Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

T.E. Lawrence, St. Paul's, London

The American Conservative tour of London continues with a requisite stop at St. Paul's Cathedral to pay our respects to T.E. Lawrence, known to most of the world as Lawrence of Arabia.  But you don't need to visit London or the desert or Arabia to get a sense of T.E. Lawrence -- all you really need is a DVD player or, better still, movie theatre!

50th Anniversary, 1962 - 2012
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is simply one of the most extraordinary films ever made on the topic of human armed conflict.  This film was released in 1962 and was awarded seven Oscar awards including best Director and Best Picture.

The picture begins with Lawrence's senseless and premature death on a motorbike and then moves to his burial at St. Paul's in London (see above).  Here a visitor to London will find a bust (he was buried in Moreton Cemetery, Dorset) along with those of other champions of human liberty -- The Duke of Wellington and Lord Horatio Nelson (see earlier post, Horatio Nelson -- Champion of Liberty, to name but two.

T.E. Lawrence was an Oxford-educated archaeologist (an assistant at the British Museum's excavation of Carchemish on the Euphrates) who was living in the Middle East at the outbreak of the First World War.  He joined British intelligence and served in the Arab division. The Allies were frustrated by the appalling slaughter that was taking place in the trenches of the Western front.  Millions of lives were lost for the sake of mere yards of territory.  The Allies longed to come up with some kind a flanking strategy that could lead to victory.

The decrepit Ottoman Empire ("the sick man of Europe") had allied itself with the Central Powers (Austria and Germany).  Winston Churchill, who was the head of the Admiralty at the start of the Great War, won support for the Dardanelles campaign which attempted to knock the Turks out of the war.  The French and British landings at Gallipoli proved to be a disaster and Churchill was forced to resign.

The allies next strategic idea was to help stir up an Arab revolt against the Turks.  They needed someone who was fluent in Arabic, who could cultivate and influence the Arabs in aid of Allied strategic objectives.  They needed someone who could 'go native'.  They found their man...T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence was a not merely a soldier, a master of espionage and a statesman -- he was a gifted poet.  He starts his famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom ( thus...

"Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances,  For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind.  At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.  We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man's creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all out strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare." 

The Classic poster
The film Lawrence of Arabia simply could not be made by today's filmmakers.  Steven Spielberg has estimated that his favorite film of all time would cost in the region of $285 million to produce today while the original production cost was $12 million.  This film is too well-written, it has no digital special effects, the pacing is sluggish by contemporary standards and it has no love interest (nor a single spoken female line).  It does feature a brilliantly costumed cast of thousands which included soldiers from the Royal Jordanian and Royal Moroccan armies.   The clean but brutal desert itself is a major character in the film along with Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness.

Lawrence of Arabia was, in a sense, the First World War prequel to David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (see earlier post Bridge on the River Kwai,  It portrays the sacrifice of youth and innocence in the ravenous maw of institutionalized industrial warfare.   It chronicles the outward ascent of Lawrence leading the Arabs to glorious victory over the Turks and his inner descent into near-madness and barbarism.  The boyish scholarly Lawrence of the film's opening scenes will be corrupted by war and sadistic torture into becoming a bloody-minded warrior who screams out, "No Prisoners!" in his final attack.  The tale of Lawrence mirrors one of the Great War's other warrior/writers -- Manfred Von Richthofen (see earlier post The Red Baron,  In his book Der Rote Kampflieger, Von Richthofen starts out taking his dog up for joy rides in his plane and ends as a cold-blooded killer of allied pilots before meeting his own untimely end.

The film's plot is a coming of age tale set in the Arabian desert.  The film is simply a meditation on the transforming power of warfare.  The purity of desert sand is mixed with the blood of hot youth.  Consider the eloquence and profound truth of Prince Feisal's (Alec Guinness) speech uttered to a retreating Lawrence from the film's conclusion: 

"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.             
What I owe you is beyond evaluation."

Commander Kelly says, "With so many films out there today that are a pure waste of time, why not take the time to see or revisit Lawrence of Arabia -- a timeless classic film made by a master craftsman with a stellar cast which continues to be reverberate to this day."

Dedicated to a great "American Invader" Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, 1934 - 2012

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1 comment:

P Scott Cummins said...

Well said, the final scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, with Colonel Lawrence's frustrating attempt to "win the peace" and preempt a return to endless cycles of conflict - could be ripped right out of today's headlines from the Mideast. It fits in well with one of Lawrence's favorite sayings:

The most useful piece of learning
is to unlearn what is untrue.
- Antisthenes

I would like to make a pilgrimage sometime to Epping Forest and Lawrence's now-forgotten "hut":