Lawrence of Arabia: Part two – The Destruction of Myth
Hello dear readers and thank you for coming back to my Lawrence of Arabia blog posts. Last November, as part of the British Empire Blogathon, I wrote Part One of this two-part series. If you did not get a chance to read it and feel the need to catch-up, I have conveniently provided the link for you right here:
But if you’re a true child of the internet and want the TL;DR version (aka the ‘too long, didn’t read’ version), here is what I had to say: I offered the notion that Lawrence of Arabia is a story told in two parts. The first part, everything before the intermission, is the creation of the great myth of the Western Imperial Liberator. This month I am finishing up my thoughts on the film, delving deeper into how part two of the film takes that notion and flips it on its head – effectively deconstructing that notion and showing the dangers and foils of those false realities. And with that, I begin.
When the intermission ends and part two of David Lean’s sweeping epic begins, we are introduced to the character of American newspaper man, Jackson Bentley who is on the search for the great Lawrence of Arabia. But before he is able to find Lawrence, Bentley speaks with one of the Lawrence’s best allies, Prince Faisal, the political leader of the Arab Revolt. Bentley states very plainly what he is looking for: a romantic figure with the charisma and narrative to urge the neutral United States into the Great World War. In other words he is searching for a myth he can publish – that proper western gentlemen who, despite his wartime duties, remains civil and elegant even in “savage territory.” Prince Faisal states with the cynical tongue of a trained politician that. if what want is a romantic hero to lead your country into war, “then Lawrence is your man.”
When Bentley finally catches up with Lawrence and his Arabian Army in the middle of the desert, he learns first hands what makes this man his ‘romantic figure.’ Despite the Arabian Army’s guerilla warfare tactics, such as blowing up Turkish trains then inundating them with gunfire from strategically well-hidden sand dunes, Lawrence does not kill without reason or without mercy. Although he is surrounded by “savagery and looting,” Lawrence remains the ever-calm, ever-dignified Western leader. Even after a wounded Turkish solider shoots Lawrence in the shoulder from behind, Lawrence will not kill the man. In a daring move, Lawrence does not even hide from the gunfire, standing directly in the shooter’s line of fire, almost daring the scared solider to try and kill him. You see, at this point in the film, Lawrence IS myth, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of his men. What is a mere bullet to the man who united the Arab world against the Turkish Empire? It was not even Lawrence that killed the wounded solider, but Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) who put an end to the Turkish man’s life – allowing his Arabian allies to do the dirty work for him.
The rest of the scene plays out like a pure visualization of the white man burden and the cult of personality. Bentley asks Lawrence for a picture, telling him to just walk. And so he does, he just walks. And as he walks, the army of Arabs shout in unison “Lawrence, Lawrence, Lawrence, Lawrence,” and he jumps atop the derailed trains, standing there above his men, arms stretched like their own personal messiah. His flowing white robes make Lawrence seem like a god basking in the heat of the desert sun.
At this point in the film, the myth is made and no one believes it more than Lawrence. When asked if he was hurt from the bullet wound he says, “Not hurt at all. Didn’t you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet.” Despite his smile and jesting tone, it’s clear that he believes the hyperbolic language used to describe his exploits. If anything, his next conversation with Bentley demonstrates just how much he believes in his own myth. When asked by Bentley: What are the Arabs fighting for, Lawrence answers: “Freedom…They’re going to get it Mr. Bentley. I’m going to give it to them.” This line, above all else, demonstrates his belief in his own mythologized self and, thus, the myth of western imperialism. However, Lean also allows the audience a glimpse into the reality of the situation, remarkably different from Lawrence’s grasp on the situation. Lawrence’s army was not, in fact, his army. They joined the guerilla campaign to loot the Turkish trains for all the riches their camels could carry and promptly return to their homes. Because of this, the northern Arab Army was losing numbers so rapidly that even the men who “stayed on for Lawrence” begin to doubt Lawrence’s ability and even his loyalty to the Arab cause. Despite, or perhaps even because of such opposition, Lawrence still believed that, with his will power and his intellect alone, he would be able to give an entire people their freedom. He believes in his myth so much that he bets his Arab men that he can enter an Arab town and “blend in with the natives” despite his white skins blonde hair and blue eyes. And this is where the myth falls apart.
In order to show those in the Arab Army who question his sincerity to the Free Arabia cause, Lawrence goes as a scout into the Darra with Ali. Despite Ali’s multiple warnings to lay low and not draw attention to himself, Lawrence flamboyantly walks around the city as if to make his presence know. He swaggers on the streets as if he owns them, parading himself around like he hadn’t a care in the world. That is, until the great Lawrence of Arabia and Ali are taken in to the Turkish authorities. Due to his inability to humble himself, even in the face of a Turkish Captain, he is not only stripped, poked, and prodded but eventually severely flogged and perhaps even raped, as the film quietly implies. And when the Turks are done with him, they throw him out into the dirty streets as if he is no more than mere trash. And with this, the myth is broken – both in the eyes of the viewer and even Lawrence himself. After this, he is an entirely changed man. Now humbled and brought back to humanity, he attempts to leave the desert – his great mythological conquest – behind for a simple ordinary life as a simple ordinary man.
Of course, Lawrence’s conquest wasn’t simply his own, despite what he wished to believe, but served a major purpose for British Empire as well. So, rather then allowing Lawrence to remain in England, General Allenby (Lawrence’s commander) manipulates the emotionally distraught solider back into the fight by feeding Lawrence’s ego – saying it is his destiny to reach greatness. Lean uses the entirety of this conversation to play on this notion of myth building, but clearly the man meant to represent this has been broken both mentality and emotionally under the weight of that said myth. He cannot become that great symbol of Western Imperialism because it just that – a myth. However untruthful as this myth may be, Lawrence is hooked and heads back to the desert.
However, once in the desert we still see the further cracks in Lawrence’s mythological armor. The men he recruits are not the Arabian freedom fighters he once led, but rather ruthless mercenaries motivated by their pocketbooks. And when they happen upon a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just slaughtered an Arabian village, Lawrence’s final dissent out of the mythical world of dignified Western Imperialism and into the realities of war begins. A lone solider from the destroyed village demands, “No prisoners” then charges the Turks and is killed. Rather go around the army and head to their intended goal of Damascus, as Ali suggests, Lawrence sees red. The once mild-manner but genius Major of the British Empire yells “No Prisoners” and heads the charge. The result is nothing short of a massacre with Lawrence’s men easily defeating the already wounded Turkish army. But more disturbing was Lawrence’s sheer glee in the act, clearly relishing in the senseless killing of his perceived enemy. The moral high ground he once gracefully occupied is nothing but a relic of the past – just like the myth of Western Imperialism. The brutality used by Lawrence when all of his false notions of “giving Arabs their freedom” is the brutality that was there since the start. Each bullet Lawrence lodges into the wounded body of an already defeated enemy is another bullet in the myth of the dignified, glorious Lawrence of Arabia and Western Imperialism as a whole.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub