Wednesday, July 23, 2008

For You, There Is Only The Desert

Those of you who knew me a few years ago may remember my habit of flinching whenever I thought someone was going to touch me. According to Robert Graves, its a habit I shared with T.E. Lawrence. That, surely, was enough reason for me to go and see Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen at Philharmonic Hall. Oh, and he was an archaeologist, so that sealed it.

Prior to the film was a short introduction by Dr. Jack Shaheen, who noted that the film may in fact be the most positive portrayal Arabs have had in western cinema. Perhaps the biggest change the film makes from history is the depiction of the Arab occupation of Damascus in 1918: it shows Arab government failing after two days due to infighting and the refusal of the British to allow their technical experts with regards to power and medicine. In point of fact the Arab government lasted two years until 1920, when it fell because it was forcibly removed by the French. Shaheen would give it a C- as history, but an A+ as entertainment.

What was most interesting to me, not having seen the film in years, and having read Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the meantime, was the character portrait the film provides of a remarkably complex individual. Peter O'Toole's performance manages to capture the strange mixture of arrogant egoism and fragile insecurity that appears to have driven the historical Lawrence's personality - the personality which wrote an autobiographical account of colonial adventurism inspired by the Odyssey, Medieval Romances and modernist prose, and then finished it with the words "and then at once I knew how much I was sorry".

The omissions the film makes regarding Lawrence's personality are also interesting - you don't need to read much of Seven Pillars of Wisdom to realise that the historical Lawrence was much more racist that the film would have you believe. You also don't have to read much to realise that he was a complete sado-masochist, something which an early 1960s film can only hint at.

Regardless of what it does with history and character portraits, though, Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps the most subtle and intelligent of epics. As such, it's a fitting study of a very modern protagonist, and one which has become strangely relevant again.