Lawrence of Arabia Redux

“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


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