It would be difficult to find a list of “British Classics” or “Best British Films” that did not feature David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the film’s release gives me the occasion to contemplate the role of cinema classics in popular culture. The epically long feature (222 minutes in the version shown currently at London’s BFI!) is based on a memoir by T.E. Lawrence, the heroic British Army officer who in 1916-17 united warring Bedouin tribes against Turkish oppression as part of the British intelligence plan to instigate an Arab insurgency against Ottoman rule.
Wikipedia defines a “classic” as “something that is a perfect example of a particular style, something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality”. I would add to that brief definition: I believe a classic art work is pioneering at the time of its conception and gives rise to a new method, new style or a new way of looking. Even though some unusually popular contemporary works are hailed as instant classics, normally a work aspiring to the title has to be old because time creates the distance necessary to evaluate its qualities. Confronting the classics, we are expected to look at them with the same degree of admiration as the generations before us.
Of a cinematic masterpiece we expect technical novelty, new take on otherwise familiar themes and passionate performances, all of which are different people’s responsibilities
So far, so clear. Yet, the ability to proliferate is another sign of a classic. This is a blessing and a burden in equal measure. It makes it harder for an average viewer to appreciate the film that has been referenced over and over in other media.
The classic status of certain films causes further issues. For example, we expect a masterpiece to display brilliance in equal measure in all its aspects. While this principle works rather well in regard to visual arts (with one artist being responsible for the eventual shape of her piece), it cannot be applied as easily to film. Of a cinematic masterpiece we expect technical novelty, new take on otherwise familiar themes and passionate performances, all of which are different people’s responsibilities.
Yet we often forget that cinema is a common effort, tending to assign film’s excellence or failure exclusively to its director. This way of thinking leads to a patriarchal concept of a (usually) male genius behind all great art. I started to question my own judgement: do I really like a particular film, or do I rather feel I should like it because of all the hype surrounding it? After all, some images from Lawrence of Arabia, like a jump-cut from a burning match to the rising sun, made it into film history books.
Or maybe people overestimate film’s value if they are familiar with the director’s persona? When a friend tried to persuade me to watch Lawrence of Arabia with him, he said spontaneously: “C’mon, it’s going to be fun,” then quickly added: “Well, maybe not fun… but it’s going to be rewarding.” Was it rewarding then?
The film opens with T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole, above) being killed in a motorcycle accident in Dorset in 1935. Then, in a flashback, the film recounts his life in the Middle East during World War I. As a British officer, Lawrence begins a journey to investigate the Arab revolt against the Turks. Throughout his mission he becomes increasingly involved in the uprising, organising a guerilla army and finding real camaraderie with the Arabs. As the unlikely leader, Lawrence comes up with the courageous idea of traversing the desert in order to launch an attack on the town of Aqaba, and eventually prevails over the Turks.
David Lean was clearly drawn to relations of political domination and subordination present in colonial discourse and its binary representational schemes that put a white man in moral opposition to a colonised other. He returns to the subject matter in his later features, such as Passage to India (1984). By the same token, Lawrence of Arabia provides numerous examples of individuals who deeply believe in positive associations engendered by ‘whiteness’ and negative attributes of ‘blackness’.
The Arabs are portrayed as irrational, “bloody savages”. It’s made clear when Lawrence witnesses a murder of his Arab companion who pays the highest price for a seemingly harmless crime – drinking from a well that didn’t belong to his tribe. Lawrence committed the same offence yet comes out of it safe and sound. He’s an Englishman, beyond tribe-related shenanigans and whose actions stand in opposition to the Arabs’ overwhelming passivity. When one person from the group is lost in the desert, the vast majority refuse to go back to save him, relying on a higher instance (Allah) to justify it: “His time has come. It is written.” For Lawrence nothing is fixed as he shapes his own destiny. One of his comrades Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) is so impressed with the bravery the “Englishman” displays that he has to reassess his world view and admit in astonishment: “Clearly for some men nothing is written, unless they write it themselves.”
Sure, Lawrence of Arabia is a piece of good cinematography filled with poetic shots, but it is also a glorification of war, a manly film recycling the archetype of a larger-than-life heroic explorer
The lead character is extremely courageous and not afraid to take risks. “Have you no fear, English?” asks Sherif Ali upon their first meeting. “My fear is my concern”, answers Lawrence kookily. He is a solitary adventurer whose obsession with Arabia seems to be deeply rooted in western culture. “Orient” is a social construct rather than an actual destination or inert fact of nature, a place of exotic landscapes, romance and remarkable experiences.
A symbolic oriental subject embodies the features contradictory to those a white man is expected to have. This is where the reason for Lawrence’s extraordinariness lies. He’s an Englishman, however eccentric, going through a transformation into an Arab, which ultimately leads to his downfall in belief he had failed his mission and duty. The enigmatic ‘dark nature’, incorporated into primitivism the Arabs stand for, eventually takes over, pushing Lawrence off limits. He finds himself deeply embarrassed by the fact he takes pleasure in executing a person; an act “old Lawrence” would certainly despise. From that point onwards, he is infused with a nervous tension.
The Arabian Desert functions as a splendid backdrop for political exploits and tragedies of war. Sure, Lawrence of Arabia is a piece of good cinematography filled with poetic shots, but it is also a glorification of war. It is a manly film recycling the archetype of a larger-than-life heroic explorer. The film has neither female cast nor female characters mentioned by the protagonists [Unsurprisingly, a massive Bechdel Test fail! – AO]. It is purely a man’s world, which, interestingly enough, has been reinterpreted by some scholars pointing to the relationship between Sherif Ali and Lawrence as a potentially homoerotic one.
An interesting insight as it is, this matter calls for another article. What upsets me is that a film with exclusively male cast finds its way to the cinematic canon, while a film with all female cast would be labelled “a women’s film” and therefore treated marginally.
I was afraid to say Lawrence of Arabia is not my type of film; its lofty reputation had its toll on me. After all, is it OK for a film graduate to openly dislike a cinema classic? I can’t see why war and politics immediately make a film more worthy, while feminine overtones degrade it and I am not entirely sure if other people are not just ashamed to admit to disliking it.
When doing my research, I stumbled across a rather interestingly phrased opinion on Rotten Tomatoes: “It’s probably heresy to suggest it’s overlong”, read one of the comments. Well, as we are talking about a slow paced film that is over three hours long, is it really heresy?
Lawrence of Arabia is on extended run at London BFI until 13 December. To win tickets, enter out competition here.
All images courtesy of BFI.
Agata Frymus is a film and media graduate living in Bristol. She’s passionate about gender histories and 19th century painting. A contributor to Polish feminist website www.feminoteka.pl, she tweets as @agatafrymus