The Burden of the Empire
From its spectacular Super Panavision widescreen cinematography, to Maurice Jarre’s gorgeous soundtrack and compelling performances by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia is a stunning “classic.” Originally released in 1962, the film was honored with a variety of awards, including seven Oscars, five Golden Globes, and three British Academy Awards. It is also rich in subtext, from the intricacies of imperialistic politics to racial difference and homosexuality.
It is noteworthy that nearly 40 years after its original release, Lawrence of Arabia presents a narrative that deeply resonates with current world events. The Middle East, so much beloved by T.E. Lawrence, remains a brutal battleground well after its independence from the Turkish and British Empires; for example, the “democratization” of Iraq took place after the neo-colonial military intervention of the U.S. and the U.K. The message and criticisms regarding colonialist policies and racial anxieties presented in Lawrence of Arabia remain timely.
Loosely based on T.E. Lawrence’s own autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the film tracks his experiences as an officer stationed in the Middle East during World War I. Educated at Oxford, and possessing some knowledge of Arab culture, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) was quickly appointed as military advisor to Prince Feisal. In this capacity (so the story goes), he played a pivotal role in the Arab war for independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
In his day, Lawrence was so renowned that he was buried in the London Cathedral, usually reserved for queens, kings, and other prominent members of the royal family. Much of his celebrity, however, was a consequence of U.S. and British media images of him as a gallant warrior against imperialism (the Ottoman Turkish Empire was an ally of the German and Austrian Empires during WWI). As we are reminded by Lean’s film, Lawrence’s exploits in the sand dunes were used to influence public opinion in the hopes of coercing a hesitant U.S. to join Great Britain in the War.
In this vein, Lawrence of Arabia celebrates the victory of the oppressed, locating the British on the “right” side and plainly demonizing the Others. (The only major Turkish character is an officer [Jose Ferrer] who captures, sexually abuses, and tortures Lawrence.) But complexities abound, in part stemming from the movie’s source. As much as he loved Great Britain, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence opposed and felt ashamed of British imperialism. Just so, Lawrence of Arabia reveals British self-serving policies, as when Lawrence requests arms for the Arabs to fight the Turks. A diplomat (Claude Rains) refuses, saying, “Give them artillery, sir, and you’ve made them independent.”
Less insightfully, the film renders racial differences between the British and the Arabs stereotypically. The British are played mostly by blondes, and appear as well-dressed “soldiers and gentlemen.” On the other hand, the dark-skinned Arabs are dirty, violent, and primitive. Lawrence, however, makes a telling transition: at first conventionally British, he slowly morphs into an “Arab.” This change takes place not only in the way he looks, as his skin turns darker from the sun and he dresses in local clothing, but also in his sense of morality.
The change is most obvious in his relationship with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). At first, Lawrence is shocked by his brutality: “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.” Later, Lawrence confesses to having enjoyed killing two innocent men, and after he’s been tortured, he orders the massacre of an entire Turkish regiment. Even if Lawrence’s brutality could be justified as righteous revenge, the fact that the regiment is mostly composed of injured soldiers in retreat makes Lawrence more aggressive and vicious than Sherif Ali.
As Lawrence changes from white to “Arab,” the film also hints at his homosexual tendencies. This is done, albeit indirectly and ambiguously, by relying on the popular representation of the male homosexual practitioner as a feminized, seemingly androgynous character. After Lawrence rescues a member of Sherif Ali’s posse, who is lost in the desert, he is given Arab robes as a sign of gratitude. According to Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the British uniform was completely inadequate for the desert and he genuinely welcomed the Arab robes. In the film, though, after he dons his Arab drag Lawrence wanders into the desert, and when he thinks he is alone, starts dancing and modeling his new garments, a bizarre performance featuring decidedly “feminine” gestures.
At the same time, Lawrence of Arabia constructs a homosocial world, with Lawrence as the feminized object of male gazing and homosexual desire mediated by the rhetoric of friendship. Unknown to Lawrence, Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) has been watching him intensely as he was modeling the Arab clothes. Sherif Ali and his men constantly look at Lawrence with admiration and friendship, and at times, with desire as well. All these seemingly hyper-masculine men who stare at an asexual Lawrence become as sexually ambiguous as Lawrence.
These moments are not wholly condemnatory, of either performer or spectator. Lawrence’s potential homosexuality (as well as that of the Arabs) demonstrates his (their) freedom from the cumbersome moral and social repressions imposed by a “civilized” imperial culture. Lawrence of Arabia paradoxically depicts the Turkish and British Empires as similarly repressed oppressors.
In this regard, Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the many complexities found in the relations between colonized and colonizer. As history has shown, these intricacies usually remain in effect, for all intents and purposes, even after the conquered becomes independent. Unfortunately, these dilemmas have no easy solution and continue to affect our supposedly postcolonial world.