Lawrence of Arabia, and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Lawrence of Arabia won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1962 (the first time the award had that precise title, which it retains to this day), and picked up another six: Best Director (David Lean), Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, and Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson for Best Adapted Screenplay, beaten in two of those three cases by To Kill A Mockingbird.

The other Best Picture nominees were The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty and To Kill a Mockingbird, of which I have only seen the last. On the two IMDB ratings, Lqwrence of Arabia is second on one of the two IMDB rankings of 1961 films, and fourth on the other, To Kill A Mockingbird ahead of it in both cases and Harakiri and Lolita ahead of it on one. I have seen both To Kill A Mockingbird and Lolita, and also Dr. No, and I think possibly Five Weeks in a Balloon. In the end I think To Kill A Mockingbird is a better film, but perhaps the Academy voters preferred the story of a white saviour to an account of racism in the Deep South. That year’s Hugo Award went again to The Twilight Zone. Here’a a trailer for Lawrence of Arabia:

You will surely be aware that the film is the story of the Arab Revolt; how towards the end of the first world war, T.E. Lawrence persuaded the feuding Arab tribes to unite and smite the Turks, leading to the creation of independent Arab states in the Middle East. As usual, I’m going to start with the actors who are returning from previous Oscar-winning films. Here’s a nice scene with Jack Hawkins (Allenby), Claude Rains (Dryden) and Alec Guinness (Faisal), all of whom we have seen before. According to legend, people in the street mistook Guinness for the real King Faisal while filming on location. This seems improbable, as the real Faisal had been dead for almost thirty years, but the likeness is impressive.

Jack Hawkins was in both Bridge on the River Kwai five years ago and Ben-Hur three years ago. Here he has shaved the front of his head, and dyed the rest of his hair, to look a bit more like the real Allenby.

Claude Rains, of course, was in Casablanca almost twenty years ago:

And Alec Guinness was also in Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he won an Oscar of his own.

OK, the big thing to notice about this film is the almost complete gender fail. There is not a single woman among the credited cast, which is apparently unique among Oscar-winning films and unique for any film of this length. This is way worse than the book, which at least features a few women in the background as well as Gertrude Bell off-stage and precisely one named woman on-stage. Literally the only visible women in the film appear less than ten minutes from the end, European nurses in the Turkish hospital of Damascus. (There may be women in some of the Arab crowd scenes earlier, but completely invisible if so, and I’m not quite sure about the black attendants in the conference scene immediately after the hospital scene.)

Peter O’Toole and his character are both the best thing about the film and provided the point of greatest dissonance for me. I really found the amount of make-up slathered onto his face a bit of a distraction.

We haven’t seen this much make-up on a leading man since the very first film in this sequence, Wings, thirty-five years ago:

Though I have my doubts also about Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, aged 33 and playing a character at least ten years older:

The film is basically a character study of how Lawrence transforms himself from out-of-place British army officer to Arab commander, and it is tremendously well done, also showing that he is already a damaged person who is perhaps bringing that damage to others. O’Toole isfantastic in it, and the scene where he admires his own reflection in his dagger is particularly effective.

At the same time, it’s not exactly critical of the white saviour narrative. And technology is portrayed as a brutal interruption of the noble savages’ way of life, starting with the German plane buzzing the Arab encampment, and culminating with a couple of attacks on the alien trains sullying the desert. (This is a huge contrast with the book, a lot of which is about blowing up trains.) Actual details of geography and wider strategy are skipped over.

It’s interesting that even if Guinness is regrettably browned-up as Faisal, a number of the other Arab characters are actually played by Arabs or at least by non-white actors, most notably Omar Sharif (who was Egyptian) as Sherif Ali.

The flip side of the absence of women is that this is probably the gayest Oscar-winning film so far. There’s a very clear bromance between Lawrence and Sherif Ali.

And the friendship between Lawrence’s attendants Daud and Farraj is obviously close, if not as obvious as in the book (incidentally the actors were Brazilian and Maltese):

Well, the second best thing about the film is the cinematography. The desert scenes are truly gripping, and the film as a whole must have been a major inspiration for Frank Herbert’s Dune, the first part of which was published in December 1963. There are also some very clear resonances with a later Alec Guinness film, Star Wars. The sounds made by the camels are particularly memorable and have surely inspired desert creatures in many a subsequent film.

The absolute best thing about the film is the music of Maurice Jarre (father, of course, of Jean-Michel). Really, he manages to make the desert scenes memorable and support the drama of the other scenes, and turns the whole film into an epic experience. Give it a listen.

I’m struggling with where to place Lawrence of Arabia on my list. It looks and sounds fantastic. But it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it doesn’t just marginalise women, it erases them completely; and the White Saviour theme, and general approach to race, are impossible to ignore. So I’m putting it exactly half-way down my list, in 18th place out of 35, between Gigi and Marty. You can get it here.

Next up is Tom Jones, based on a classic novel which I read some years ago.

I went back and re-read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

This people was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice. Sometimes inconsistents seemed to possess them at once in joint sway; but they never compromised: they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity. With cool head and tranquil judgement, imperturbably unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.

I first read it in 2008. I wrote then:

This is the story of how Lawrence helped the Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917-1918. Its greatest stength is its vivid description of the landscapes of Arabia, Syria and Palestine; I’ve never been to the desert, and apart from one long weekend in Jerusalem I don’t know that part of the world at all, so I found this tremendously compelling. I was left a bit more ambivalent about the human side of the story: on the one hand, Lawrence is aiding a subject nation to throw off their oppressor; on the other, his heroism is undermined – according to his own account, it should be said – by the brutality of the campaign, by his awareness that his British masters will certainly break their word to their Arab allies, and by the casual racism he himself displays toward them.

It’s a very manly book, for values of “manly” that overlap with “gay”. In the very first chapter, we have Arab lads “quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace”. It is a constant theme, and manly love merges intriguingly with Lawrence’s affection for the landscape. There is I think precisely one woman character of note, an old lady who Lawrence rescues from a train wreck (he blew up the train). Apart from her, there are several other memorable female personalities, but they are all camels.

The book falls rather neatly into two parts, the first half being the desert campaign starting from Mecca going up the coast to eventually capture Akaba (=Aqaba), the second half covering operations more closely linked to Allenby and culminating in the taking of Damascus and consolidation of a new Arab regime. I found it very odd that although Lawrence says he was present at the capture of Jerusalem, he reports almost nothing about this key event apart from an argument between the French diplomat Picot (of Sykes-Picot fame – Sykes too makes an appearance) and the British. Of course, he was not impressed by Jerusalem:

…a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present.

My grandfather, who was there about the same time for similar reasons, had a similar reactionmore impressed.

For all its faults (some mentioned above, but I’ll add another: it is too long) I found the book also tremendously enlightening in understanding the roots of today’s politics in the region. Lawrence himself is very aware of the contradiction between his responsibility to his country and his moral obligation to his Arab friends and allies, and his personal dilemma can be read also as a comment on the wider international situation. The ruling family of Mecca, who Lawrence helps put in charge of Syria, now rule Jordan (having also had a go at Iraq in the interim). The boundaries of states were mostly drawn at the convenience of the Great Powers, possibly even more arbitrarily than in Africa; it’s not surprising that they are perceived as having shallow roots.

Anyway, a bit of a slog in places (rather like the campaign it describes), but I’m glad I read it in the end.

Compared with the film, we get tremendous detail of geography and strategy, and also a lot more modern technology (he seems to spend most of the book blowing up trains). I was a little unfair about the lack of women in the book, especially in contrast with their absence from the film – there are actually quite a few others apart from Ayesha, daughter of Jellal el Lei, of Medina, the old lady on the train, though none of them is named, and the two other women who are identified by name are either elsewhere (Gertrude Bell, in Iraq) or dead (Tarfa, who “died the year of samh, in the Snainirat, of a puff-adder”). A soldier suffering from an eye inflammation is described as looking “feminine and tearful; a little, said Lloyd, like an abducted nun”. Yuck.

I was intrigued to see if Lawrence and my grandfather had ever been in the same place at the same time. My grandfather was the C.O. of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, part of the 10th (Irish) Division which in turn was part of Chetwode‘s XX Corps which was part of Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary ForceHareira) during the Battle of Gaza and related campaigns in early November; at that time Lawrence was at the far east of the line, blowing up a train. The 6th Dublins participated in the capture of Jerusalem, where Lawrence says he missed the military action but was there for Allenby’s ceremonial entrance into the city on 9 December. Lawrence then mentions the Ottoman counter-offensive in late December, which my grandfather referred to as his final battle (“Our last stunt, when we counter attacked during Turks attempt to recapture Jerusalem, was I think our best effort”). So they probably never spoke to each other, but must have passed each other in the street or in the corridors of headquarters; my grandfather was promoted to lieutenant-colonel just before arriving in the Middle East in September 1917, and Lawrence reached that rank a few months later, in January 1918.

Anyway, it’s a long book, but you can get it here.


Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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