Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Lawrence of Arabia": A Reappraisal

When you move through the years and acquire knowledge of things you liked and the wisdom to dislike them when they show their true colors, it is time to put some distance between you and the objects of that youthful admiration.

For me, at least, this is true of that great 1962 epic, "Lawrence of Arabia." I first saw it in my senior year of high school, in 1963. It knocked me flat, psychologically speaking. I had a free pass to the movie theater in which it was showing; I must have seen it a dozen times. Today, in retrospect, I cannot say anything against the direction, cinematography, cast, Robert Bolt's screenplay, and grand scale theme of the picture. They all met the criteria of what a movie should meet when a director intends it to be a defining epic. I did not care much for director David Lean's later pictures. Yet, "Lawrence of Arabia" in no small way influenced my desire to become a novelist.

The occasion of actor Peter O'Toole's death on December 14th apparently prompted Israeli writer and TV commentator Reuven Berko to pen a column "The Final Death of Lawrence of Arabia." O'Toole made a spectacular screen debut playing T.E. Lawrence. It won several Oscars, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and was even nominated for a Saturn Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, and Horror Films. In his article, Berko does what I had wanted to do for years, but had other writing commitments to meet: call director David Lean's bluff.

Berko begins appropriately enough:

Peter O'Toole, who was marvelous in "Lawrence of Arabia," died recently. Many commentators and critics feel that Lawrence's story and the movie about him influenced the actions of many European statesmen, politicians, and members of Western foreign ministries and security services. However, there is considerable argument as to whether and what, as a matter of historical fact, T. E. Lawrence contributed to the British war effort by collaborating with the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. Not all historians agree to the truth of the glowing reports of his personality, moral stature and personal behavior.

Ever since "Lawrence" debuted in theaters so long ago, it has become political and cultural policy not to speak ill of either T.E. Lawrence or the Arabs. David Lean's stock of knowledge about the Middle East and Islam is, at this point, unknown, and is hardly the issue. However, it could be said that he pioneered and popularized the politically correct way of viewing and portraying Islam and Lawrence himself. Berko writes:

Nevertheless, the enigmatic figure of Lawrence, an intelligence officer, became a role model for Western diplomats and statesmen, and he is revered as a master of mediating with the leaders of the Arab world. He seemed secretive and manipulative, with the rare ability and knowledge to exploit Arab ideology to achieve victory and foster the interests of the West, and to build inter-cultural cooperation and coexistence in a way that was both noble and romantic.

The Arabs with whom Lawrence collaborated were romanticized and made to appear exotic and other-worldly. The murder, grudges, blood feuds, treachery, deception, destruction, violence, theft, robbery and looting, all deeply ingrained in the psyches of the Arab tribes, were wrapped in romanticism and existentialist concepts explained and justified as necessary, forced upon the Bedouins by their daily struggle to subsist in the hard conditions imposed on them by the desert.

That was the foundation for utterly false and baseless concepts such as "Arab honor" and "his word is his bond," from which the image of the noble, almost feral, desert Bedouin Arab was constructed.

Over time, ever since first seeing "Lawrence," I grew to distrust any epic based on the life of an actual historic person. After all, to make a story interesting, the writer must put words into such a person's mouth he never spoke, and have him take actions he never took. Few are the movies in which the historic person is accurately depicted in word and deed, and they are, as a rule, as dull as dishwater. The more I learned about Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East over the years, the more I questioned the value of "Lawrence," not as an esthetic or literary value, but as a vessel of truth.

Many years ago I owned a facsimile of Lawrence's opus, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an autobiographical account of his role in the "Great Arab Revolt." As an adventure story purportedly based on fact, it has few parallels. But even as I read it then, questions occurred to me about the overall veracity of the tale. There are virtually no critical statements in the book about the Arabs or Islam. Berko notes:

Few people have bothered to read the Muqaddimah, or Introduction, written by Arab historian Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, in which he describes the Bedouins as destructive, lacking any sense of morality or values, and working only to destroy culture and world order. Even fewer have read Fouad Ajami's 1998 book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey, with its painful criticism of the pitiful Arab, whose inherent culture left him no shred of sincerity, creativity or courage. Worse, even fewer members of Arab society itself have dared to honestly criticize its faults for fear of reprisals.

What is the nature of that fear? The knowledge of the fact that Islam is a vindictive ideology, murderously jealous of its myths and fabrications and falsity.

Peter O'Toole was a great actor, but the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" was nothing more than a Hollywood fantasy which, like the imaginary story of Lawrence, swept away many romantics and for decades had a negative impact on the decisions made by influential Western officials and statesmen dealing with policy in the Middle East. The problem is that today as well, Western leaders and policy-makers view and discuss the problems of the Middle East through the prism of Lawrence of Arabia, romantic, distorted and nostalgic as it is, seeing only the unilateral Arab position of every conflict, and adopting paradigms, symbols and historical deceptions as the gospel truth.

Islam has a reputation it cannot live down, which is that it is responsible for an enormous portion of human misery in history. From its very beginnings in the 7th century up through the Crusades, covering the raids of Moslem raiders for slaves on Europe as far north as Iceland, its built-in denigration and persecution of Jews, up to our own sorry times, Islam, and the Arabs, have a rap sheet engrossed with little else but blood, destruction, and death. However, as Berko writes:

Lies told repeatedly, as the past has shown, become historical truths. Actually, Hollywood's world of dreams and fantasy did not penetrate the wandering sand dunes of the evil and unjust acts perpetrated by the Arabs and Bedouins throughout the years of the jahiliyya (the era of ignorance before Islam) which left their indelible imprint of murder and theft. Those crimes accompanied the Arabs and Muslims from the rise of Islam and accompany them to this day. All the evil storms of history visited upon humanity did not expose to the people of Europe (who today host well-established enclaves of radical Islam in their midst) even the surface of the slaughter and injustice carried out by Muslims in the name of Islam, "the religion of peace," against Jews and Christians.

About "Lawrence of Arabia" itself, I have a number of criticisms.

Inaccuracies abound in the film. For example, the still which illustrates Berko's IPT article is taken from the scene when Lawrence is in one of his "emotional" states, pulled in one direction to lead his army on to Damascus and triumph and bypass a retreating Turkish column, and in another to attack the column, partly in vengeance for the gruesomely slaughtered Arab village of Tafas the Turks have left behind, and partly for his rape by the Turks in Daraa. The column is massacred, but there is no scene depicting an attached German army unit that successfully fought off the attacking tribesmen.

Also, in that scene is briefly shown a Saudi warrior or prince with the green Saudi banner. However, the Saudis, who at the time were just another tribe vying for prominence, were not allies of Lawrence, who was fighting for the rival Hashemites and Hussein, the Sharif and Emir of Mecca. So, that warrior just didn't belong there. The Saudis later conquered all of the Arabian peninsula without Lawrence's help (but with plenty of British help; by then, Lawrence, ever flighty, had retired and gone into hiding in the Army and the RAF as a mechanic under the names of Shaw and Ross), dispossessing Hussein of his titles. He retired to Amman, in what is now Jordan.

Another gross inaccuracy was the attack on Aqaba. A daring charge is depicted in the movie, but in fact the Turks had agreed to a surrender of the town and Lawrence's Arab army simply walked in. There are photographs of the "charge." I could go on with more inaccuracies and inconsistencies, but I think I've made my point.

I must agree with Berko; the movie does romanticize the Arabs, and inflates Lawrence's role in the Arabs' fight for "independence." But this romanticization of Arabs and Islam is nothing new; writers and artists have been doing that for nigh on two centuries. See Ibn Warraq's excellent book, Sir Walter Scott: The Crusades and Other Fantasies, for example (discussed in my column, "The Fraudulent Frankenstein of Islam" on Rule of Reason and other blog sites). Painting the Islamic Arabs in rosy colors doesn't do justice to them; they remain "greedy, barbarous, and cruel," in no small part because of the nature of Islam itself.

Another thing wrong with the picture is that it creates the false impression that the Arabs were all one big happy but occasionally dysfunctional family, exploited by Turks and British alike, ready to unite against the British colonialists but often descending into petty squabbling and bickering, some of it comical, some of it leading to bloodshed. In fact, the various Bedouin tribes at the time were constantly at each other's throats, raiding caravans and villages in interminable turf wars. Some of this is depicted in the film. One of the few honest lines of dialogue in the picture was spoken by Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi:  "Arab? What tribe is that?"

Historically, tribal contentions, claims, and warfare can be exemplified by the rivalry between Hussein bin Ali, putative Sharif and Emir of Mecca, of the Hashemites, and the tribal Sauds, headed by Wahhabist Ibn Saud (Abdulaziz). Doctrinal differences in Islam contributed to their contest for power over not only the Arabian Peninsula, but "Arab" lands as far away as present day Yemen. The Sauds wanted to rule everything "Arab," but so did Hussein. T.E. Lawrence was sent by the British to advise the Hashemites; later, however, the British sided with the Sauds. In this reversal, British policy was aided by another one of those "desert-loving English," Hillary St. John Bridger Philby, an intelligence officer who originally sided with Hussein, but also persuaded the British to put their support behind the Sauds. Philby and Lawrence differed on which band of avaricious cutthroats deserved British support. Lawrence "went native" only as far as his dress and his sympathies. Philby converted to Islam. His son, Kim Philby, became a Soviet double agent.

David Lean's movie was partly inspired by playwright Terence Rattigan's stage play, "Ross," which in various productions has starred Alec Guinness, John Mills, Ian McKellen, and Simon Ward in the title role. Being a collector of Rattigan's works, I still have a copy of the Hamish Hamilton edition of the play with Guinness on the front cover that is featured in the linked Wikipedia article. Many of the key incidents that occur in the film were taken or adapted from Rattigan's play. Robert Bolt, the screenwriter, performed a superb job of "blowing up" the play to help produce an hours-long, sun-soaked cinematic epic. The most valuable lesson I have profited from in the screenplay was the importance of dialogue.  

Today, we really haven't much to thank T.E. Lawrence for, unless it was his qualified and debatable contribution to the rise of Arab nationalism and the ossification and then growth of Islam as an ideological nemesis.


Joe said...

Very interesting and educational Ed. I've always enjoyed the movie and the most accurate takeaway I have from it is when TEL calls the Arabs "a little people" for their unwillingness to think beyond tribal pettiness. THis certainly echoes my own experience with people in the region.


Slade Calhoun said...

Thank you for this piece, Mr. Cline; it clears away much of the fog I encounter whenever I try to make sense of anything associated with Lawrence, including Rattigan's play. Islam makes communism look humanistic and rational by comparison--a useful dodge for the lefties who, contrary to any sane appraisal of a malignancy, seem to like having it around.

Edward Cline said...

Slade: Doubtless you've seen my postscript to this column.

Miro aj said...

One of the most retarded very ill informed bias articles I've ever read