DW Mault takes a philosophical trip through David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, restored for its 50th anniversary…
Cinema is a question with no answer. A rhetorical question then? Maybe. An argument with itself, narrative and super structure or character, place and emotional honesty? Reaction, reflection or action and ignorance: opposing sides constantly doing battle, a fight between telling and not showing or showing not telling. A fight between the purity of the close up or the artificial idea of a voice over that walks us down the garden path and knocks on the door for us…
Auda abu Tayi: When Lawrence finds what he’s looking for, he will go home. When you find what you are looking for, you will go home.
Colonel Brighton: I will not.
Auda abu Tayi: Then you are a fool. Be thankful that when God gave you a face, he gave you a fool’s face.
The most important of all questions that one asks must be that of self. Who are we? Who am I? For Jacques Lacan, we are “who we are” only in relation to other people. Our aims and desires are shaped by the desires of others. Our knowledge of the world comes to us by way of other people. Lacan’s model of consciousness is based on the principle that the self is never self-aware, that what it experiences as “itself” is a misrecognition.
Prince Feisal: Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.
T.E. Lawrence: Nothing is written.
Sherif Ali: You will not be at Aqaba, English! Go back, blasphemer… but you will not be at Aqaba!
T.E. Lawrence: I shall be at Aqaba. That, IS written.
[pointing to forehead]
T.E. Lawrence: In here.
Like an echo heard throughout the ages, David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia is much more than the sum of its parts, made in a time when Hollywood wasn’t a synonym for mediocrity. A film that is as prescient now as when it was made in 1962. We are now able to wonder at this gem of a bygone age because it’s being rereleased at the cinema in a beautiful 4K restoration. It now looks better than it ever has, better in fact than when it first premiered all those years ago.
Tafas: [talking of Britain] Is that a desert country?
T.E. Lawrence: No: a fat country. Fat people.
Tafas: You are not fat?
T.E. Lawrence: No. I’m different.
Lawrence is a film that is difficult. Difficult to explain because explanation is to do it a disservice. Surely everyone has knowledge of it? It fills me with envy the idea that somewhere, someone everyday will come to this afresh. It’s a film so full to the brim of moments, and of course moments and character are what cinema is, at least should be, all about. At once a personal character study that is duly epic. Epic in the sense that it hasn’t been, and cannot be, matched again. To imagine Lawrence being made today by someone like Steven Spielberg (heaven forbid) is to see how far ‘the movies’ has fallen from its true path. A path that has been consumed by focus group svengalis who have forced an empty concept of super structure on a wild beast.
Cinema should be allowed to run free. Lawrence is that film. A film that gets better everytime I see it, full of detail and at once about adventure, the search for something that cannot be grasped as well as peering into a man’s constant search for himself. Again, Lacan indicated that the self, born vulnerable, forms identity through identifying with “images” on a doomed quest for a unified, stable sense of self. Which IS Lawrence Of Arabia.
Prince Feisal: Well, General, I will leave you. Major Lawrence doubtless has reports to make upon my people and their weakness, and the need to keep them weak in the British interest… and the French interest too, of course. We must not forget the French now…
General Allenby: [indignantly] I’ve told you, sir, no such treaty exists.
Prince Feisal: Yes, General, you have lied most bravely, but not convincingly. I know this treaty does exist.
T.E. Lawrence: Treaty, sir?
Prince Feisal: He does it better than you, General. But then, of course, he is almost an Arab.
Lawrence’s search for meaning, a place and contentment; the more I watch LoA the more I think of Hamlet. This is a character study of a human being that is uninterested in facile explanation of meaning. David Lean and Robert Bolt show us an inquisitive man at this best and worst; heroic and demonic.
Prince Feisal: There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.
The idea of geo-political deals and the pragmatism that those concepts entails run through LoA. The purity of idealism and how it’s always defeated. The difference between warriors and wolves; lions and lambs. What becomes of the warrior after the fight? They go and encloak themselves in insolation and wait for death, welcome it as the peaceful necessity of deeds done.
Auda abu Tayi: [to Lawrence] I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies’ tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I am a river to my people!
So if you’re searching for an ideal of the possibility of self, go and see this film. Hell go and and see it anyway. As needs must, it’s a film unlike any other but when finished you will be as puzzled as T E Lawrence himself was about who he was and wanted to be… Questions, no answers.
Sherif Ali: What is your name?
T.E. Lawrence: My name is for my friends. None of my friends is a murderer!