A Very Modern Hero

From left: Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole, and Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia Pictures/via IMDb)
Why Lawrence of Arabia holds up so well.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE H e did all right for himself, the fellow who got 15th billing in Lawrence of Arabia. After the names Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, I. S. Johar, Gamil Ratib, Zia Mohyeddin, Michael Ray, John Dimech, Donald Wolfit and Omar Sharif, we are presented with this title: “Introducing Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence.” Introducing? That’s the first clue that the film will prefer legend to fact. O’Toole wasn’t a neophyte, having had a major part in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England in 1960.

But what a beautiful legend it is. Allowances for changing tastes and styles must be made for many a film from decades past; that is not the case with Lawrence (streaming on the TCM app through tonight), which remains as invigorating as the night it was first shown, for the Queen, in 1962. Unlike, say, the Charlton Heston epics from the same period, it avoids camp and melodrama. There’s nothing to make a well-adjusted 21st-century viewer cringe (though a woke reading of the film would label it problematic for being a “white savior” narrative, missing the point as the woke tend to do). Lawrence is strikingly in tune with our times, with its early affinity for a self-constructed notion of identity, its admirable stance against racism, its white anxiety, its hints of sexual nonconformism, even its cosplay.

Beloved as the film may be to conservatives for its military derring-do, it is steeped in left-wing idealism. Both of its screenwriters had been Communists: Robert Bolt (whose credits include the play and film A Man for All Seasons) was, as Lawrence of Arabia went into pre-production, in jail in London for participating in one of those anti-NATO nuclear protests that thrilled ex- and not-so-ex-Communists. Michael Wilson, who wrote the earliest drafts of the script, never saw his name appear in the movie’s credits because he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 about having joined the Communist Party at Berkeley in the 1930s. He was awarded the co-writing credit, and a posthumous Oscar nomination, in 1995, 17 years after his death. Lawrence of Arabia could be remade as a tale of the Russian Revolution — and was, in 1981: Warren Beatty’s Reds.

A strikingly modern trait of Lawrence is that it explores Thomas Edward Lawrence’s flaws and complicating aspects to a degree that was unusual for a Hollywood hero story then and for many years thereafter; even two decades later, its Columbia Pictures successor Gandhi was a strict hagiography that allowed no blemishes in its portrait (and suffers for it). Lawrence repeatedly casts its title character as vainglorious, dancing around admiring himself when he gets his splendid white sherif’s robes and twice comparing himself to Moses before he grants himself a promotion: “My friends, who will walk on water with me?” He’s not even 30 yet. Typical of a modern liberal intellectual, he is an internationalist, disdainful of his own country: He dubs England “fat country. Fat people,” anticipating how generations of Western students would talk as they roamed the earth looking for exotic folks to save, often begging to be accepted as one of them. “I’m different,” he says, and so he is. He’s a man with “a funny sense of fun,” we are told. That’s a genteel Edwardian reference to what we will observe is Lawrence’s sadomasochism.

Lawrence thinks it would be fun to lead the Arabs to seize the port of Aqaba from the Turks not for honor, adventure, or country, as in previous war epics, but as an act of allyship for people of color. His motive is to win the Arabs their independence in a pan-Arab postcolonial state. Underlying that is a semi-erotic fixation on pain, both receiving it and administering it. Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) has his number: He’s seen misery tourists before. “No Arab loves the desert,” Faisal reminds him. Arabs aren’t stupid. They like water and green things, not deprivation. Lawrence is irritated by comfort. When he is captured and whipped by the Turks, he barely reacts, though immediately after that scene he expresses dismay about his skin color, which strikes him as hopelessly limiting rather than, like other British soldiers of the Empire, a mark of superiority.

Though the film may appear at first to be a rousing illustration of the great-man theory of history that tends to stir the conservative imagination, that interpretation doesn’t prevail. Lawrence may be a nobody who almost single-handedly turns the tides against the Ottoman Empire in the Mideast, but from Lawrence’s perspective, he’s a total failure, unable to get the Arabs even to unite, much less to eject the European empires. He simply assists the Arabs in trading their Turkish masters for the French and the British. He’s a victim of his own willful naïveté in believing the promises of the (fictitious) diplomat Dryden (Claude Rains) that the British have no designs on postwar Arabia. Late in the film, Dryden admits he simply lied to Lawrence but notes that Lawrence half-lied to the Arabs by promising them the independence he must have sensed he could not deliver. Dryden’s cynical realpolitik is a devastating rebuke to Lawrence’s idealism: “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

Even Lawrence’s most inspiring, lapidary credo — “Nothing is written!”— disintegrates in the harsh light of events. That proud affirmation of man’s power to make his own history refers to Lawrence’s spectacularly heroic and successful effort to save the life of an Arab, Gasim (I. S. Johar), who has gotten lost in the desert. Yet Gasim’s fate is to be executed by Lawrence himself, for committing murder in a tribal feud. An observer notes dryly of Gasim’s harsh death, “It was written, then.”

Lawrence of Arabia is a tale of how an amazingly doughty and resourceful British soldier becomes a hero for the ages while accomplishing, by his lights, nothing. His fate is not even to earn a tragic death, much less a glorious one; instead of being killed in battle like Admiral Nelson or General Gordon of Khartoum, he loses his life embarrassingly, in a motorcycle accident. That detail, too, is consonant with a modern view of heroes, as well as a modernist one. Lawrence’s ending evokes the words of another Thomas, T. S. Eliot, born the same year he was, in 1888. Lawrence expires not with a bang but a whimper.

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