'Lawrence' and Mideast Nationalism

By Rob Patterson

As interesting matters have unfolded in the Middle East of late — the election in Lebanon that favored the pro-Western March 14 Coalition and the grassroots protests in Iran over possibly (and as I read probably) rigged election results there — I’ve also been in the region in my entertainment. It all started with reading the book The Golden Warrior: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

My fascination with T.E. Lawrence began in 1962 with David Lean’s movie Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw at its local premiere in my hometown. The epic film as well as tale so captivated me that for Halloween the following year, my mother made me a Lawrence outfit, complete with robes and keffiyeh headpiece. Years later, unaware that the film had been cut, chopped and all but mutilated from soon after it debuted, I was watching it in its original VHS version. In an early scene where Lawrence is being led through the desert by his guide, I was disconcerted by a long shot of the camel riding travelers crossing the screen from right to left, as I was sure that it had been from left to right.

Later reading the book Lawrence of Arabia, a 30th-anniversary pictorial history of its making and late 1980s restoration, I learned that in the later print of the movie from which the video version was taken, the negative had in fact been reversed in that scene. The impact of the movie was that strong on me, imprinted in my consciousness. I also believe that one reason that impelled me to spend the last four months of 1973 on an Israeli kibbutz on a college study group was the allure of that region planted in my soul by Lawrence of Arabia.

But reading The Golden Warrior unnerved me as I discovered that the events depicted in the film were not the same as what actually happened. Peter O’Toole’s gripping character (which launched him to stardom) was adapted from the historical character. That begs the thorny issue of history as entertainment. And the Lawrence movie and story offers an ideal case study of that conundrum.

The Lawrence biography led me back to the book about the movie and its restoration, which I saw on a big screen in 1990, and was again wowed by what director Lean had created. To my thinking, Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest epic film ever made, and the sort of film we may never see again (but I hope, maybe, we could, and without a filmmaker using computer-generated imagery).

The 70mm Panavision movie is a work of timeless and vivid beauty, every shot framed almost perfectly. Even at the movie’s length of 216 minutes, its script and every line a dialogue is a model of economy. And the story in the movie, even if it conflates and even creates events, is a gripping tale for the ages. Lawrence of Arabia is a cinematic monument, and delectably wonderful entertainment.

And as I went from the actual history of the Lawrence bio to the history of the movie (and the controversy over its historical inaccuracy) back to the movie again, my discomfort at learning how much the film had altered the historical record was largely abated. And in reading the bio, I also learned that Lawrence himself was something of a fabulist who exaggerated his story and the events he was a part of in his own books.

In the special features of the DVD release of the restored movie, there’s a conversation with Steven Spielberg, who was also wowed by the film in his youth (we both bought the soundtrack album and were captivated as well by the music Maurice Jarre composed for Lawrence). He calls the movie a “miracle,” and I can’t agree more.

Spielberg notes “its historical and personal inaccuracies,” and voices his objections to films that would alter important events and figures. “But there are certain movies like that that I think allow you to take artistic and interpretive license.” I would go even further after my recent travel through the story of T.E. Lawrence and that of the film as well as seeing the movie again to say that Lawrence of Arabia is a triumph of representative. It “gets” the essence of history and I believe the man as well.

And if you want to understand the Arab world — critical at this juncture in world events — there is no better starting place than Lawrence of Arabia. The Arab independence movement Lawrence help foster, even as a representative of a colonial power (that did much to create the problems we see today), is in my view a direct antecedent of what we have recently witnessed in the region. As dire as the world can sometimes seem, especially in the conflict between America and the Arab world, I’d like to hope that the Lebanon elections and the Iranian protests are a positive omen for a better world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2009

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