One of the cinema’s grandest spectacles, Lawrence of Arabia is at turns exhilarating, devastating, and puzzling as it ponders the mystery of a man who was a mystery to himself.
Based on the autobiography of eccentric, flamboyant
But attention should also be given to the screenplay, adapted by first-time screenwriter Robert Bolt, who later wrote A Man for All Seasons and The Mission. A case can be made for viewing Bolt’s Lawrence as a counterpoint to the Thomas More of his A Man for All Seasons. On the one hand, Lawrence seems to have, as Bolt wrote of More in the prologue to Man for All Seasons, "an adamantine sense of his own self." On the other hand, More has something that Lawrence finally lacks — a place to stand, an unshakeable foundation on which his sense of self is founded. When the flood waters come, More’s house stands fast, while Lawrence is left adrift and lost.
The film is fundamentally concerned with the question: Who is Lawrence? The question is first raised in the opening scenes, as reporters question those who knew him are asked about him at his funeral. Was he an extraordinary warrior? A shameless self-promoter? Something else? Some combination of the above?
A second, unstated question, implicit in the first, is: Why ask who Lawrence is? Who is Lawrence to be the subject of such an inquiry? Why make a study of this particular man’s identity? Certainly Lawrence accomplished remarkable things in Arabia. But there are plenty of men whose achievements bear more attention than their personalities — and vice versa.
With Lawrence, though, the film suggests that there is an intractable link between who Lawrence is, or whom he or others think he is, and what he accomplishes. It also works the other way: What he does and doesn’t accomplish, and still more what happens to him, have a devastating impact on whom he perceives himself to be.
When we first meet Lawrence, though only a minor functionary in a British outpost in Cairo, he seems insouciantly persuaded of his own potential for greatness, and delights in demonstrating the strength of his will by snuffing a burning match with his fingers. Then, offered an opportunity to distinguish himself, he unhesitatingly seizes it — and succeeds beyond all reasonable expectations.
So unshakeable is his self-confidence is he that he grandly pits himself against, if not God, at least the pious religious acceptance or fatalism of the Muslim Bedouin. Setting out against all odds to avert an event that a Muslim companion (Omar Sharif) declares "is written," he punctuates his achievement by emphatically declaring, "Nothing is written." He even goes so far as to proclaim of his own audacious plans, "That is written — in here" (tapping his head). Indeed, for a time it seems, as even Sharif is forced to admit, "Truly, for some men, nothing is written, unless they write it."
Such language is of course disquieting not only for Muslims; Christians will inevitably think of St. James’s warnings concerning presumptuous declarations about what we will do tomorrow. Though we seldom feel the need to explicitly add a disclaimer such as "if God wills," we still find it jarring to hear someone seemingly repudiate even an implicit disclaimer of this sort.
Then, though, comes a nasty shock that brings back those implacable words "It was written," and this time Lawrence has no reply. Even so, subsequent triumphs enable him to recover from this incident, and at the height of his messianic complex he believes himself invisible and untouchable, even playing at walking on water.
(Spoiler warning.) And then comes the blow from which Lawrence doesn’t recover: Ironically, this event could almost have been the ultimate confirmation of his mystique, for though he is captured, interrogated, and abused, his identity goes undetected and he is soon released. If that’s not invisibility, what is? The first time I saw the film, I half expected him to get up and move on as if nothing had happened, just as he did earlier with the match and the bullet.
But no: Somehow his self-illusions have finally been shattered. In a way, it seems almost a letdown, for lesser men have suffered worse things and not broken. Yet only now does he fully appreciate that he is mere flesh and blood, and he begins grasping toward something that apparently he has previously scorned and now realizes may slip away from him entirely: common humanity. The story doesn’t end there, but it’s a decisive turning point.
In the end, what most stands out about Lawrence’s character may be something like caprice. He seems at first to have a personal, passionate interest in the fate of Arabia for its own sake — but this interest doesn’t just get mixed up in his messianism, it seems entirely subverted by it, as if Arabia is merely the stage for Lawrence’s self-revelation. The moment Lawrence suspects that he’s not a figure of mythic grandeur after all, he loses all will to try to contribute to the Arab cause, even on a mortal level, which would not be the case if he cared about Arabia for its own sake.
In the end, his dalliance with messianism ends and he goes back to Great Britain with a promotion, to write and drive motorcycles. At one point he says he loves the desert because "it’s clean"; later he prays never to see it again, but is told "For you there is only the desert."
Who is Lawrence, in the end? Can one not know oneself, and still be anyone? God help us all.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.