on First" joke because he has no understanding of humor and comedy. Everything to him is a matter of patterns and logic. Lawrence isn't like that at all. His mind is fluid and flexible. He listens and uses both sides of his brains and weighs all possibilities. (Hoffman's role as Jack Crabbe in LITTLE BIG MAN, another white-man-goes-native story, is closer to 'autristry', but then Hoffman had that aspergy air about him.)
Gasim’s time has come. “It is written,” meaning that it is the will of God. Lawrence declares “Nothing is written”—meaning that the will of God is nothing in the face of the will of man—then he goes back on his own to search for Gasim...
In the space of a single conversation, Lawrence rejects the written laws handed down by Moses and Muhammad. He overthrows God and lays down his own laws. Blasphemy indeed. But Lawrence’s blasphemy is not punished. It is rewarded. When he rescues Gasim, the Arabs begin to idolize Lawrence. As Lawrence sleeps, Ali burns his uniform.
When Lawrence says 'nothing is written', it borders on blasphemy but not quite. The Torah is written. The Koran is written. Those are holy words. But when Ali said it's 'written' that Gasim would die in the desert, it is an assumption, not the word of God. Thus, it's more the case that Lawrence is defying Ali's interpretation of what is 'written' than what is truly written by God. Ali, familiar with the desert, knows Gasim has little chance of making it out alive. Also, it's not just about Gasim but his other men. He can't risk their lives and the entire mission over one man. In BLACKHAWK DOWN, the mission to rescue US soldiers leads to more of them getting sucked in and getting killed. So, based on law of averages, Ali is correct. God or no god, the chances don't favor Gasim's survival and, furthermore, trying to save him would jeopardize other men and the whole mission. In that sense, Lawrence is foolish to go back to retrieve Gasim, especially as he's an amateur in the desert.
Still, Lawrence is starting out on the great venture, and he wants to prove to himself and impress others that he can do miracles. Also, at this stage of the journey, he hasn't yet killed a man, and it wasn't long ago that he registered shock at Ali's killing of Tafas. Against the Arab attitude of life(as dispensable), Lawrence wants to show that every Arab life matters. It's a continuance of his rebuke of Ali's careless killing of Tafas. He, a white man, will risk his own life to save an Arab. (Also, Gasim endeared himself to Lawrence earlier with praise.) One of the themes of THE WILD BUNCH is the leader's guilt of having left partners behind. Pike Bishop fled to save his own skin while his friend Deke Thorton got arrested. Later, he must leave Angelo to Mapache and his men. A leader of men knows that lives are expendable in battle but also feels responsible for each and every man, like with Steiner with his platoon in CROSS OF IRON. Perhaps, this Leader's Guilt is more a Western thing, and Lawrence feels it.
Besides, what can any man know about the real mind of God. Lawrence's feat doesn't necessarily defy God or Allah or whatever. From Ali and Arab's point of view, it's not blasphemous. Rather, Allah had written it so that Lawrence would pull off a miracle. He was right, they were wrong. Thus, he is among the favored of Allah. Lawrence, not being a Muslim, surely has a more egotistical interpretation of events, but he walks the thin line between blasphemy and piety. But then, this goes for Muhammad also. If he'd only cared about what is written, he would have respected the Jews as the Chosen or adopted Christianity. But, he believed the Biblical texts or what was 'written' had been corrupted. The universe is indeed 'written' by Allah, but it is he, Muhammad, who heard God's true poetry. Christianity both accepts and rejects what's written in Judaism. Islam both accepts and rejects what is written in the New Testament. In that tradition, Lawrence both accepts and rejects what is 'written'.
The notion of 'written' has ambiguous meaning in the movie. In one way, it is what is written or willed or commanded by God. But it also means man's resigned assumption of God's will, a kind of fatalism. In that sense, what's 'written' isn't so much about the holy mind of God but man's passive acceptance of his own lot which he conveniently ascribes to God. So, the rejection of what's 'written' isn't so much a defiance against God(something no Muslim could tolerate) but the rejection of the fatalist attitude. The notion of 'written' or Calvinist predestination doesn't necessarily deny 'free will' because humans have no idea what has been predetermined or predestined. It's like some physicists say everything in the universe will unfold as it was meant to, but we still act upon our 'free will'. And in GATTACA, there are outliers in the genetic determinism.
Because Lawrence is a bastard in England, he cannot inherit his father’s name or title. For Ali, that means he is free to choose his own name. He is free to found his own family, clan, or dynasty. He is free to be somebody’s ancestor, not somebody’s heir. This is the privilege that descends on all men who bring victory in battle. It is how aristocracies everywhere are born.
That's an interesting take, and perhaps in an earlier era, Lawrence would have taken up the offer. The world used to be about aristocrats, the warrior class. But after Napoleon, the aristocracy is just too small for the imagination and ambition of someone like Lawrence. Napoleon proved that the warrior class is no match for the warrior mass. He turned the entire French nation into an army, and workers and peasants who took up arms proved they could fight as well as any aristocrat, especially if they're fighting for their own freedom and rights than the privileges of the few. There are naturally aristocratic qualities about Lawrence, but he lives in the shadow of Napoleon, the man who roused up an entire people into a mass army that destroyed all aristocratic battalions across Europe rather handily. So, a clan or dynasty is too small for Lawrence.
But Lawrence has a solution. He will execute the prisoner. He will take the blame. He, not the Howeitat, will bear the brunt of the blood feud of the dead man’s tribe... Lawrence is offering himself as a scapegoat to prevent tribal conflict from spinning out of control.
Not really. The man's family has no reason to hold a grudge against Lawrence as he's an outsider. These Arabs have long grudges and feuds that go back generations. So, regardless of right or wrong, when someone of one tribe kills another, the culture of honor demands tit-for-tat, vendetta. Because of tribal grudges, justice is impossible. Even when one's side did wrong and was killed by the other side for righteous reasons, the first emotion is not 'justice happened', but 'they killed one of us, so we must kill one of them.' Lawrence exists outside this vicious cycle, therefore his execution of the man can be accepted as justice by all sides, even by the family of the dead man.
It's like with the Negroes. If one gang kills the member of another gang, there must be revenge. But if the killer is arrested and sentenced by the judge, both sides are cool with that because the judge isn't part of the grudge culture between the gangs. He just done his job, sheeeeiiiit.
Lawrence asks Gasim if he is guilty. “Yes.” Then Lawrence puts six bullets in him. When he flings away his gun in disgust, a mob converges on it, as a holy relic. Lawrence is becoming a legend. (In reality, Lawrence executed a different man. By making Gasim the killer, the screenwriters not only made the story more economical, they also increased its dramatic power.)
The mob dived for the pistol not as a holy relic but because it is precious in those parts. It's like the scene in AFRICAN QUEEN where Humphrey Bogart tosses a half-smoked cigar and black natives pile on one another for it.
I'm not surprised that the real man shot by Lawrence wasn't the one he'd saved. It seemed a bit too neatly significant, a dramatic invention. After all, what are the odds that the very man Lawrence saved would be the one he must kill. Still, it serves as a reminder that perhaps Lawrence cannot deny what is 'written'. He could forestall it, but Gasim was meant to die. It deflates Lawrence's confidence but also sobers him up for what's up ahead. One thing for sure, the great adventure before him will involve many deaths, and there won't be any more egotistical moral luxuries about saving every man.
Also revelatory is Lawrence's admission that he actually enjoyed the killing. He seemed pained and agonized, especially as he had to execute the very man he went out on a limb to save. And yet, he recounts later how it made him feel alive. It's like he 'popped his cherry', like Henry Hill getting busted for the first time in GOODFELLAS. It was like sex, a moment of ecstasy, the moment of truth!
Partly, it was the thrill of violence. But it was also a liberation from moral obligations and the Leader's Guilt. As the man who conceived of the plan, Lawrence felt responsible for the life of everyone in the mission. But upon killing Gasim, he feels somewhat free of that guilt. It's going to be a bloodbath, and it's written that many of his men will die, so be it.
Ali throws him a garland of flowers, stating “The miracle is accomplished. . . . Tribute for the prince, flowers for the man.” Lawrence replies “I’m none of those things, Ali.” When asked what he is then, Lawrence says, “Don’t know.” But he’s being coy. If he has worked a miracle, he’s a god, or on his way to becoming one.
No, he's not being coy. Lawrence is a complex man. He's both megalomaniacal and modest. He's brimming with confidence, even reckless at times, like a homo into 'rough trade'. Yet, he's also deeply insecure. He's driven by vanity but haunted by conscience. He's like a pagan god but also like a christ figure. He wants to believe he's doing something right, good and true, than merely for fame and glory. Furthermore, whatever he achieves, he is just an agent of empire, never the emperor. And, despite the Arabs' acceptance of him, he will never be one of them. Also, there is a contemplative side to him, one that reminds him that all glory is fleeting, which is the final note of PATTON.
Lawrence is really drawn to adventure and romance. Even though there is a moral component to his modern crusade, he doesn't want to be burdened with responsibility. Indeed, at the end, we notice he has a harder time with peace than with war. In battle, he could lead the Arabs. But in victory, he can't get them to agree on anything. As for the POW hospital for Turkish prisoners, what a mess that is.
When Lawrence arrives in Cairo... Naturally, he is not welcomed until he is recognized as one of their own... But when he reports that he has taken Aqaba, everyone from the top brass to the lowest guardsman knows a good thing when he sees it.
This scene is most notable for conveying the contradictions of the British Empire and Lawrence's ambiguous role in it. The British claim to be defending the Arabs, but 'dirty Arabs' are not allowed into the building. The British offer their hand but shut the door. Lawrence is mistaken as an Arab and excluded... until he is identified as a British officer but the Arab boy(accompanying Lawrence) is rebuffed until Lawrence insists he be let in. Prior to his Arab adventure, Lawrence would have thought nothing of excluding Arabs from the building, but he's been through hell and back with them, not least with the boy accompanying him. Lawrence tortured duality is revealed in this scene. He did a great thing for the empire and is thus its loyal servant. But he's also come to sympathize with the Arabs and takes personal offense at the treatment of the Arab boy.
It was something experienced by many who took part in empire, especially if of an idealistic or sentimental bent. They see the empire as benevolent and good, spreading light around the world. But they also see how the empire tramples on other peoples whom it claims to defend, protect, and elevate. Plenty of American soldiers in Vietnam believed they were fighting the good fight to defend Vietnamese from communism but were also appalled by how the 'gooks' were treated. It defined much of Oliver Stone's career. The British pioneered modern enlightened imperialism along with the French, which was later taken and advanced by Americans, especially with their own struggle with the black issue.
Lawrence carries these contradictions at all times. He is surely proud to be British and feels he, not the Arabs, can pull off a miracle for them. He feels better than them, and part of this superiority was surely racial given the times. It was also cultural as the British thought they occupied the summit of human civilization. But Lawrence also feels superior to most whites. While most of them stay in their neat British uniforms, follow orders, and do as told, he broke through the barriers of identity, loyalty, and class to achieve the unthinkable. Are his feats all for the empire or are they anti-empire, a gift to the Arabs against not only the Turks but eventually the Europeans as well? Of course, Lawrence doesn't have the power to be the ultimate arbiter, which is something of a relief as any decision will be regarded as a betrayal by one side or the other. Whatever he may want personally, others get to make the big decisions. The 'old men'. Young men fight the battle, but 'old men' make the peace, as Faisal later says. It's like actors(and to a lesser extent directors) get the glory in Hollywood, but the real decision-makers are the men in suits in the offices(though rare figures like Steven Spielberg made it as both director and producer).
In that scene, Lawrence feels both immense pride and a bit of shame. He accomplished what others said couldn't be done. He offered it on a silver platter to the British. He also pleased the Arabs. But while the two worlds are united in his personage, they remain divided politically and socially. Arabs fight for the British but your average British regards Arabs as dirty 'wogs'. Lawrence had to go out of his way to insist that that Arab boy be served a glass of lemonade. Lawrence knows the British have good reasons to detest the Arab ways. His harsh rebuke to Ali in their first encounter was evidence of that. Yet, he also knows that Arabs have good reason to distrust and resent the British who are two-faced, devious, manipulative, and often treacherous behind the civil facade. But despite his own prejudices, what separates him from other British is he has genuine curiosity and sympathy for the Other. He is like both Zhivago and Strelnikov. A romantic poet and ruthless warrior.
The scene ends on a note of irony, though not in a ham-fisted way to score cheap points about hypocrisy and 'racism'. The very Brits who'd been offended by his very presence shower him with praise and good cheers. Still, it illustrates the tensions of the empire that preached civility but also exuded contempt.
This is an interesting point, but perhaps we shouldn't confuse tribalism with nationalism though they are often used interchangeably. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the Arabs have yet to develop national consciousness and remain mired in tribalism, a far more fragile and unstable condition. Tribalism is about us-versus-them among various groups without fixed borders and well-articulated canonical sense of identity, history, and narrative. It is essentially instinctive, yet to develop into a unified community bound by laws and norms. Nationalism, with well-defined borders and mass consciousness, is a modern achievement.
Most of history was about constantly shifting boundaries. It's like in the Americas, there were many tribes but no fixed borders, which shifted constantly with the latest outcomes in battle. But with the rise of kingdoms and rooted settlements, a sense of which people owned which land bound by shared memory became better defined.
Still, the first true nationalism followed the French Revolution that deposed the aristocracy. Under the aristocratic order, the elites identified more with fellow elites in other kingdoms than with their own peoples. Even though kingdoms sometimes fought one another, it was like a family feud. They were all of related blood, and they all looked down on their peoples as subjects or the rabble, pawns in their games. But the French Revolution led to modern nationalism where the elites became one with the national masses, and this paradigm has defined modern democracy(despite its liberalism), communism(despite its universalism), Fascism, and National Socialism. Hitler cared more about volk than class. They all talked about The People.
But globalism is restoring a kind of ersatz-aristocratism where the elites of various nations feel closer to one another than with their own peoples. Biden, though a white American, serves the globo-homo club than White Americans. Obama served the globo-homo club than cared about black Americans. Various elites around the world send their kids to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge, and they care more about joining the globo-homo club than about their own peoples. They veil this neo-aristocratic trend with 'wokeness' that provides them with the veneer of caring about 'diversity, equality, and inclusion', but diversity only increases inequality, and the elite club is more exclusive than ever. Only their favored idols, narratives, and 'values' are deemed 'acceptable' and the rest are excluded. And notice how 'wokeness' de-emphasizes the masses or the People and instead fixates on the celebration of three minorities: Jews, blacks, & homos and largely for their SUPERIOR qualities. Worship the Jews for their genius, worship the blacks for their muscle, worship the homos for their creativity. Thus, the new idolatry is essentially neo-aristocratic.
It seems Jews are the ONLY exception within the globalist empire. Super-rich Jews like Sheldon Adelson cared about the humblest Jew in Israel, and American Jews did all they could to help relatively poorer Jews in the Soviet Union. But then, Jews want it this way. If goy elites cared about their own kind, they wouldn't expend all their energies serving Jews in the globo-homo club. So, the globo-formula is goy elites snub the goy masses and serve Jewish elites who care about Jewish folk.
If Arabs in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had nationalism, they would live in a more stable world. But they only have tribalism. Under Ottoman rule, the various tribes enjoyed a degree of stability in their common submission to the Turks. But as Turkish authority wanes, the power vacuum creates havoc, just like the fall of communism led to the breakup of Yugoslavia(that had been united more under Tito-ism than any clear sense of Yugoslavian identity, but then, the US made it worse by pouring gasoline on the fire and encouraging further breakup by dangling prizes before any ethnic group broke away from the dominant Serbs).
Nations have fought one another, resulting in shifts in boundaries(like tug-of-war over Alsace Lorraine between France and Germany), but usually stability and peace followed after the dust of war settled. In contrast, in a world of tribalism, there never really is a state-of-peace because nothing is really settled among the tribes. There are no agreed-upon boundaries, and furthermore, there is only an inchoate sense of 'us'(as opposed to 'them') within the tribe. The identity, culture, and sense of history hadn't been coalesced into something resembling a shared/mass ideology.
Jews are something of an exception in all this because they started with prophets and the Covenant than with kings and swords. Thus, Jews relied more on the power of mind than the power of might to define who they were. Also, the Covenant informed each Jew that he is the equal of all other Jews as the blessed of God. He wasn't just some peon or subject. The kings came later for the Jews, and even they were subordinate to the prophets and the Covenant. This is why the Jewish people and culture could survive even after their elites were massacred or scattered to the winds. Each Jew had a sense of self-worth and carried within his body/soul the seeds of the sacred truth. In contrast, pagan folks were mostly lowly subjects of their master-elites. Their purpose in life was wedded to specified duties and skills, like being a blacksmith. They belonged to an order as long as their elites remained, but when the elites were vanquished, they had little in terms of identity as their worth had been measured in service to their masters than in terms of autonomy from social privileges.
Allenby, Lawrence, and company sweep through the halls and down the grand staircase—past rank after rank of smartly uniformed officers and sentries, standing at attention and saluting—into the sumptuous bar, where all the officers spring to attention until Allenby put them at ease and begs their permission to drink there, as a guest of Major Lawrence. It is a perfect image of how hierarchy is oiled by magnanimity, manners, and good humor....
it is precisely the British ability to look past appearances and to recognize the talents and achievements of an outsider and misfit like Lawrence that made this victory possible.
It also suggests that Anglos, in their deference to authority and hierarchy, are lacking in autonomy and agency. They are rather like well-trained dogs. Their happy acceptance of the new odd-seeming Lawrence comes largely by the way of Allenby's commendation. If the big man says it's okay, it must be okay. So, their feelings about Lawrence have less to do with personal opinion than consensus willed by a superior. No wonder then the Anglo World switched gears so fast under the new boss, the Jewish Tribe. Jews nod this way, and Anglos nod the same way. Jews nod another way, and Anglos nod that way too. This is where Lawrence stands out among the crowd. Allenby and other British officers belong to the system and go by the book. Just like Muslims believe everything is 'written', the British go about very scripted roles, from top to bottom. Lawrence, though impeccably British in many ways, has something of the 'cowboy' in him. He doesn't always go by the book, and it is rather surprising that a man like Allenby would warm to a man like Lawrence who is headstrong with a maverick streak. Under most circumstances, Lawrence wouldn't be ideal but he's the right man for the 'wrong' world.
And yet, this is where the British were different from, say, the Japanese. Both were about hierarchy, order, discipline, and duties. But if Japanese almost always suppressed any sign of individuality, the British Order allowed just enough freedom and space that a man of special qualities was given his due. So, while Japan was 99% anti-individualist, Britain was 95% anti-individualist but allowed just enough space for a man like Lawrence to flourish. This was ideal for the British Empire because, let's face it, most people are dullards and lack any notable qualities; they would do best just to shut up, follow orders, and stick to their allotted duties. However, there is a tiny sliver in any population with special intelligence, creativity, skill, and/or imagination, and it is a society that allows such special individuals to blossom that ends with the better garden. British society was repressive but can tolerate a man like Lawrence. Japanese society couldn't.
The thing about Lawrence was he lived in a time when even a misfit had to fit in. There was no other way. The Beatles, the Stones, the British Invasion, and Punk movement were in the future. Thus, the 'misfit' qualities of Lawrence had no choice but to serve constructive ends. Not only did he have to suppress his homosexuality but he had to channel his wilder energies toward serving the system. In contrast, the future vision of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE features Alex, a young man of superior wit and intelligence, who has all the freedom to indulge his misfit fantasies. What was special about the Beatles(at least up to 1967) was they embodied both form and freedom. Then came punk that turned UK into an ugly place.
We pretty much know where David Lean stands on the empire vs. nationalism question.
Based on that scene, the movie could be construed as pro-empire. But the movie grows darker and shows the heavy burdens and messy betrayals of empire, leaving Lawrence disillusioned with just about everything. Also, considering that Lean was thinking of a Gandhi project, he surely had a critical streak about empire.
In the first half of the movie, Lawrence makes himself a legend in service of Arab nationalism. In the second half, he meets a rival myth-maker, Jackson Bentley, a fictional American journalist based on Lowell Thomas and played by Arthur Kennedy. Bentley’s goal is to use the Arab anti-colonial revolt and the romantic figure of Lawrence to build American sympathy for the war... Bentley tells Faisal, “I just want to tell your story.” The bastards still say the same thing today.
Some things never change. The Middle East has been in turmoil since the War on Terror following 9/11, or we can trace it further back to the Gulf War following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. (And before that was the bloody decade long war between Iraq and Iran, which was instigated by the West that egged Hussein on, only to turn on him later.) Syria is in utter chaos, and Libya has been utterly smashed. A century after Lawrence, it seems the Middle East hardly made any real progress in genuine national autonomy; but then, Western nations are also collapsing from idolatrous degeneracy and ideological lunacy under Jewish Supremacist hegemony. Saudis and their closest allies are total cuck-puppets of the US, which is ruled by Zionists who pulled strings to wreak havoc across the region.
At least back then, there was a remarkable figure like T. E. Lawrence to shake things up a bit. Today, just about every Western operative is a colorless craven-cuck agent of the Empire of Zion. Of course, Jews hated Lawrence for his aid to Arabs. The Middle East movie for the Jews was EXODUS by Otto Preminger.
As for the media coverage of Middle East affairs, it is nothing but Jewish-Zionist propaganda, hardly surprising when all the media are owned by Zionists who hire fellow Jews and cuck-goy-maggots. And among the cucks, the Anglos are some of the worst. In a way, Jews understand Anglos far better than the other way around, not least because 'antisemitism' has been banned, making it difficult to think critically about Jews. Jews know all about the hierarchical character of Anglos. Whereas each Jew is strong in personality, each Anglo is relatively weaker in personality and his self-worth relies to a great deal on peer perception and approval. Being apologetic is part of Anglo consciousness, whereas for pushy Jews, "shove means never having to say you're sorry." When Allenby treated Lawrence like a capital fellow, the rest instantly fell in line and toasted him as a jolly good fellow. Today, if Jews say globo-homo is cool, Anglos with weak personality fall in line first and wave the globo-homo flag. Or, consider how so many Anglo-American types were the first ones to put up BLM signs on their front lawns.
Bentley eagerly snaps pictures, which the Arabs correctly believe will steal their virtue. Bentley is stealing—and selling, and exploiting—Lawrence’s virtue, his power.
But without people like Bentley(and David Lean), there is no legend. Arabs can cheer Lawrence all they want in the moment. They have no cameras, radios, or printing presses, nothing for posterity. It's like there's no Billy the Kid legend without the newsmen and novelists who told and/or spun his tale. Also, Lawrence craves the publicity. As a warrior, he has Arabs as his audience, but with men like Bentley tagging along, he has the whole world as his audience. He is both a deeply anguished soul who wants solitude and a flamboyant narcissist who wants to be adored by the world.
Part of his insecurity derives from the fact that glory is hard-fought and increasingly harder to come by, especially as the stakes are raised. Not everything he does is successful, and the enemy is learning his tricks, making it ever more difficult to pull off the same stunts. The more his megalomania grows, the more insecure and desperate he becomes to live up to the myth as the near-infallible warrior. It's like Paul Newman's character in COOL HAND LUKE. He's introduced as a loner, but his first taste of stardom whets his appetite for more, even if his fans are a bunch of losers in a prison. He becomes addicted to his cult and keeps raising the stakes. He becomes their hero and saint, then martyr and savior as the cult turns into a death wish in search of a legend. Luke's demeanor at the outset suggest not a care in the world, but he's a social animal after all and can't resist the fawning attention of the prisoners, even if it means he has to wolf down 50 eggs or break out numerous times at risk to life and limb.
Bentley is less a 'thief' than a partner in the creation of the Lawrence myth, just like John Reed did much to spread the gospel of Lenin to American audiences with TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD and Edgar Snow did likewise for Mao with RED STAR OVER CHINA. Bentley is a necessary figure because, being American, he is neither Arab or British. Also, being American, he is more more candid and forthright than the relatively uptight British. Individuality and irreverence were more a feature of the American character, perhaps best represented by Mark Twain, though Americanism too isn't without its own myths and delusions as the history of US was undoubtedly about elites, hierarchies, and classes. Still, compared to most characters in the movie, Bentley is the skeptic who can see through Lawrence and has no illusions about his own profession. He brings the movie down to earth, just like the American character(William Holden) in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is the one with the least BS, precisely because he's so natural at BS, but as a tool than a conviction. Both the British and the Japanese have their hang-ups, but William Holden's character is just natural. He's most honest because he's most shamelessly dishonest without delusions of honor and duty, rather like the American character in KING RAT.
At any rate, Bentley doesn't seem to be a publicist for the Deep State but something of an adventurer himself. And his disgust at the butchering of fleeing Turks by Lawrence and his men suggests he's not without conscience. Also, his joking remark about Lawrence at the funeral indicates he understood Lawrence. He's the movie's obligatory cynic who helps create the legend but also sees right through it, not least because he understands the mechanics of myth-making. When overheard at the funeral, he is met with stern rebuke by a man who says Lawrence was a very great man. When asked, the man says he didn't know Lawrence personally but had the honor to shake his hand. He seems a decent sort but also represents the hoi polloi into earnest hero-worship, pat narratives, and reassuring tributes(like what we hear every Memorial Day about American Soldiers having died for our freedom). The irony is that this man probably got his impression of Lawrence from men like Bentley who spread the legend far and wide. It's like people who make the movies see the image differently from people who see the movies. The audience lose themselves in the myths while the makers have no such illusions as they know the tricks of the trade. For every Quixote, there is a Panza. Dreamer and deflator.
The juxtaposition of the three-dimensional Lawrence and his two-dimensional shadow and silhouette, along with the journalist’s camera, is a subtle commentary on myth-making. Lawrence is becoming one of the shadows projected on the walls of the cave of public opinion.
It has dual meaning. The shadow is like Arabic calligraphy. It seems Lawrence is 'writing' his own destiny. And yet, there is no shadow cast without the Sun. It's as if to suggest that despite Lawrence's conceits, it is the ultimate power that is really writing his fate.
The dark shadow also portends what is to come later. The light goes out in Lawrence's heart and he wants to go home, without fanfare. (But then, his speed on motorbike in Merry Old England suggests Lawrence never lost his appetite for daring and adventure.)
Then he pinches his white flesh and says, “This is the stuff that decides what he wants.” Is he referring to his race, which made it impossible for him to pass as an Arab? Is he referring to his sexuality?
The whole affair is rather odd. His whiteness is prized by the Turks. The homo-Turk wants him precisely because he looks so fair and fine. If Arab boy have exotic appeal to Lawrence, the swarthy Turks are taken by his light skin and blond hair. So, Lawrence isn't a victim of racial prejudice but racial admiration, much like the blacks in GET OUT who are the objects of fetishization by White Libby-Dibs. But the Turk's flattering homo-lust is met with scornful disgust by Lawrence, who strikes him. Thereby, he is harshly punished. This time, the pain is beyond his control. This isn't a match he can blow out at any moment. He must take the lashes(or rods) until they stop, and they break him. Earlier, he spoke of mind over matter, i.e. the trick is not to mind the pain. But the pain from the beating is too much for him to bear. He thought himself the master but is reduced to a 'bitch', like the American guy in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.
Ironically, it turned out badly for him not because the Turks saw him as less than an Arab but more. More attractive and more desirable. So, when Lawrence laments that he can't be an Arab, it sounds like both curse and blessing. Just like it's unseemly for an inferior to pose as a superior, it's no less so for a superior to pose as inferior. Lawrence is a contradiction because he's a man of superior qualities who prefers to hang with inferiors. Back then(and perhaps even now), both Europeans and Turks regarded Arabs as inferiors, racially or culturally. But, it's also a matter of class. Increasingly, Lawrence recruits lowly cutthroat Arabs who are far beneath Ali's station. Lawrence has qualities to move up the ranks(and is promoted for his exploits), but he feels most natural among the rag-tag warriors and ruffians. Some people seek power by serving the superior. Though subordinate, they get to work within power's proximity. Others seek power by seeking out inferiors to lord over. Though among the lowly, they stand high and mighty above them. Of course, Lawrence does both in the story, serving the British Empire as a loyal subject and lording over the Arabs like Tarzan over the apes.
At any rate, the scene with the homo-Turk is humiliating for both Lawrence and Ali. It's like the hazing in DAZED AND CONFUSED. It's both bad luck and an honor to be targeted for hazing. The boy gets has ass bashed but has moved up the ranks with the upper-classman. In one respect, it's beating and/or humiliation, but it's also a recognition of your worth in a ritual of initiation, like in a fraternity. When the Turks took Lawrence but cast Ali aside, it must have hurt Ali's pride too. It was if the Turks were saying, "We want this golden boy here, not you sand ni**er, so get lost." A further irony is that Ali, though probably not a homo, has special feelings for Lawrence partly for his European qualities as well. They become like brothers of the spirit.
What is puzzling is why the Turks threw Lawrence out after having their way with him? Did they really think he's one of those rare white-looking Arabs? Surely, if they suspected him as a British officer, they would have held him as a bargaining chip with the British. Also, they surely heard of the legendary Lawrence who is leading the Arabs against the Turks. Did the homo-Turk and his men not suspect that they had the Lawrence in the flesh? If so, what a bunch of dummies.
Anyway, what is it like for a homo to be humiliated by homos? If a straight guy is buggered by a homo, the shame is understandable, like in DELIVERANCE. But might not a homo enjoy being buggered by another homo? Was Lawrence especially ashamed because a part of him enjoyed the 'humiliation', just like he was troubled by the fact that he actually enjoyed killing Gasim?
Lawrence’s goal is to beat Allenby to Damascus and install an Arab National Council. He almost loses the race when he comes across an Arab village sickeningly massacred by the retreating Turks. The cutthroats urge “no prisoners.” Ali reminds Lawrence of Damascus. When one of Lawrence’s men charges the Turks and is gunned down, Lawrence unleashes a massacre.
It seems Lawrence's main motivation for attacking the Arabs was personal vendetta for what had been done to HIM than what was done to some Arab village(as such atrocities were common on all sides). After the ordeal with the homo-Turk, the sight of any Turks fills him with burning fury. For those around him, it's a matter of tribal vengeance, i.e "Kill the Turk who killed Arabs", but unbeknownst to them, it's almost purely personal with Lawrence: "Smash the Turks who buggered my butt."
Also, the scene complicates the issue of the 'written'. By going off script and deviating from the direct advance on Damascus, Lawrence is once again writing his own destiny. And yet, he seems overwhelmed by a force beyond his control. His mind says, "No, listen to Ali, head for Damascus", but some dark force drags him towards the orgy of vengeance. Thus, he is both the writer and the written of that moment. He simply couldn't control the urges and got swept away with his passion and the mob, just like Annakin Skywalker couldn't suppress the temptations of the Dark Side in REVENGE OF THE SITH. And Lawrence's own words come back to bite him. True, the Arabs once again acted barbaric and cruel, but Lawrence not only took part but led and utterly exulted in the bloodbath, perhaps more than the Arabs.
Like the remake of THE MAN WHO SHOT TOO MUCH, Lean's movie suggests that beneath the surface distinctions between cultures, similar mechanisms operate at deeper levels. In Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Westerners don't go around veiled like Arab women, but there are various rules of what you can and can't say in the West. And despite the distinctions between the civilized West and backward Arabs, when push comes to shove in the battlefield, white men also turn animal and beast.
Allenby’s response is shrewd. He orders the British army to quarters, including the medical and technical staff. He’s going to let the Arabs muck things up, out of tribal pettiness and general backwardness. Eventually, they will get tired of playing at government and leave. Which is pretty much what happens.
Arabs are better at pillaging and plundering things than in running a city. British can actually run things, but all said and done, theirs too is a pillage-and-plunder operation; they're not there for the sand but the oil. They want it all.
The movie ends with Lawrence, now a full colonel, being sent home so the politicians can take over. Along the road, he passes a troop of Bedouins leaving Damascus and more British coming in. It looks anticlimactic, but that’s history.
This is the most haunting part of the movie and comes closest to the claim of art. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is odd for an epic in forsaking a triumphant or tragic ending with heroic/romantic overtones. People prefer catharsis. By standards of epic conventions, the coda is not only anticlimactic but bleak and melancholic. One could say it's true to history, but when has an epic been faithful to facts? LAWRENCE OF ARABIA itself plays fast and loose with historical events. So, why such an unconventional ending? The ending of THE BRIDGE OVER RIVER KWAI is both triumphant and tragic(with a dash of the absurd). Mission accomplished, the men get killed, and it all seems so 'mad'. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is similar. Zhivago's death is so very tragic but oh-so-beautiful, and there's hope that his daughter will be united with him in spirit in New Russia. In contrast, the final part of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is like a shadow play. Triumph soon turns into chaos and recriminations. He did it for the Arabs, but the Arabs fail him, or did he fail them? They are nomads, not city dwellers and bureaucrats, but then Lawrence himself would rather be a wanderer than an office man. But even a wanderer comes to the end of his journey, and Lawrence has come to his. Everything is denied him. He isn't quite the victor because he can't hold the prize together. He is even denied madness though he comes close in the filthy P.O.W. hospital piled with dead and sick Turks. An outraged British officer mistakes him for a 'wog' and strikes him, leaving him to laugh madly at the absurdity of it all. But ultimately, he doesn't go mad enough either. Madness would at least be a refuge, a haven from the troubles of the world. Rather, he's caught in the twilight region between sanity and madness, victory and defeat, pride and humiliation, humor and sadness. He made it to the end and crossed the finish line, and alas, Arabs will be Arabs, the big powers will have their ways, and 'old men' will decide based on interests than inspiration.
In many ways, Lean made a very classic and traditional film when cinema was moving in fresh and new directions, but its youthful hero who goes 'native' surely resonated with what became the Counterculture where young whites wanted to touch Indians or join with blacks in the Revolution. And US would become embroiled in a messy imperialist game in Vietnam. Some would have noted that Lawrence was the 'rock star' of his era with his diva personality. It is one of the greatest films on the subject of White Man and the Natives, though the most enjoyable of its kind is probably THE PLANET OF THE APES.
Lawrence is relevant today because of his sense of exile. While among the British he longs for exotic adventure, but exhausted among the 'natives', he hankers for home, like Odysseus. He is restless but also longs for rest. There are glimmers of him in Benjamin Braddock in THE GRADUATE who doesn't want his life to be 'plastics'. The constant sense of being ill-at-ease. Lawrence is never quite home, even at home.
But what was once a relatively rare condition among men of some privilege who could read and travel has become nearly universalized. There once was a time when Brits were Brits and Arabs were Arabs. Today, multi-culti UK is a place where not only nonwhites immigrants are exiles but so are the native whites as their nation is no longer their homeland. And identities are confused as non-whites become new British, new French, new Europeans while whites either lose their identity or fixate on the Other as 'savior' or 'redeemer'.
Also, if Lawrence wrestled with sexual ambiguity in a rigidly straight world, sexual multiplicity and then some are the official dogma of institutions and industries all across the West. If Lawrence's mission that required courage and vision channeled his confusions toward constructive ends, today's miasma of social degeneracy and cultural decadence borne of competing identities, be they racial or sexual or whatever, is allowed to fester and pollute the air all around us.
Just like Arabs could be united only in some grand adventure, it seems white people can't seem to get their act together in the absence of such either. When the Brits had empire, the various factions and groups(even the Irish) could put aside their differences and serve to expand and rule the empire, sharing the glory and plunder. And whites were most united in their conquest of the Wild West. But without such outward directive energies, whites feel lost and bored with themselves, easily falling prey to Jews who feed them with 'meaning of life' centered around 'white guilt', BLM, globo-homo, or 'Muh Israel'. Just like Lawrence somehow managed to inspire the Arabs to unite to fight the Turks, Neocon Jews in the US somehow managed to unite all whites at least around ONE issue: We Love Israel. Whether Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, Nancy Pelosi, or Gavin Newsom, the ONE THING they can all rally around without any doubt is WE WORSHIP JEWS AND SERVE ISRAEL. Petty and stupidly divided over so many trifles, nearly all whites across the political spectrum are united in total reverence to Jews. In that sense, some things never change.
Though LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is great throughout, the scene where the departing Lawrence catches a glance of Arabs on camel rises to another level. It is where the movie goes from epic to poetic. Back in his uniform and homeward bound, the Arabs seem so different, alien, impenetrable. A people of another world. And yet, it wasn't long before he'd been one of them, eating with them, riding with them. Unlike white people in THE SEARCHERS and other Westerns, he wasn't kidnapped by Arabs and raised as one of them, but he had been among them and got to know them from the inside. They were his friends, almost like brothers. And yet, in that poignant moment, they seem so far away. And yet, something stirs within him. The past he resolved to put behind beckons him, and a part of him wishes to return. He feels as if haunted by a ghost. For homo-Lawrence, Arabia will remain his 'Lara' even as he bids farewell. There's relief of an ended journey but also grief and sorrow. In a way, Lawrence's psychological home will always be the adventure with the Arabs, but he can't go 'home' again because, no matter whatever else he does in life, he will never reclaim the virginal excitement and romantic consummation with the desert. Time turns everyone into an exile from his most cherished memories.
That last scene may have been copped by George Lucas for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when the wounded Luke in the Millennium Falcon senses the presence of Darth, his father, passing by in the Imperial Ship. They are so far apart yet so close. Likewise, even though Lawrence has burned the bridges with the Arabs, there will always be a mystical link.
One film of interest that very likely owes something to both BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is Nagisa Oshima's MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE. Like KWAI, it is set in a Japanese prison camp in Southeast Asia and is about the test of wills between egos and between cultures. Like LAWRENCE, it delves in the psychology of myth with homoerotic overtones. Lawrence and Jack Celliers(David Bowie) are both men of superior intelligence and ability but haunted by something dark within their psyches. Oshima's film isn't an epic, but the smaller scale makes for sharper portraiture and heightened drama.