What’s really interesting is to consider whether the film, on balance, is imperialist or anti-imperialist. Certainly, to the extent that it captures this dynamic of under-the-table imperialism and double-dealing, Lawrence of Arabia is bitingly critical of the British’s sneaky approach to Middle Eastern pseudo-colonialism. On the other hand, it’s significant that the film hews to the format of the great white hero attempting to save the oppressed darker people—and that the most prominent of the oppressed darker people are also played by white people in oppression drag. As you suggest, it all comes back to the star system, to the fact that charismatic blue-eyed heroes sell well, as do big-name white stars, even if they’re covered in tan paint. The darker heroic figures—including the ones actually played by white actors—are forced to inhabit secondary roles, as sidekicks and foils and martyrs and victims, but never as heroes in their own right.
JB: Never as heroes in their own right, sure. One of the most fascinating elements along these lines is the evaporation of Sherif Ali. He gets the famous grand entrance on his camel in which only his own moral code keeps him from killing Lawrence for drinking out of his well (“You are welcome.”). Then he gets another cool entrance when he shows up in Prince Feisal’s tent. The film is telling us twice that this is Sherif Ali’s desert. He is everywhere. No one moves without his knowledge. And even though it’s Lawrence who suggests that they should cross the Sun’s Anvil against Sherif Ali’s cries of insanity, Sherif Ali is the one who successfully guides the way. All of this happens early, and yet over the second half of the film Sherif Ali is a Jiminy Cricket figure on Lawrence’s shoulder, chirping in the ear of a man who will no longer listen. On the other hand, Guinness’ Prince Feisal has to be the wisest and noblest character in the film. He’s overburdened and a bit bewildered, but he sees the bigger picture even when Lawrence doesn’t. He might not always be able to anticipate how he will be manipulated, but he knows it’s coming. So while Lawrence is the mastermind and the white savior, he is also the savage. Prince Feisal is the one with character. (Plus he frequently travels without an entourage, which is cool.)
As to whether the film is imperialist or anti-imperialist, that’s a good question. If this movie had been made today, people would suggest that it was a metaphor for America’s presence in Iraq—Lawrence offering a noble independence (and not without government motive) that the people don’t necessarily object to but don’t embrace. Chaos ensues. I think I come across feeling that it’s anti-imperialist more than anything. Lawrence puts the movement in motion, but it is portrayed that Prince Feisal was the figure who could have united the Arabs, and that the British deliberately thwarted that. I think the film treats the Arabs as victims. In the process, does it demean them? Yes. In part because victims are often demeaned. But it’s more than that. Lawrence warns Sherif Ali at the beginning of the film that the Arabs will always be a “silly people” if they don’t unite. The film does show that Lawrence is in no position to criticize others for being “barbarous and cruel,” but by the end does it refute the notion that the Arabs are “silly”? Not entirely.
EH: You make a good point about Ali. One of the things bothering me about the second half of the film, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on until you pinpointed it, is how the dynamic between Ali and Lawrence changes rather abruptly without much development. Just when do they go from combative rivals to more of a great man/sidekick relationship?
As for the “silly” Arabs, individual Arabs like Prince Feisal and Sherif Ali get more multilayered characterizations, but the overall impression of the Arab people presented by the film is of a bickering, petty, primitive people, mired in pointless conflicts and refusing to engage with the seriousness of their current situation. (One wonders how that would play out today too, mapped onto Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the context of the Iraq war.) The stakes are high—independence and the ability to lead themselves free of external interference—but they’d rather fight among themselves over pointless divisions, as they do when Lawrence’s dream of an Arab government falls apart. They’re depicted as incapable of getting anything done; they need the British to run the hospitals and the power stations, even though they know that bringing in the British means the end of true independence.
In the end, the film’s conflicted view of ethnic/racial tension can be summed up, whatever its good intentions, as a wholly white perspective on a non-white culture. Just as Lawrence is an outsider trying to impose his own desires on a foreign people, the filmmakers here are outsiders as well, just as inescapably British and white as Lawrence himself. Lawrence at least seems to realize what a weird place he’s in. At one point he even verbalizes his desire for darker skin, his wish to escape his whiteness and be a Bedouin, and his knowledge that this is impossible. He’s basically trapped by his skin color into being a bit of an imperialist, a bit of an exploiter, rather than the genuine desert hero he so desperately wants to be. But do the filmmakers ever have a similar moment? Is there a moment in the film when Lean acknowledges his place outside this milieu, the limitations of his attempts to represent Arab culture?
JB: I’m not sure there’s a moment in which Lean so explicitly defines his outsider’s approach, but at the same time I don’t think he ever suggests otherwise. This film isn’t just about Lawrence, it’s often experienced through him. That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful. Again, we could go back to those initial shots of Lawrence entering this desert paradise with schoolboy glee as if he’s practicing ecotourism before it became chic. I think the film acknowledges that it, like Lawrence, is walking into another world, and it uses Lawrence’s experiences to demonstrate how little we understand that world. Though the Arabs never break out of that “silly people” identity, Lawrence is proven foolish, too. He assumes that he understands the Arab world, but he doesn’t. At least, not enough. Additionally, the film underlines its outsider status by never truly penetrating the Arab universe. As if taking the nomadic practices of the Bedouin to the extreme, Arabs are frequently emerging from and disappearing into the desert as if it’s Ray Kinsella’s cornfield in Field of Dreams. It’s as if Lean is admitting: I don’t know where they come from or where they go, I just know that they are out there. One could argue whether that’s the best approach to take, but I don’t think Lean’s filmmaking suggests he understands the Arab world any better than Lawrence does. Unless I’ve missed something.
EH: I guess I was looking for some sign of self-awareness about the film’s racial/ethnic muddle, a moment where Lean admits, yes, he’s got actors in brownface all over the place, and yes, he’s portraying the Middle East from a colonialist perspective even if he’s trying to critique colonialism at the same time. But that’s probably too much to ask, especially from a big, expensive epic made in the ’60s. Instead, there was only one moment where I felt I was really getting a glimpse of this foreign culture, of its strangeness and remoteness from both the colonial Britain of Lawrence and the post-colonial Britain of Lean. As the departing Bedouin army is led into the desert towards Aqaba by Lawrence and Ali, on the cliffs overlooking the men, black-clad women dot the landscape, wailing and howling. Despite all the local color scattered throughout the film, this was the scene where I think Lean fully communicated this sense of a foreign culture, of something that he finds beautiful and mysterious but can’t explain or understand. Lean cuts from a shot of the women watching, their high calls so haunting and strange, then to the columns of the men, chanting themselves, the low sound of their song blending in with the wails of the women to create a complex soundscape.
Which brings me to one of the perhaps overlooked elements of this film: its exquisite sound design. It’s easy to praise the grandeur of Lean’s images, and the epic sweep of his narrative, but as I’ve said a few times during this conversation, it’s the subtle touches that I admire most in Lawrence of Arabia. The film’s soundtrack is carefully layered and orchestrated, blending together naturalistic sound, diegetic music, and the bombastic Maurice Jarre score into a totality that really rewards careful listening. After the Bedouin take Aqaba, Lawrence sits on his horse, silhouetted against the water, and we hear the grand Jarre strings, the cries of the soldiers as they ransack the nearby town, the camels’ plaintive growls, the crashing of the surf behind Lawrence as the sun sets in the background. The soundtrack is complex, never allowing the score to overwhelm the natural sounds of Lawrence’s milieu.
I also love that scene when Lawrence first meets with Prince Feisal in the latter’s tent, their hushed talk wafting above the rhythmic creak of the tent poles as they sway back and forth. The gentle wooden clanks are a subtle counterpoint to the conversation between the two principles, just as the pendulum motion of the poles draws the eye towards the background within the frame, balancing out the foreground action. It’s Lean’s way of grounding this conversation in normality: history is being made, but rather than presenting it as capital-H History, a textbook account, he underlines the prosaic reality around these two historical figures, emphasizing their surroundings. The mundane winds up on equal footing with the profound, and the film’s soundtrack communicates undercurrents of meaning.