Lawrence of Arabia Redux

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“I
deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. We shall
never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will
live in the annals of war. It will live in the legends of Arabia!”

~
Winston Churchill

Like
a mirage, the best film of the season appeared suddenly, without
fanfare, out of a desert of ephemeral flicks destined for the cinematic
cemetery. Just as suddenly it vanished. It won’t be winning any
Academy Awards next spring, either. No sore bones about it, though:
Lawrence
of Arabia
” swept the Awards in 1962, winning Oscars for Best
Picture, Director, Score, Cinematography and then some. No mere
nod to nostalgia, the fortieth-anniversary re-release of David Lean’s
haunting masterpiece about the Englishman who fought for Arab freedom
in World War I could not have re-appeared on the big screen at a
more apt time.

“Lawrence”
is an artistic tour de force, affirming great cinema’s pedagogical
role of teaching through images and words that linger in the mind.
Since the images and lessons of “Lawrence” are nothing but subtle,
they might make the less-than-subtle minds of the men and boys in
the War Party reconsider making the Middle East safe for democracy
through military conquest.

Of
course, this presupposes that the historically innocent, younger
hawks could skip “Friends” for an evening and watch “Lawrence.”
Second, it presupposes the sincerity of the older hawks’ public
commitment to democracy and such enigmatic concepts as “peaceful
Islam.” Two big presuppositions, surely. But first, on to the feature
presentation.

I
saw “Lawrence” twice during its week-long run in Washington, D.C.,
before it exited for “Harry Potter.” The theater was packed each
time, mostly with older movie buffs. Where were the children, I
wondered, who were being denied something exponentially greater
than the boy wizard of banality? Then the lights dimmed, the velvet
curtains swept back, and “Lawrence” opened to a staccato outburst
of kettle drums as memorable as the opening notes of Beethoven’s
Fifth.

How
to describe the movie before exploring its salient lessons? Imagine
sensuous excitement and heraldry on par with a Nuremberg rally orchestrated
by Elgar to depict the beauty of British martial discipline on one
hand, and on the other, the romance, brutality and savage honor
of Arab tribesmen and their desert, “an ocean in which no oar is
dipped.” Flesh this out with a poignant script enlivened with performances
by some of the era’s finest actors — from old-timers Alec Guinness,
Claude Rains and Jack Hawkins, to ascending stars Anthony Quinn,
Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole as Lawrence — and you have a movie
grander than anything imaginable today. (True to its masculine subject,
there is not one female speaking role. Surely there would be a love
interest inserted nowadays, as improbable as that would be: Lawrence,
a strange bird, did not even like being touched — except in flagellation,
but that’s another story.)

The
movie’s correlation to historical truth is neither clear nor simple.
This being the general state of truth in the Middle East, it seems
fitting. For Thomas Edward (“T.E.”) Lawrence (1889–1935) was
a complex and peculiar man, perhaps best described in the opening
scene at his funeral: “He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior.
He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.”
Though Lawrence’s feats were legendary, he did not bother to separate
the myths that inevitably shrouded them. Indeed, he even invented
some — quite a few, actually — himself, out of an overgrown schoolboy’s
sense of mischievous, but basically harmless, fun. “History isn’t
made up of truth, anyway, so why worry?” he confessed.

While
scholars debate the particulars, a few things are certain. An Oxford-trained
scholar who was at an archaeological dig in modern-day Iraq when
war broke out, Lawrence accompanied an expedition to assess the
situation among the Bedouin Arabs, who had revolted against the
Ottoman Empire and become, ipso facto, British allies. He became
enthralled with the Arab cause and set to win them independence
from the Turks and prevent their subjugation by the British. Donning
Arab robes and accused by some of “going native,” he gave them victory
in conducting a guerrilla warfare that exploited their natural fighting
ability. (Like al-Qaeda, they would strike unexpectedly then disappear
into the desert, leaving the modern Turkish army bogged down and
bewildered.) When his idealistic crusade collapsed amid Arab in-fighting
and the British took control as colonial overlords, he despaired.

By
then he was famous thanks to a press that had grown disillusioned
with the Western Front and found in Lawrence a romantic hero inconceivable
in the trenches. Like the American hero Sergeant Alvin York, Lawrence
refused to profit from celebrity hood. In the early Twenties he
enlisted as a private in the Tank Corps and later the RAF under
an assumed name. While in remote postings in India, “Airman Shaw”
wrote a partly fictional account of the Arab Revolt and his role
in it, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which is said to be one of
the most popular books in the English language ever. (Ironically,
it popularized guerrilla wars of attrition in which a little people
beats a Great Power that can afford to give something up, a strategy
effectively used against the British in mid-century.) Shortly after
his discharge, he died in a motorcycle crash and was interred in
Westminster Cathedral, an honor accorded Great Britain’s greatest.

Rule
Britannia may have decayed into “Cool Britannia,” a glitzy wraith
of her former self, but the Arabs have changed little in eighty
years, despite their rulers’ oil wealth. Yet history books needn’t
be pondered to arrive at the same essential lessons Lawrence himself
learned. “Lawrence of Arabia” is a picture that speaks a thousand
words, thus making its subject accessible to more people than have
time to study weighty tomes. Several hours of viewing entertainment
have the same cumulative effect as reading Samuel Huntington’s Clash
of Civilizations
.

The
lessons come quick and hard. A few especially illuminating ones
deserve a closer look.

While
Lawrence is en route from British HQ in Cairo to survey the scene
in Arabia, he and his guide stop for refreshment at a well belonging
to a tribe hostile to the guide’s own. Their repast is disturbed
when a dark, rapidly advancing figure appears on the horizon. When
it turns out to be a black-robed Arab astride a camel, the guide
runs for his gun and takes aim, but before he can fire, the “fellow”
Arab shoots him dead. The newcomer, Sherif Ali, cooly surveys the
scene, but Lawrence is indignant. Why did you shoot my friend, he
demands.

“He
was nothing,” Ali says. “The well is everything. The Hasami may
not drink at our wells. He knew that.” Then he picks the dead man’s
body for his pistol.

Lawrence
is exasperated at this glib disregard for another man’s life. Although
Ali offers to take him to Prince Feisal — future first king of Iraq
and son of the Arabs’ titular head, Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of
Mecca — Lawrence refuses with a reply that wipes the smirk off Ali’s
face. “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will
they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and
cruel, as you are, Sherif Ali.”

Now
why did Ali, who later became Lawrence’s most trusted companion
in battle, casually bump off another Arab? At that time, “Arab”
was a mere ethnic determination encompassing various tribes tenuously
united under Islam. Blood feuds were common. If an Arab killing
another Arab of a different tribe could spark a nasty tit-for-tat,
how much bloodier would it be should Arab blood be drawn by outsiders,
say European Jews who sought to reclaim their ancestral home after
a lengthy absence, or Americans who wish to teach democracy on the
tail of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles.

There
was, and remains, logic to the Arabs’ behavior — however greedy,
barbarous, and cruel. The Arabs are honorable, but theirs is a primitive
form of honor, held prey to their passions. It was alien to the
British then and the West still, evidenced by bewilderment over
why those Palestinians should remain so obstreperous over land taken
from them fifty years ago. Lesson: remember the well.

Later,
after Lawrence takes a liking to the local color and leads the Arabs
to victories that surprise his superiors in Cairo, the press smells
a good story. Enter the character depicting Lowell Thomas, the first-ever
journalist to exploit the medium of motion pictures. Thomas, portrayed
by a character called Jackson Bentley in order to avoid slander
charges (Thomas was still alive in ’62), has an audience with Prince
Feisal, played with typical genius by Alec Guinness. He gives the
prince a shallow spiel designed to mask his real intensions.

“Your
Highness, we Americans were once a colonial people and we naturally
feel sympathetic to any people, anywhere, who are struggling for
their freedom,” he tells Feisal (ironic, given that Americans once
were British subjects).

“Very
gratifying,” Feisal responds, eyeing him craftily. Maybe the Arabs
weren’t so stupid after all.

Bentley
drops his pretenses. There are powerful American interests who want
his country to join the war, he says, and he “desperately needs
a hero” to entice Americans into war.

“Ah,
now you are ‘talking turkey,’ are you not?” Feisal says with a smile.
He respects Bentley’s honesty and gives him a guide to take him
to Lawrence.

(After
the war, Lowell toured America and Britain, narrating his movie
reels of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which were a smash hit. Occasionally,
Lawrence would sneak into theaters to behold the spectacle of war
turned into pop entertainment.)

One
scene’s Spartan exchange teaches how poorly propaganda about Western
idealism plays over in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera and print media
give Bentley-like pretenses short shrift, instead cutting to the
obvious: Americans want to project their (and, by association, Israel’s)
hegemony over the Middle East, and Iraq does happen to have 92 billion
barrels of oil in its reserves. Yet Washington insists in flowery
pretenses, if only for the benefit of a gullible and historically
ignorant home audience.

Lawrence
also advocated democracy for the Arabs, but his was the earnest
dream of a young idealist. Eventually robbed by reality, he vowed
never to return to the Middle East.

In
the movie’s last major scene, Lawrence leads a flock of 3,500 Arabs
to capture Damascus, the Turks’ key Arab stronghold. Backed by a
million-man British army, the Arabs “capture” Damascus as much as
DeGaulle’s Free French “liberated” Paris. Even so, the British allowed
them the savor of victory as a cheap price to pay for the illusion
that the Brits were not calling the shots.

Lawrence’s
vision for pan-Arab democracy is dashed in Damascus. He hosts an
Arab town-hall meeting which quickly turns to bedlam. As the various
tribal chieftains bicker over who is in charge of what (the electricity
plant, the water works, etc.), insults are exchanged and sword-play
averted over Lawrence’s impassioned pleas for unity. Preferring
the desert to democracy, the Arabs mount their camels and leave
Damascus. The British, who entertained none of Lawrence’s youthful
idealism, calmly waited until the “wogs” behaved as expected and
took charge.

This
scene depicts what a post-Saddam Iraqi “congress” might look like.
One can imagine the bickering factions of that state — which is
not a nation per se but an artificial creation of the Sykes-Picot
Treaty — behaving like their wog forebears. Given the impossibility
of imposing instant democracy among Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs on the
ground and their plutocratic exiles flown in from London, plus non-Arab
Assyrians and Kurds, Americans initially (one, ten, twenty years?)
can be expected to govern the raucous natives. Later, they undoubtedly
will implement a home-grown dictatorship, which is the only form
of government that has ever worked in the Middle East — or ever
will, barring a miracle.

“Lawrence”
offers a Cassandra-like prediction of the maelstrom America will
encounter if it unleashes an armada against Arabia. Yet there are
big differences between the avowedly imperialist British circa 1918
and the squeamish American pseudo-imperialists of today. First,
the British were forthright about their aims, at least once the
war was won: secure the Suez Canal through erecting Arab puppet
states. They didn’t even bother paying lip service to Wilsonian
bosh. Second, the Arabs back then were peasants who would agree,
as Feisal said in the movie, that “No Arab loves the desert. There
is nothing in the desert” (wry chortles rippled through the audience
at that one). Thanks to British and American oilmen who discovered
the desert’s hidden treasure, they now are magnificently rich. And
although they spurn Western values, they have shown themselves capable
of using modern technology against the West.

Should
President Bush decide to embark upon another idealistic crusade
against Arabia (for the Arabs’ benefit, of course), he might end
up like the weary British diplomat Dryden, played by Claude Rains.
In the film’s closing scene, he sits in conference with Feisal and
the British commander Lord Allenby to hash out the post-war Middle
East.

Feisal:
“You, I suspect, are chief architect of this compromise [the Sykes-Picot
treaty]. What do you think?”

Dryden:
“Me, Your Highness? On the whole, I wish I’d stayed in Tunbridge
Wells.”

Or
Crawford, Texas.

January
22, 2003

Matthew
Rarey [send him mail]
is a member of The Washington Times editorial board.


     

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