The World War One commemoration reached its apex last year , but perhaps there is time for a few thoughts about a film about one of the neglected campaigns of the war. Whose main character, was, ironically, one of the most well-known military individuals from that war. The campaign was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and the character was former archaeologist T.E.Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, has always been a popular and celebrated film. Winner of seven Oscars when first released in 1962, and one of the most financially successful of its year. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, each popular and acclaimed directors over many years, have publicly spoken about how much they admire the film and its director, and it still enjoys a high status among ordinary fans, on the IMDB list of best movies ever.
I must confess that when got my first belated look at the film on television about ten years ago, I was unmoved. It ran too long, there were too many men in uniform and no women, there was too much focus on scenery and its narrative about that part of World War One was not for me clearly told. I was already tending towards a view that the best films of Lean’s career were the shorter earlier ones, and Lawrence of Arabia seemed to provide further evidence.
I certainly gained more from my recent second viewing, both due to having since visited Palestine and reading about Lawrence in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2011 book Jerusalem. The narrative became clearer, and, also, I was struck by the film’s use of biblical motifs and in the way it deals with Lawrence’s sexuality.
In a video for the American Film Institute, Martin Scorsese marvelled that Lawrence of Arabia is a heroic cinematic epic which is centred not on a saint or a figure from the Bible but on a “difficult” character who shows and feels “self-destruction and self-loathing”. Yet it was made during the last great era of Hollywood big-budget bible epics like The Ten Commandments and King of Kings, and Lean deployed many of the tropes of cinematography from that genre. Lawrence strides and flounces around in flowing white robes, always markedly different to those around him but especially noticeable when he visits the British HQ in Cairo. He strides on top of railway carriages, outlined against the sun, to the loud cheers of his Arab followers and Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning music. Arabs riding on camels, especially the famous arrival of Omar Sharif’s character Sherif Ali out of the shimmering horizon, recall the arrival of the Magi. Everywhere there are large crowds of people. The scene of Lawrence’s capture by the Turkish forces in Deraa and his being stripped, prodded and beaten directly evokes Jesus Christ before Pontius Pilate and his subsequent scourging.
The real Lawrence’s sexuality was “mysterious”, says Sebag Montefiore. He “was not a misogynist” but certainly fairly indifferent towards women. His friend Ronald Storrs, on whom the character of the diplomat Dryden in the film is probably based, is quoted as saying, dryly, “He’d have kept his composure if he’d suddenly been informed he’d never see a woman again.”
Lawrence of Arabia was made when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK and Lean used some familiar cinematic devices to suggest homoeroticism. The camera focusses continually on Peter O’Toole’s strong body shape, bleached hair and blue eyes. Lawrence is shown to be very emotionally attached to two young men who become his servants.
“Vanity competed with masochism” in Lawrence, says Sebag Montefiore. His first appearance in the film shows him placing his finger in a match flame, saying to his fascinated observers, “The trick…is not minding that it hurts”. The viewer is reminded of this later when we see Lawrence apparently unintimidated by the beating from his Turkish captors. “The slaughter and grit of war both horrified and excited him”, says Sebag Montefiore, and Lean includes scenes which show him revolted by killing and attracted to it.
The scene with the match flame which introduces the viewer, variously, to Lawrence’s interest in the Middle East, his eccentricity and his fondness for attention as well as his tolerance of pain is the only one which makes reference to the British fighting another horrible war elsewhere in the world.
“This is a nasty dark little room,” says Lawrence, to which his junior colleague replies, “It’s better than a nasty dark little trench”.
Reference : Sebag Montefiore, Simon (2012) Jerusalem London: Phoenix