Remembering Lawrence of Arabia

I will admit, Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps one of my favorite movies of all time. It is a timeless visual masterpiece – Hollywood rarely makes films on such a grandiose scale – and compelling plot to boot, despite its many historical inaccuracies.

In one of the opening scenes, Lawrence encounters Sherif Ali (played by Omar Sharif) – who eventually becomes Lawrence’s closest friend and sharpest critic – at a well in the middle of the desert. Ali has just killed Lawrence’s guide in cold blood; the guide had no permission to take water from the well. Enraged, and no doubt scared for his life, Lawrence waits until Ali no longer poses a threat to bitterly condemn not only Ali, but his entire people:

“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.”

It should be noted that the entire film is set in the backdrop of the First World War, if there was ever an example of how greed, barbarity, and cruelty can destroy our world. As Lawrence preached nationalism to his Arab partners, the very same values were destroying his homeland.

And yet a century later the Arab Spring is proving that nationalism, heaped upon the Middle East and North Africa by the European powers, is not guaranteed to survive. In some places it never took root at all. Sectarian and ethnic rifts continue to define the balance of power in many countries. The dreams of Lawrence (and others) appear more like fantasy now than ever before.

I am not certain that one can blame the historical T.E. Lawrence for being wide-eyed about Arab nationalism – his was a time marked by colonial ambitions to transform the world, lead by men with an adventuring spirits and rigid adherence to European codes. No feat was too great, as long as tea was served afterwards.

So much of Lawrence of Arabia captures this civilizational conflict, and the personal journey of a man who – outside the confines of his own society – seemingly reinvents himself, only to later discover that his efforts were all in vain. He cannot, in fact, change the world, nor can he really change himself. It is a storyline that passes from generation to generation in Western culture.

Peter O’Toole captured that whimsical, if maniacal dreamer. In the two years making the film, he immersed himself into Lawrence’s world, taught himself basic Arabic, learned how to ride a camel (albeit with a sponge “protector”), and studied Bedouin culture. He joking said of the endless riding shots, “It was alright. I had a transistor radio plugged into my ears and I had a cigarette going and I had a little bottle of something in the saddle bag.” Yet he managed to recreate the magic and mystery that no doubt embodied T.E. Lawrence’s unique, imperfect character – and plagues the British colonel’s legacy to this very day.

As Sherif Ali remarks to Lawrence in the film, “In Cairo you will put off these funny clothes. You’ll wear trousers and tell stories of our quaintness and barbarity.” That continuous interplay between “us” and “them”, so vividly performed by O’Toole and the rest of Lawrence of Arabia‘s cast, is not soon to be replicated on stage.

Posted on by Gabriel in Uncategorized