Precious Bodily Fluids

Lawrence of Arabia

Some sure-fire signs that someone is a Marxist include: insisting on appealing to Marx for everything, rather constantly choosing to “focus” on Marx for various topics, and taking Marx’s theories and conclusions as canonical (i.e., never taking issue with any of his thinking or giving it any truly critical thought). This is not to say that Marx did not have his points; but this confession is somewhat obligatory. Despite the debate over true Marxism vs. Leninism/Stalinism, when someone’s theory has been put into practice (more or less) only to devastate two continents to 40 million+ deaths in a pretty short period of time, it seems fair to be critical of the theory. That Marxist theory is now taken for granted is a very disturbing irony, with all of our 21st century progress following the disastrous 20th century. Marx was fair in pointing out the separation between classes and the nature of the means of production, distribution, and consumption. And the effects on his thought leading to Postcolonial theory are at least in part laudable. Enter Freud. Put them together and this is what you get. The psychological ramifications of peoples being enslaved, at worst, or unwillingly subjugated, at best, are great and complex. At least an economist and a psychologist are necessary here to sort out the mess. But the question is, are Marx and Freud the best choices?

Cartography as terrestrial domination?

Cartography as terrestrial domination?

As a Brit with ideas as big as his vision (the man saw everything in 70mm), David Lean exemplified the colonialist tendencies that continue to flourish and (perhaps) prolong Postcolonialism’s anticipated reign. And yet, you have to tip your hat to the guy, who could make movies like few others, and who at least thought he was being nuanced with regard to colonial issues. In this conversation, however, the best way to do Lean justice is to appreciate Lawrence of Arabia for what it was intended to be about rather than the (admittedly undeniable) colonialist implications of the film.

Lawrence initially dominated by Arabs

Lawrence initially dominated by Arabs

The form of Lawrence is probably perfect, and its development of the titular character is genius. Who cares about the real T.E. Lawrence when Peter O’Toole’s version is so interesting? Myers-Briggs-wise, he’s either INTP or ENTP, the personality types of two of my dearest friends, which makes him compelling and loveable on a personal level. His learning curve is remarkable, which has been the object of criticism. Rather than seeing him as an extraordinary character, Lawrence has been read as the much more ingenious and crafty Westerner, in comparison with the barbaric Arabs whose rural wisdom is practical but lacks scope. They fail to note that Lawrence has never been at home in his own world. In a different way, no matter how well he seems to integrate himself into the Arab world, he continues to stand out.

On equal level with Arab; matching golden crowns

On equal level with Arab; matching golden crowns

There does seem to be an interesting Freudian undertone to the film. Lawrence converses with an Arab regarding his own father. Lawrence is somewhat ashamed to say that his father never married his mother, making him a sort of outcast from the beginning. Lawrence is also at pains to tell the Arabs that he never fit in, that England is a fat land full of fat people, but that he is not fat himself. Anthony Quinn’s character, just before battle, proclaims that his mother mated with a scorpion, this shortly after Lawrence’s fireside chat about his family. What was a source of shame to Lawrence was spun slightly to be a source of pride for the Arab. Lawrence’s lack of paternal connection allowed him to make his own name, something which he did through the Arabs. His name change was complete with a baptism by fire (burning his old clothes), a christening (being given new, very white robes), and a full acceptance into the Arab clan. That the Arabs made him their leader could imply that they were a people too primitive to lead themselves and therefore needed a white guy to do it. But again, despite these possibilities, the film seems to be about Lawrence as a person rather than anyone else.

The Christ-ening

The Christ-ening

And yet, coming full-circle, when Lawrence is dressed totally in white (with a touch of gold) with scores of Arabs practically worshiping him, it is impossible to deny the reality of it all. Is Lean saying that Lawrence is extraordinary because it was an Arab (i.e., very primitive) people that he was able to tame? Would a story like this have been as remarkable if a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brit-boy had gathered unto himself a people from, say, Sweden? Or Canada? But this begs the question, because presumably the idea is that those nations wouldn’t need a Westerner to come help them out. Because they are Westerners, they’re okay. Lawrence criticizes the Arab people early on for being a “little people” by virtue of their petty quarreling and lack of vision. Lawrence’s assumption is that a tribal model is inherently flawed. Bigger is better. For all his contempt for the British way, Lawrence epitomizes it by making the Arabs bigger, largely through giving them tons of Western guns and ammo. What is more demeaning: the British officer who insists that the Middle-Eastern peoples need training before being given these weapons or Lawrence handing them the weapons in order to prove themselves to a Western audience? Should these people have been treated as children incapable of learning or as nothings who needed to aspire to something else? Or, should viewers treat the Arabs as props in a movie that’s really about another really amazing white dude? After all, even the most powerful Arab in the film is played by Alec Guinness.

This entry was published on September 8, 2008 at 10:58 am. It’s filed under 1960s Cinema, British Film, David Lean and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “Lawrence of Arabia

  1. f. OLSON on said:

    I thought he was more of an INTJ as portayed in the movie. Can you expound on why you came to the conclusion you did?

  2. This was about a year and a half ago, so now I’m wondering at the same thing. Certainly you’re right about Lawrence’s introversion. And you may be right about the J, too. I’ve found, however, that footloose and fancy-free personalities, those who seem to succeed despite what appears to be a lack of drive (think of Lawrence pre-Arabia), are guided by a patient perception rather than results-oriented “judging.” Thinking-perceivers are able to see all available options and thus they strategize extremely well. This is just a single facet of the character’s personality, but it’s something that’s reminded me of acquaintances who are decidedly perceivers. Lawrence has a vision, to be sure, but his execution of the vision is very creative and…”open,” for lack of a better word. I’d be curious to hear a case for Lawrence as “J”.

  3. McNeely on said:

    I’m surprised. I just watched this and didn’t get the heavy colonialist tones your talking about. I do see some of that, but when you compare it to something like “The Last Samurai”, I think it seems more balanced.

  4. Sure. But compared to “The Last Samurai”, everything is pretty balanced. That film owes a big debt to Lean/Lawrence, but it totally dropped the ball by failing to come close to the ideas and the style of its predecessor. This is why I hesitate to come down hard on Lean: his form is immaculate, and even his ultra-Western prejudices are honest. The former puts the latter in a haze.

  5. F. olson on said:

    Ha! I’ve found this site three years after my first post, by accident. Re. Lawrence as J.: He was extremely judgmental about himself. Not his abilities as much as his resilience. He constantly pushed against what he saw as his own weaknesses, trying to either strengthen himself or bring himself down. I seem to remember a quote,I think from “Letters”, in which he says he will make his body do his will or he’ll break it. He was not judgmental about others in the usual sense but did have a tendency to a sort of intellectual snottiness at times. Or just an arrested adolescent snottiness. Cf. when Janet Hallsmith’s children told him he was their godfather and he replied that he had several hundred godchildren, actually.

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