S1: Hello and welcome to another episode of Flashback, Slate’s podcast about older and classic movies this time around, it was my choice and I’m feeling the burden of responsibility and questioning the wisdom, the seven pillars of wisdom of my very challenging movie choice for us this time. Although I have to say I absolutely loved watching it again. And I have a lot to say, but we are also going to be biting off maybe more than we can chew. Speaking to me as always from his apartment in Brooklyn is costing Collins of Rolling Stone. And our movie this week, of course, is Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s 1962 mega epic of war in the Moroccan desert and other places they came. Hey, how’s it going? Pretty well. I think you and I are both feeling like how do we even begin to talk about this movie, given that we generally start out these shows trying to place a movie in its film historical context, which in the case of this movie is also placing it in a real life historical context. And it’s just a lot Lawrence of Arabia is a lot of movie. I had never personally seen it before on the small screen. My entire previous experience of it, I think maybe with three viewings over the years, had been, you know, big roadshow style restorations. I think I saw it in the 1989 Steven Spielberg restoration, which maybe we’ll talk about in some missing footage that had been gone for years since its initial release. And then I remember a glorious experience of seeing it in the Ziegfeld Theater. RHP no longer showing movies in New York City, but one of the great old movie houses. And that would have been, I think, in 2012, because that was like an anniversary of the movie with another restoration. Anyway, I generally see this movie when it’s being grandiosely shown to me and the kind of road show style extravaganza that it was initially rolled out in. So this was really my first small screen viewing of it, which was fascinating in its own way, because it allows you to stop and start and go back and study different shots and transitions and look stuff up in between. It was just very different this time. What about you? I assume that you have a history with Lawrence of Arabia and I’m wondering what it is.
S2: Yeah, I mean, I’ve never seen it in a theater. Actually, it is one of the of the movies of this scope that are pretty important and just sort of designed more so than most other movies to really, really, really be seen in a theater. You know, I’ve seen 2001 on 70 millimeter and Saving Private Ryan and other epic kind of films, but not this one, although I mean, even what small screen means across history, like watching it on TV or versus different from watching it in like four care, which is my case this time. So I you know, I’ve seen high quality versions, but I have not seen, you know, the rapturous surround sound. Huge version.
S1: Right. And the wide screen is hard to reproduce on any TV screen, no matter how high quality. Right. I mean, just that particular ratio is not going to look the same. I guess you can put the black bars, but, you know, then you lose the hugeness. Anyway, I feel like this movie is and historically speaking to in 1962 is sort of the end of the moment of that widescreen spectacle, you know, one of the last of those great epics and that epics afterword we’re always trying to capture again, that thing that Lawrence of Arabia got, right?
S2: Yeah. I mean, David, lean in his influence just in terms of the quality of the epic productions. I think about this a lot. Like I think about this and Ben-Hur, the whole category of the biblical epic, you know, Ten Commandments and all these films in relation to the closest thing we have to that today, which is superhero movies, just as like a way of thinking about how our sense of what an epic movie is changes because, you know, like an Avengers movie, two and a half hours of heroism is to me, kind of in the tradition of a movie like this, like the kind of thing that only Hollywood can do, that they can have a kind of scope that these movies really made a part of Hollywood’s backbone. And I you know, I think about that sometimes in terms of not only quality and my feelings about the, you know, various films coming out today of the scope versus this real high point, but also just how Hollywood once it kind of reached the sets of the outback, it really is a distinctive thing that I mean, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, these movies really not only in terms of the directors that they influenced, but also the ways of making movies, the things that we value in movies, what big spectacle entertainment means.
S3: These movies are so essential to that history, to what we call like big screen entertainment, all caps.
S1: Yeah. Even as you were speaking, I was thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has something similar great battle scenes at scale, et cetera, but was, of course, famously one of the first movies to do that digitally and to, you know, use tiling and all those kinds of techniques to create. The kinds of things that David Lynch is doing on the ground with 500 horses and, you know, God knows how many camels.
S4: That’s right.
S1: I mean, to me, the best special effects in this movie was just the fact of knowing that it was all actually being done, you know, and that when I talk about fast forwarding and stopping and pausing over things, a lot of the times it was just literally to do things like count camels, you know, to try to convince yourself that what I was seeing was actually what was being filmed.
S2: But what you’re saying is not arbitrary. I mean, yeah, I completely agree with you that a difference in even just film financing is the number of extras you have to have for a believable, plausible physical reality of a battle scene. And the ways that CGI, which is its own expense, of course, you know, has changed that a bit like the things that you can do with computers. Now, that couldn’t be done then really, I think make me think about what’s happening in these movies. I mean, Peter O’Toole talked about how hot it was and being covered in fleas the whole time. And if you multiply that by the number of people that are involved, it’s like there are a lot of people in this movie covered in fleas and the CGI counterparts of today aren’t.
S1: I want to go down the road of CGI fleas. But since there’s so much to talk about here, I propose that we present this podcast this week in a kind of road show format, the way that the movie would have been when it was rolled out in 62 and have an intermission and that we spend some time, you know, sort of setting up what we know about the principles of this movie, its place in film history, what David Lean and Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif were to, you know, cinema at the time and then have a little break, give everybody a chance to draw some water from the well or whatever, have some lemonade at the Colonial Bar. And then we’ll reconvene to talk about the movie itself, which is already, you know, so much, nearly four hours long. And that way we can sort of talk about it without having to eternally go into sidebars on every production story and every character background. So I guess the number one place we would start with this, if we’re going to be tourist about it, is the director and really, I mean, to some degree co-writer. He’s not the credited writer, but somebody who worked very closely on the script of Lawrence as well, David Lean. And it seems important to place where this occurs in his career because I think he’s so widely associated with this movie and Zhivago, and we require these big epics that came around the time of this movie. And after that, people might not realize what a long and varied career in cinema he had already had by 1962.
S2: Right. I mean, first of all, he belongs to that tradition of directors who started out as editors. That was his career for over a decade before he started directing. And I mean, David Lean is just this sort of towering figure. And generally, I think what we think about his movies, we think in terms of the later big movies like Bridge Over the River Kwai, which is the film that he made before this with Alec Guinness, this movie Doctor Zhivago, which I had to watch, and AP European history class and also with Dolly Parton just said was one of her favorite movies. I just feel that is worth. Oh, that’s awesome. I know actually that movie I remember it being very boring, but if Dolly likes it then but I mean, personally, I’m more attracted, if anything, to some of the early, small British films that he made because of the big epic films that we’re talking about are the bigger international productions that he was involved with.
S3: But for me, it’s a film like Brief Encounter, you know, the Noel Coward collaborations that he sort of started with as a director, that in terms of my own sentimental feelings and feelings about him as a director that are bigger for me, actually, than how I feel about Lawrence and Breg and Brian’s daughter, another of his films that I just saw for the first time, maybe a couple of years ago.
S1: Right. I mean, his first work as a director is with Noel Coward. And it’s exactly 20 years before Lawrence of Arabia in 1942. And he has this brief period of very intensely collaborating with Noel Coward, including on the great brief encounter, which I agree is an incredible romance, just a very unique movie in British film history that I hope we will do on flashback sometime. But even before that, before sound came along, he had been this technician ever since the silent era. You know, he was just someone who was always drawn to films and as a very young man, I think still a teenager. He was basically a gofer at Goman Studios in England and was, you know, running around to clap the clapperboard and fetch things for people who needed it and move from that to editing, edited for Powell and Pressburger for a couple of movies and only went into directing after having really made his reputation as an all around editor and technician. And I think that is an important background, both because you know how much experience he has in movies. I mean, the guy starts in the silent era and, you know, keeps on making movies up through the 80s. And I think that that technical prowess is just all over the place in Lawrence of Arabia. I mean, you see how perfectionistic he was and how important it was to him to have the right collaborators. So he had, you know, the same production designer, the same cinematographer, even the same prop master, I think, for many, many years, if not decades. So. Thing left over almost from the pre sound days, the idea of having your own team of technicians that traveled with you rather than a sort of studio setup where you were assigned your crew. Right. In fact, there’s a great quote from Lynn about this, which lent its title to a little very good documentary about his crew that you can watch on YouTube. That’s called Dedicated Maniacs. And his quote was, Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs. So, I mean, you really see, I think in Lawrence of Arabia, the result of him finding that crew of dedicated maniacs who could make the impossible happen.
S2: Yeah. And I mean, I think that’s worth underlining because one of the important legacies of means work, right. Is this technical astonishment for all the things that are happening in the plot of Lawrence of Arabia without the shots and the music and the costumes and like these are movie movies. And I think part of that is the achievement of what you’re talking about, this trusted series of collaborations that he has, that in itself was sort of influential. Like the directors that say that they were influenced by him are people like Martin Scorsese, who is famous for, you know, working with one editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, for so much of his career, like people who become interested in breaking away a little bit from the Hollywood contract labor ethos by really forming these crucial artistic relationships that make these kinds of movies possible. I guess I can’t call it a legacy of Leon. And he wasn’t the first, but I think it’s an important part of him. I mean, how he wins best picture twice in a row and every technical award ever.
S1: One more thing I would say about this period when Lawrence of Arabia comes out, when he had just moved from these more small scale British domestic dramas he’d been doing or these two Dickens adaptations that he made, you know, in the 40s onto this bigger screen, Technicolor, sweeping, exotic locale kind of movies. Is that I mean, in a way, I see this meta story of Lawrence mapped onto that. You know, there’s something that happened with Bridge on the River Kwai. And he talked about it in interviews, too, where he kind of fell in love with filming on location, you know, and in locations that were as far as possible from what he perceived as the dull gray England he had grown up in. So, you know, Bridge on the River Kwai is this whole war epic that was filmed in, say, Lon Lawrence of Arabia is filmed all over the place. He also made a Katharine Hepburn movie that was shot in Venice. And even much later in his career, he makes passage to India. You know, he continues to be interested in these stories of British colonialism, which, you know, he will get into the degree to which he is questioning British colonialism. But it’s certainly something that he was trying to do, I think in the second half of his career, even though he often fell into the same traps that the character of Lawrence does in the movie. In other words, you know, it’s very hard to separate one’s sort of love for a foreign culture from being a fetishization of that form of culture. And I want to move on to Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif and see what they were to the international cinema community at the time. But you had a few more things to say about Lean’s long time collaborators.
S2: Yeah, well, I mean, first of all, you know, when I say that is a movie movie that sort of defines one idea of Hollywood spectacle. Part of what I also just mean is how memorable the things here that aren’t the actors are and how notable some of the people working on a movie are. I mean, for example, there is and V Coates, who is I mean, still like one of the few big women to be Hollywood editors, and she worked with him on this. But she or later do things like The Elephant Man out of sight, the Jaylo, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, because it’s so the same person, Ed Lawrence of Arabia and out of isn’t that literally the best thing you’ve ever heard? But notable I mean, you could do a whole thing on I mean, what is it like to be an editor working for a director who’s an editor? What is that like? And what does it like to get a handle on material like this, but also not even just the editing, which is essential, by the way, to this movie. Like specific cuts in this movie are famous.
S3: Lawrence, blowing out a match and cutting to the desert, for example, is one of those I feel like I’ve been seeing that moment and clips and reels of the best movie images ever since I was a kid. But also the music by Star is some of the most famous movie music that I think any of us can think of. And this is someone who also worked with me on multiple projects.
S1: Yeah, I think that an coachwork is something we’re going to talk about a lot as we get into the movie itself, because this is a movie in which editing is everything. I mean everything. Right? I mean, there’s that famous cut from the match to the sunrise. But I notice that I mean, there’s almost not any transition between a scene in another scene, much less, you know, a whole long sequence in another sequence in this movie that isn’t remarkable in some way. And the pacing is obviously incredibly important when you’re dealing with a nearly four hour movie. And to me, this movie has a strange miracle where it kind of flows by very smoothly. I mean, it’s one of the longest movies that doesn’t feel long that I can think of. And I throw that entirely onto and be cotes, which I mean, it’s. Especially given the fact that there are literally no speaking women whatsoever in Lawrence of Arabia. I feel like we need to give some props to the woman who made the whole thing flow. The only other collaborator that I would mention is John Bachs, who was the production designer for this movie and throughout Lynn’s career worked with him also on Zhivago and later worked on all kinds of historical epics. That was kind of his thing was, you know, recreating huge period sets for movies like A Man for All Seasons or Nicholson Alexandra, you know, put him in a historical era and he will recreate the look for you. And so stuff for this movie that happened was just insane. Like the moment when they take Acaba, the seaside town, they built their own Acaba on the coast of Spain. And those are all just fronts. They’re like Potemkin village, you know, mosques and all of those little buildings. And it was all for a three minute scene. I mean, it’s just an extraordinary amount of attention to detail for what is a tiny but unforgettable part of the movie.
S3: And I really can’t not mention affaires young cinematographer who is known for his collaborations with Leean. But to your point about the production design, there’s also just the way that the cinematography here, the shots here capture the natural environments, the sand, the textures of the sand, the textures of the wind. And just look at the end of the day, this is a movie that in so many ways hinges on Horizon’s hinges on Peter O’Toole’s eyes and the color of the sky, hitting us in particular shots as one in the same. And, you know, the look of this kind of movie, I mean, when you think about just even cameras in the desert, it’s really just remarkable work. OK, but, you know, we’re seeing all this stuff about the size and scope of the movie. It’s a big movie in every way worldwide, a big deal movie. Here’s a question. Do you like this movie?
S4: I mean, you’re putting me on this because I’m the one who chose that. We talk about it so much.
S1: If I didn’t at the very least want to talk about it, watching again and watching it on a smaller screen, like I said, and sort of able to turn it into more of a research document than the overwhelming sensory experience it is when you’re watching it in the theater. I had more reservations about it than before. And also, obviously, you know, I’m watching it in a different time. Like when I first watched this movie, objecting to Brown Face was not even a thing. Barely. Right. I mean, at least in your sort of mainstream movie viewing world. Yes, I would still say that I like even love this movie, but I would say that I can also completely understand and could be persuaded to an argument that this movie should be semi canceled or at the very least, you know, watched with a lot of red flags around it. I mean, I mentioned before we taped that when I sat down to watch this with my partner, our daughter, who’s 14, came wandering in not knowing anything about the movie or why we were watching it or any context, and essentially just started objecting to what she was seeing on screen, like, why are you watching this white savior narrative and why is that guy in brown face? And I hereby cancel this movie, you know, and she was making her adolescent point and, you know, righteously storming out of the room without giving it a chance to be sure. But I do think that part of what we should be talking about in 2020 when we’re talking about this movie is, you know, if and whether and how to salvage it for viewing generations to come.
S2: Yeah, I mean, first of all, do you remember when she walked in on it, it was somebody whose brown face is bad.
S4: And so I think to me that says Anthony Quinn, you know, I mean, just like that that makeup, there are a lot of strange makeup choices there.
S1: And so it must have been something involving that. But, yeah, I think she basically saw, like, beautiful blonde, blue eyed white guy in a Arab getup and, you know, was offended on those very grounds. And, well, we’ll get into all of that stuff later. But as I was trying to say to her, like, give the movie a chance because it is far from not considering those things, the argument could be made that it considers them in the wrong way or not enough or that the conclusions it draws is wrong. But I feel like this movie is about nothing but the melancholy of colonialism.
S3: Yeah, I mean, I was going to say at the very least, even if you’re not taken away by the movie, I just am not inclined to cancel. It’s not that kind of movie. And it’s also, you know, this movie, it’s not like birth of a nation or something. The KKK didn’t immediately sort of feel empowered by a movie like this, which isn’t to say that imperial powers didn’t feel sort of empowered to have a certain amnesia after this movie. But I think the thing is that Lawrence himself is so complicated. And we’re going to have to get into a little bit just the fact that he died young, the fact that there’s an entire kind of media framework for the kind of fame that he had. There is the quote about, you know, the way that he sort of was someone who backed into the limelight in a way that he did these deeds that loomed so large socio politically that there was no way that he couldn’t be famous. I agree with you that particularly when the second part of the movie starts and the journalist enters. The self critique within this movie is the thing that’s happening. What really stood out to me this time, though, and I think the reason that the smaller earlier David Lean movies speak to me a little bit more is that I think ultimately I’m more interested in, well, maybe it’s Noel Coward. I’m more interested in, like the psychological minutia of those earlier films and taken away by the images here, taken away by so much of this. I mean, I completely agree with you that this movie goes down easy. As you know, nearly hour movies go, but it’s also just so complicated, like cancellation of a never even really enter into my mind with this movie, because David Lean’s own feelings about casting as many actual Arabs as possible, what it means for movie stars to be in a movie when it comes to things like financing, you know, you can’t really ignore all of that stuff. And Omar Sharif is in this movie, the very handsome, extremely talented, multilingual Omar Sharif. And I agree that the movie itself is doing a lot. It’s like a weird movie. It’s like too weird to cancel to me. Like, I wouldn’t want to cancel it. But what stands out to me, I think about its perception that it’s the best of what Hollywood can do. And that is something that I feel kind of complicated about. Right. The desire to divorce it from all the strangeness that is actually within it. That’s actually, you know, part of its subjects, like the things that the movie can’t depict or won’t depict or won’t be about or can’t be about. I feel all of that in the movie, so I can’t just ignore it, you know.
S1: Yeah, in that sense. I mean, a movie that it seems in conversation with in terms of its accessibility right now to audiences, John Ford’s The Searchers. Right. I mean, another round face laden epic involving rescues and deserts and horses and heroism that also lands in a really complicated way. Now, I mean, I would say and maybe it’s just personal taste, I think that this movie is more sophisticated in trying to deal in whatever way it’s 1962 way it could with some of the issues of T.E. Lawrence’s essentially, you know, fantastical relationship with Arabic culture. I would say it maybe survives better than the searchers does. But I’m with you. I’m not a cancela of anything. They’re both important movies that should be watched by people who want to understand film history.
S3: Yeah, and at least John Wayne’s not in this one, so.
S4: Yeah, exactly. I mean, John Wayne makes it so much more problematic right there.
S1: Just from what we know about John Wayne’s life and how much he believed in some of these dangerous myths that that movie was incorporating.
S2: Yeah. And even then, I really love him as an actor. So what am I going to do? You know, but yeah, I agree. I would also just say that this is also why I’m glad you picked this movie, because if there’s anything that I think that Hollywood history is really ripe for, it’s just simply questioning our sacred cows in this way.
S3: I mean, like this movie is hagiography. We should always be questioning hagiography that by no means means that we can’t also have pleasure. And actually, if we do have pleasure, that to me is all the more reason to be curious about all the other things that are going on and what makes that pleasure possible. Is it a favorite movie of mine? No. Is it a favorite of David Beenz movies of mine? It isn’t, but it’s like those monoliths in 2001, A Space Odyssey. It’s just like the alien dropped it here.
S4: So let’s talk about the way to think about Lawrence of Arabia, because whether or not it becomes one of your personal favorites, it is a movie that has its own kind of internal coherency.
S1: You know, if anything, it’s kind of been forged, as you say, and like the fires of history of all these decades of people watching it, talking about it, lionizing it in that way. And so all the more reason, I think, to jump in and take it apart. I mean, I would also question that it’s geography in a way. I think it’s a movie about geography and the perils of geography that ends up being about this very broken, PTSD ravaged man. But maybe was a couple of words that we have to say about the golden young actor playing that ravaged man. And also, as you started to a little bit about Omar Sharif, who, you know, at the time of the movie was a much bigger star internationally.
S2: Well, I’m sure you know, but I’m going to ask anyway, do you know who was the first choice for the role of Lawrence of Arabia?
S1: I mean, I want to say that it was Brando because I know he famously turned the role down, but was he leaves first choice.
S2: He wasn’t the first choice. And that’s actually another actor played the role and was fired after, I believe, two days. And that was Albert Finney. Also, Anthony Perkins was up for this role. Montgomery Clift was up for it. And Peter O’Toole was the last chapter of this long succession of people. And he was cast in part to a screen test that he did for the movie suddenly last summer, a role that he did not get that Montgomery Clift did get and star in and is very good in, but that the producers for this movie didn’t like the screen test, which is interesting to me because like him rubbing people the wrong way. In this role, again, it’s all part of this alien quality that he sort of brings to the movie that rings very true to me, like I can see not understanding why Peter O’Toole is the guy that needs to play this role.
S1: Yeah, I guess some of the cockiness and arrogance of the character almost seems to come with O’Toole himself. Right? I mean, who was I think he was a man who was well-liked by his coworkers. And David Lean loved working with him. But he was also difficult. You know, he was a drunk. He was something of a diva on set. I think he loved the experience of doing Lawrence of Arabia and always talked about it with great fondness for the rest of his life. But, you know, probably brought a lot of attitude to the set with him.
S3: This is at the time a respected, known quantity in the theater world. And I actually think that that is inseparable from how good he is in this movie is totally, for me, part of his charm here.
S1: Yeah, he’s fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company at this point and much better known for having played, for example, a legendary hamlet on stage than he was for the couple of small movies he’d done, one of which I think was noticed. And that was how he ended up getting this role, but certainly was coming from outside of, you know, the world of stardom that Brando or Clift would have been from. And that, to me, strengthens the movie so much more because it is, again, that alien sense of the monolith like you were talking about. You know, I can certainly imagine in 62 going to see a big mainstream movie, you know, when you’ve been watching Brando and Clift on screen for, I don’t know, a dozen years or something and being so thrilled by the entrance of this strange, you know, alien blonde man, which is I think it’s the way the character strikes everyone else in the movie as this other that he can’t be like other screen actors that we’ve already seen.
S2: He is so good at being alien to the people that are surrounding him to like, you know, British Empire’s idea of what a military man in the throes of this kind of war should be, that even now, as someone who I am familiar with, who I have seen a lot on screen, he’s still odd in a way that is just so salient for this movie.
S1: You know, Noel Coward famous line his Bonomo upon seeing Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia.
S3: Right, too. But pretty fair. Yeah.
S1: It’s so good. So so Noel Coward, the famously kind of queer icon who had collaborated with Leanne in the past on several movies said upon seeing Peter O’Toole, I believe it was if he was any prettier, they’d have to call it Lawrence of Arabia, which I think it’s just such a good line. And it really brings out the fact that, you know, you don’t need a lot of postmodern queer scholars to come in and tell you about the subtext of Lawrence of Arabia, because it’s all right there in the text and was actually already there in the text of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that book by Te Lawrence that the movie is largely based on. So maybe in a way, also this otherworldly beauty of Peter O’Toole, who, by the way, got a nose job and got his hair dyed blonde for this movie. It was more of a dark blonde before. So part of what happened for this movie is, you know, he gets his nose bobbed and turns into this pert, beautiful Lawrence of Arabia figure. So I can’t help but think that some of the queer content of this movie, which we will get to, it comes from the casting of O’Toole.
S2: First of all, the real to you, Lawrence was five five and Peter O’Toole is six. To I mention this because so many other people mentioned this when the movie came out as a non-starter. And it’s true that if he’s not tall, there is something like he has to be tall in the movie. To me, I can’t unpack that.
S3: It just as a part of the abjectness that he literally looms over these landscapes and over everyone that he is this tall, thin, blue eyed, beautiful effect, all these qualities that he brings to it. I just I can’t divorce them from the movie. But the real man was five five. So that’s the first upgrade he got. Right. What’s so interesting about this movie to me is the fact that this man has an everyone around him and you call it squareness, you can call it whatever. There is obviously a whole history with the greyness here, but there has to be something about him that strikes his difference, that gets at everything that the other soldiers don’t have. Everything that the men in the Arab world he goes to don’t have this ability to believe in this man who is both maybe an egoist, but also very confident, but not like a warlord with this obvious, overbearing masculinity.
S2: Like that’s not the engine of this movie. The engine of this movie is the energy that Peter O’Toole has, which, of course, leave it to a gay man to just put his finger on it. But it is a little bit this. It’s all of this stuff. Absolutely.
S1: And maybe with that, I mean, if we’re talking about, you know, O’Toole as Lawrence and the differences between O’Toole and Lawrence physically and, you know, O’Toole as a kind of gay icon, in a way, in the movie, I feel like we have to go back and just talk a tiny bit about Lawrence himself and what that figure would have represented to audiences in 1962, because he had already been, you know, something of a mythical figure since. Shortly after the First World War and I should disclaim this by saying that I do not in any way purport to be some sort of expert on, you know, the campaigns led by T.E. Lawrence in 1918. I mean, I really am going off just seeing the movie, researching the movie a bit and then trying to read some of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was his best selling and incredibly long. I think it’s 1100 pages long or something memoir of this campaign and this time in his life. This is a fascinating book to look at. I don’t know that I could make it all the way through, but there are parts of it that exist online and even just opening it almost on any random page will reveal some wild storytelling that makes very clear that the character of Lawrence was not made complicated simply for the movie, that if anything, in fact his complications had to be smooth down a bit for the movie. And here is a bit that I came randomly upon on just perusing seven pillars of wisdom. It’s something that doesn’t appear in any form in the movie, but that seems in a way to have this spirit of the movie, especially that dark second half of the movie when the sadomasochism of the character comes to light. So this is a moment that he is writing in the desert with an Arabic tribe. I don’t know from this clip exactly what part of the story it is, but he is witnessing the punishment of somebody in the group who has misbehaved. A dozen of my men marched with me below the Rochedale Ridge. We came to the Lone Tree Shed Urate LTA micronized through rain under its Thorney branches on which were impaled. Many Tater’s of wayfarers offered clothes. Mohammed said upon you, Mustapha reluctantly. Mustafa let himself down from his saddle and piece by piece took off his clothes till nearly naked. When he lay down, arching himself over the tumbled cairn. The other men dismounted, picked each a thorn and in solemn file, drove them hard and sharp as brass deep into his flesh and left them standing there. Mustafa shivered quietly till he heard Mohammed say, Get up. Using the feminine inflection, he sadly pulled out the thorns. Dressed in remounted, Abdullah knew no reason for the punishment, and the Hourani manner showed that they did not wish me to ask them. I’ll stop it there. But I mean, you can see from that description that there is a side of Lawrence that is interested in these kind of eroticized displays of pain. Just as is the case in the movie. There are practically no women mentioned throughout the whole book. And in general, I think it would be safe to say, without having read all of seven pillars of wisdom, that there is a theme that emerges throughout that has to do with this sort of sadistic and masochistic homo eroticism and maybe with some of these salacious passages that helped to make seven pillars of wisdom into the long time bestseller and kind of fascinating cult book that it became. But the story of Lawrence, as most people in the West knew, it began with this, I believe, 1919 sort of newsreel film that was shot by Lowell Thomas, this journalist who followed Lawrence around in the desert for a while, got some sort of fabulous footage of him blowing up Turkish trains and things that we see him doing in the David Lean movie as well, and took it on a road show and did this sort of silent era thing where he would show slides of T.E. Lawrence and give a lecture about what was happening in this campaign in the desert. And essentially that image of Lawrence, the famous shots that we see of him wearing those same sort of, you know, white robes, really caught the public’s imagination on that tour in 1919. And he started to become this lionized and exorcized figure. So it would have been at this point, you know, decades that he was in the public consciousness as a somewhat mysterious and glamorized link between East and West.
S3: Right. And I mean something that historians have pointed out, because a lot of what we’re talking about right now is just the image production of the idea of the man of T Lawrence as he became this public icon, which is very much on the movie’s mind contributing to that. And I think to your point earlier about how the movie is aware of a lot of this stuff is the fact that he died at forty six and something that historians and critics have said is there’s the fact that he died young and so arbitrarily that only adds fuel to the fire of the grand mysterious nature of this man. In addition to the fact that as your excerpt from the Seven Pillars sort of exemplifies the man himself in a self presentation, he was just slippery. So I just think about this guy who between those books and these photos and this sort of journalistic image of him, he is just instantly mythological. And the journalists you’re talking about, little Thomas, of course, has the corollary in the movie Jackson Batle, I think who’s an older man than the actual journalist was, but also importantly in an earlier draft of this movie, was the narrator of the movie. We associate him more with the second half of the movie, but we do see him early on at Lawrence’s funeral. And the movie is just obviously framing itself as opening with these questions of who is this guy, which are directly drawn from, I think, a public. Understanding of him, of who is this guy beyond these images, who is this guy beyond this myth? And so much of the substance of the movie is opening with that question and then exploring the things that lead up to us, asking that question and filling in some of those details. But also still, I think, leaving him in many ways mysterious and mythological in Grant. It’s an interesting tightrope, but those photos are essential.
S1: Yeah, the opening is not unlike Citizen Kane in that way. Right. And that it begins with the death of a great man and then proceeds to try to reconstruct his image from these different shards of conversation about him gathered at the memorial service. And again, that’s another reason that I would say that this movie is more complicated, much more complicated than a simple hero being hagiography. You could say that it doesn’t ask the right questions about Lawrence or about his attempts to infiltrate this campaign in this culture. But it does ask some questions from the very opening frames of the movie and the fact that we begin with his death and flashback in that way, I think places us in a different place than we would be if we had a typical bildungsroman where we simply started with this starry eyed young man in the desert.
S3: I think it’s also worth just mentioning that, yes, there are a lot of debates about the historical accuracy of this movie. I would just like to call attention back to the character of Omar Sharif, in part because for all the ways that I admire all the actors here, you know, when we talk about what even as a kid, as I was watching felt, if not homoerotic, if we want to not put that label on it, then charged and interesting. And I would love that version of the movie, would love for them to be lovers. But the Omar Sharif character, Sharif Ali and the casting of Omar Sharif, I think is worth dwelling on a little bit, because this is a character who is kind of an amalgam of various people, unlike, you know, Prince Faisal, unlike out of Abu Tyee, unlike General Allenby, unlike General Murray, those are all real people. Even the guy that Lawrence saves in the desert and then kills is based on a real person. The Omar Sharif character is not based on a single real person and also was not originally cast as Omar Sharif. In fact, the actors who were in line to play this character before Sharif were Russian or French. And along came up. It was a little bit of a while before they got to Omar. And I think it’s important that he’s in this movie. It will not get the movie out of the valid political objections people have to it. But I mean that it’s important for me seeing it and it’s important for Sharif. This was his first big international movie.
S2: He was a star in Egypt for sure. Deeply intelligent man, multilingual, had an ambiguity that is very useful.
S3: But I was actually surprised to learn that he was not based on a real person because in some ways he feels so much more real to me than even Lawrence. I think that Peter O’Toole and performance of Lawrence is a in a way that’s appropriate to the movie. He’s almost not human and how loud his virtues are and how loud his failures are. Like he has to match the history of this man. And in a movie that trips into myth and ways that are why I watch movies. Right. But Omar Sharif’s character is very grounded to me, and not only because it’s actually a non-white actor surrounded by people in blackface, it is also because I mean, just what a pairing just thinking about this movie with this theater actor and a star only known in Egypt.
S2: And Veirs is really the central relationship of the movie and the cultural differences and all these things that are invoked by the movie that are important to how we understand. Lawrence comes down to for me, this relationship, this relationship is key. This relationship is the one that for me even puts this movie in conversation with Bridge in the River Kwai, which is asking similar questions about empire and separate moral codes that have to somehow make sense to each other. He really is an essential part of this movie for me, and he is not based on a single real person. It’s a really complicated supporting role.
S1: Yeah, it’s almost hard to call it a supporting role. They’re like colleagues, right? I mean, if you do imagine it as a kind of romance, you know, the two of them are playing opposite each other and kind of complete each other in that way.
S4: As you complete me, Ali, you complete me.
S1: OK, I think maybe it’s time for our intermission that everybody needs to go to the lobby and get themselves some treats. What do you think, Kim? Are you ready to take a break?
S2: I could use a break.
S1: We don’t have Lawrence’s endurance. We need a little break now and then.
S3: No, I’m hiking through the desert to save anyone right now.
S4: I’m hanging out by the well with that calfskin of water. That’s all I’m in the. You’re like when he’s reading a book chilling his feet in the water, that’s you I’m leave you guys behind if you fall off your camel. Absolutely.
S1: So I think maybe on our way out of this break and when we come back and we’ll be talking about the movie proper, our producer Chow is going to treat you to some of what people would have heard in 62 at the road show, which is some of Moreese Jar’s incredible score for Lawrence of Arabia. So do some listening to that and we’ll join you eventually.
S5: All right, welcome back, everyone, I hope you enjoyed your Moreese jailbreak and you got some sort of refreshing snack because we have a lot of movie left in front of us to discuss. And I think for the second half cam, we should pretty much stick to the movie itself and talk about it as critics rather than as film historians. I mean, there’s so much to master with this movie in terms of the actual story of Lawrence and, you know, what is or isn’t true to that story and also the massive history of the, you know, year and a half or something that it took flying all over the world to shoot the different parts of this. We may get into some of that stuff, but we are not trying to master every single element of Lawrence of Arabia. We are simply responding to it now as critics. And I want to start that critical response to it off by just trying to do, to the extent possible, a quick summary of the movie. I don’t know how quick it’s going to be, but I’m going to try to walk through basically what happens in part one and what happens in part two after the intermission so that we have a kind of framework to hang our discussion on. So just to give an overview, as we mentioned, it begins not in the desert, but in Kotsay England, where we see in 1935, many years after the movie takes place, the figure of T e Lawrence getting his motorbike ready for a ride into town. And it’s actually a fun contrast at the beginning of the movie that there’s this grandiose, soaring Grischa music as you basically see a guy getting ready to go do an errand on his bike in real life. I think he was going to send a telegram at that moment that he was hit. But that’s all we see. Peter O’Toole getting on his bike, riding into town. He’s subsequently run up the road and it’s implied dies in the accident. And then we get this scene at St. Paul’s Cathedral. That’s kind of the as we talked about the Citizen Kane framing scene. Right. The moment when the reputation of the dead man is discussed. And it’s discussed in a quite complex way, which we’ll get into later. That starts to stress the moral ambiguity of this character. Not everyone who is attending this memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London thinks that E deserves to be buried in this place of honor for British heroes. And there’s some debate about that on the steps by some figures that we will see later on in the movie. We then flashback to 1916. It’s the height of World War One. And we see the young Lawrence working in the Map Room in Cairo. He has essentially a paper pushing a desk job, which we immediately see that he’s overqualified for and dissatisfied with in his exchange with his fellow Mapmaker’s. His chance to do something more interesting comes when he is called into the Arab bureau and asked to essentially become a sort of spy. They want him to do some intelligence work because he knows Arabic and is familiar with this region. And to try to find this Prince Faisal living in the desert, who is interested in staging some sort of Arab revolt. And the interest of the British in this Arab revolt is that they want to unite the Arabs against the Turks who are allied with the Germans. In other words, they want to instrumentalise the Arab revolt for their own colonialist purposes. So Te Lawrence then takes off across the desert with a Bedouin guide that he’s been assigned. And this is when we get the great scene, which I’m sure we will talk about, of the appearance of Sharif Ali, Omar Sharif character over the horizon as a mirage. Ali is offended that they have drunk from a well of his tribe and proceeds to shoot the guide. And that encounter kicks off the complex relationship between Sharif Ali and Lawrence, who begin as enemies and fearing and not trusting each other, but who are quickly converted to being, if not friends at the very least, allies with an emotionally intense connection. Ali and Lawrence then separate. They’ll meet up again later, and Lawrence travels on alone until he gets to Feisal’s Army. Then there’s a really important scene that we’ll get into with Prince Faisal, played by Alec Guinness. Part of the result of this encounter between Faisal and Lawrence is that they agree to attempt to take the Turkish port of Aqaba, which Lawrence convinces Faisal is not well protected from the landward side, and that even with their ragtag group of fighters, they might be able to take this important strategic point now on this incredibly grueling journey across a part of the desert called the Devil’s Anvil, where the sun is particularly relentless. There is a moment that one of the men, Ghasem, falls off his camel and nobody notices that he’s fallen off until they’re almost all the way across the devil’s anvil. Then, Lawrence, against the advice and the tradition of the group of Arabs he’s riding with, decides that he will go back and save Kassem’s life. And this becomes a turning point that I really hope can we get into talking about, because even though Lawrence breaks tradition by turning around to save this man when he does bring Gassin back alive and safe, Ali is so impressed by what he’s done that he decides to burn all of Lawrence’s clothes while he’s sleeping his English army uniform and instead give him these white robes of an Arab leader, which we have this wonderful scene of vanity in the desert of Lawrence admiring himself in the robe. So this is all part of his, you know, going native, you might say, the moment that Lawrence is shedding his colonialist identity and trying to take on this Arab identity instead, which becomes extremely problematic for him as the. Movie goes on. So as they’re camped out the night before the planned attack on Aqaba, there’s a kind of blood feud situation where one man kills a man from another tribe. There’s starting to be dissension among the ranks. And in order to prevent this blowing up into a bigger fight, it is decided that the culprit, the person who killed someone else, must be executed by a neutral figure. So Lawrence agrees to do it as a supposedly neutral party, but he is horrified to see that the man he must shoot is, in fact Kaseem, the guy that he just rescued from the desert. That’s a big turning point, I think, morally for the character. And I want to talk about that camp, about what that killing of Ghasem does to Lowrance. The next day, we have the scene of the capture of Aqaba, one of the most spectacular moments in the movie, even though it only takes up about three minutes and it is a huge success. Lawrence is hailed as a hero. He then decides to ride back across the desert to give the news of what’s happened to the British generals back in Cairo. And he takes with him. And these guys will become important, these two teenagers who have essentially become his sort of traveling servants and who have gotten very attached to him and been sort of taken under his wing on his way back. Tragically, one of the boys, Daoud, falls into quicksand. And there’s an awful scene where they try to save him and can’t sew with the one remaining boy. Faraj Lawrence arrives in Cairo. There’s this incredible scene of them marching into the officer’s bar, filthy from the desert and ordering two lemonades, you know, shocking all the proper British colonialists in the bar. And part one concludes shortly after that scene with the still filthy and hollow eyed Lawrence sitting in the office of General Allenby, played by Jack Hawkins and trying to describe to him what has happened to him in the desert in somewhat disturbing terms. But all Allenby seems to care about is the Turks have been fought back. Lawrence has the trust of the Arabs and they want to continue to use him for their own military purposes in the desert. That’s when people watching the film in 1962 would get their big intermission with their Ameristar music and their chance to grab popcorn in the lobby. And when we return, we get into what I would call the much, much darker half of Lawrence of Arabia. So a lot of the chickens come home to roost in this part. And things that seemed very romantic or glorious or promising about the desert reveal themselves to have these very dark sides. So as we begin the second half, Lawrence has become something of a celebrity in the area. He is going around committing guerrilla acts of different kinds, blowing up portions of the Turkish railway, being photographed by this American journalist played by Arthur Kennedy. And based on that Lowell Thomas figure that we talked about in the first half, he started to be made into a celebrity of sorts. And we see him both enjoying that and experiencing self-loathing for enjoying it. But here a bunch of incidents of violence start to crop up that resemble that terrible moment when Lawrence had to shoot Ghasem in the first half. One of them is that Farraj, his other teenage helper who’s been traveling with him this whole time. This loyal servant gets injured in one of these railway attacks and has to be dispatched. Laurence has to shoot him in the head before the Turkish soldiers get there in the fear that they would do something far worse to him. So yet another moment when, you know, Lawrence has to confront his own violence, then things start to get really dark for Lawrence. In this scene in the town of Dara, which is being held by the Turks, Lawrence goes in undercover to try to scout out what’s happening and he winds up being captured by this Turkish Bayeh, this chieftain who’s played by Joseph Rare. And in an almost dialogue free but extremely disturbing scene, it’s implied that the bay either rapes Lawrence or somehow tortures him, submits him to some sort of humiliation and possibly a physical assault that really breaks Lawrence and changes him for the rest of the movie in ways that we’ll talk about. Lawrence slowly recovers from this assault and returns to Allenby, the general who has sent him out into the desert in the first place, and he then kind of assembles this mercenary army. So for the first time, he’s writing, you know, not with tribes who have lived and fought together their whole lives, but with people that are it is implied, a lot of them just mercenaries writing for money and who have no sort of common goal that they want to achieve. They are on their way to take the city of Damascus. And on the way they pass a village that’s been completely destroyed by the Turks. Some of the people he’s writing with are from this village. And in a sheer act of revenge, they decide that they’re going to slaughter the entire Turkish column with no prisoners in this famous line, as you hear Te Lawrence Echo. So he’s gone over to the side, we understand, of those who fight without honour, very different from where we saw him in the first half of the movie. The end of the movie becomes a very political resolution that I’m not sure I completely understand. And we’ll discuss it when we get there can. But essentially it’s about how the Arabs run Damascus once they have managed to take the city with Lawrence. And there’s this long and arguably quite racist scene. In which we see that the Arabs are completely unequipped to run the city of Damascus, that they are doing nothing but sort of fight in the council chamber, so the British take over. Lawrence is promoted, although his promotion gives him no joy because he is now somewhat domesticated and once again made into a paper pusher at a desk. In the very last scene, we see him being sent back to England. I think he’s driving down a road in Arabia toward presumably whatever means of transport will take him home. You see a few bikes pass him motorbikes, you know, sort of echoing the beginning in which he dies on a motorbike. And you hear the English officers essentially discussing the future of Arabia and how they are going to divide it up among the English and the French. So colonialism has sort of won over in the end. This Arab revolt that Lawrence so idealistically connected himself with at the beginning seems to have foundered in failure. And there’s something of a sense of disillusionment and even despair at the end of the movie as Lawrence writes back toward his home.
S2: OK, first of all, thank you for describing it, because I certainly could not summarise the movie in part, I mean, for a few reasons. One of them being that the level of detail that it goes into about what’s at stake on the Arab side of this is slimmer than its interest in Lawrence’s moral transformation. So I think as you watch, it’s made digestible because it is so complicated, you know, like the history of Prince Faisal and just the fact that even the movie has a joke early on about this being a movie that in most movies is told from a European perspective about World War. This is the arm of that broader war that is taking place in the desert, which I have to say, I think about British war films today, and they still tend to be about what’s happening in Europe. So this movie feels like an outlier in so many ways still. And I think the movie is sort of aware of that. But accordingly, it’s like how far into the history of the Arab world is this movie going to go? Not far, but it also makes it sort of hard to describe. So I’m glad that you described it, because now we can sort of burrow into the weird, interesting things about it that seem of note to us personally. That’s basically as soon as Lawrence is on a motorbike and passes by a little bit of construction, but basically sees literal warning signs on the way to his death and then is run off the road by some bicyclists and just very, very arbitrarily dies at the beginning of the movie. It’s a movie where the hero dies in the beginning and immediately from there, as you described, he has the St Paul’s funeral and memorial were put in this place of hearing people talk about this, quote unquote, great man, and discussing the extent to which they even knew him as a man.
S6: A lot of it. Could you give me a few words about Colonel Lawrence? Lot more words. The result in the desert played a decisive part in the Middle Eastern campaign. Yes, but about Colonel Lawrence himself, you no, I don’t know him well. You know, Mr. Bentley, you must know as much about Colonel Lawrence as anybody does. Yes. It was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior. Thank you. It’s also the most shameless exhibition since Barnum and Bailey. Oh, are you? My name is Jackson Bentley. Wherever you were, I overheard your on Nostromo. Can I take the bravest possible exception. He was a very great man. Did you know him? No, I can’t claim to have known him. I once had the honor to shake his hand in Damascus.
S2: To your point about this being a movie that is aware of the ways that Lawrence is as a historical figure, slippery. The movie opens with people saying, you know, yeah, I knew him. But then describing him in vague terms is one of those people, by the way, is Jackson Bentley, the journalist that we encounter later in the movie, who plays a significant role in mythologizing him, who hung out with him more than most, even for that brief period, and also was among the people who were at his side during this desert campaign who nevertheless still cannot see him beyond the myth of him. I think it’s really important that both his death is arbitrary and again, that he was fairly young and that what we have in the immediate wake of his death are not what I hope that the rest of us have when we die, which is people telling specific stories about how great we were, but rather lofty, broad unknowability that is our way into this character. And that is interesting to me, because the second that we meet Peter O’Toole as Lawrence himself, he is so particular, he is so odd. It is so hard to imagine people not having more specific qualities to ascribe to this man.
S5: But the movie is the story of how that happens in some ways, I think is really remarkable that the very first thing that you learn about the real Lawrence when you meet him in that map room scene is that he’s masochistic. Yeah, I mean, this idea that he is able to tolerate the match, which is kind of a party trick that he does, that his fellow cartographers ask him to do, I mean, obviously is the excuse for that glorious match cut that takes him to the desert. Right. It’s a wonderful vision on the part of Andy Coates, the editor. But it also establishes something that’s going to become very important in the movie as it goes on, which is that he wants to do things the hard way, you know, and sometimes that is a sexualized form of masochism, but sometimes it really is just bring it. You know, that he wants the full on experience, just as he asks his Bedouin guide early in the movie, don’t give me more water than you get. I’ll drink when you drink. Right. I mean, there’s this part of him that has a bit mo that wants to top the person that he’s with.
S2: First of all, there’s that famous line when he puts his hand over a flame and another man asks, like, how do you do that? Or something to that effect? And he says, the trick, William Potter is not minding that it hurts, which is a line that’s embedded in my head because in the movie Prometheus, one of the alien movies, The Robot, Michael Fassbender uses the character of Lawrence of Arabia to teach himself how to be human. And of all the things of all the movie heroes you might choose as a robot who as I would guess, the biggest streaming library available to you of anyone he chooses an oddball, a man who is, as you say, masochistic, but also whose masochism and whose, you know, not mine being that it hurts is the thing that sets him apart from the rest of the British soldiers, the sort of stiff upper lip to the letter youth, idealism, etc.. This is a guy who is not afraid of putting his hand literally into the flame. And again, obviously, every classically structured movie goes out of his way to assign some particularity of personality to the hero. But these are odd ways into this man, him dying, him being unknowable, him being masochistic, him taking on an adventure that is way beyond him that no one else would really even think to take. And then getting on that adventure and wanting to do as the people do, do as the Romans do. Right. Like wanting, as you say, to not drink more water than his Bedouin guide in the desert, even as the Bedouin guide and also in the audience me are thinking there’s no way you can hang here from England. And I don’t mean to say that in a sort of exoticism way, but in a very literal topographical and every way the heat and all these things, you know, this is not the guy that you think is going to make it. And yet his entire platform for the first part of the movie is in part the story of writing his own fate, which is something that he believes in as distinct from the Bedouin people that he’s interacting with in this part of the movie. But also just I’m going to go for it. I’m going to do it. I’m not going to think about what the costs are. If it can’t be done by a man and it’s being done by the Bedouin people, then I’m going to do it, even if he’s not in any way in terms of his upbringing prepared for such a thing. And that’s interesting. That’s an interesting way into this character. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is all clear within the first 20 minutes of the movie. But this is our way into the movie.
S5: Right? This is something that Leon was very conscious of in fashioning the screenplay and planning the movie. And in fact, this is an excerpt from a letter that David Leon wrote to the screenwriter Robert Boal about an early draft of the screenplay. And so he’s really already bringing to the fore these masochistic qualities that we’re talking about. Here’s a quote from the letter, Many faceted aspects of Lawrence’s character, not yet in the screenplay. Example, masochism, other examples, vanity versus shyness, solitude versus gregariousness, glimpses of his pride in the British. Let us not avoid or censor out the homosexual aspect of Lawrence’s relationships, the incipient homosexuality of doubt. And Farraj, that’s the two boys who ride with him must be emphasized. So this is something that he was trying deliberately to bring out in the screenplay. So it’s no accident that this match moment plays such a big part in our introduction to the character. Interestingly, also in his notes, David Lean compared the relationship between Lawrence and Ali to brief encounter the movie that we talked about in the first half cab, the romance that Leon had directed a few years earlier in England, which, you know, couldn’t be more different in scale and in theme than Lawrence of Arabia. It’s basically a two character unconsummated romance between these two middle class Brits. But he saw a connection in those two relationships in the sense that both of them were incredibly passionate but, you know, never physically consummated.
S2: So it’s also worth noting that Lawrence doesn’t only seem odd to the British, but he also seems odd to the Bedouin people who are receiving him as a British guy that is trying to hang in this way. This guy, toughies, you know, is a little surprised by the fact that Lawrence will not drink water unless he’s drinking water, because he rightly assumes that Lawrence has never been to the desert before. But fortunately, pataphysics his role in this movie is a little limited. They reach a well at one point early in the film. It’s one of the famous famous moments of the movie. And that, well, apparently it belongs to another man, Sharif Ali, played by Omar Sharif, who is approaching from the distance in the most beautiful but mysterious horizon, one of the most beautiful, mysterious horizons, I think committed to film. It’s quite I mean, it’s a mirage, basically, right.
S5: I don’t know technically what a mirage is, but it’s that’s a fact where a figure looks very elevated. Right.
S2: Almost as if he’s on stilts as he’s coming out of the desert and wavy and phantasmagoric and just strange. But then he shoots toughies. He kills the guy. And this becomes the first, I think, moment that Lawrence has an encounter with the reality of the culture that he’s in such that a well can be a point of territorial dispute and that a man can die for drinking from the wrong. Well, because part of what interests Lawrence is sort of a unification of various tribes. And this is an immediate moment for him of realizing, I think, how big of a project that’s going to be.
S5: And I think a key thing for the relationship of Ali and Lawrence that’s going to develop is that Lawrence, if he is frightened by the fact that, you know, there is now an armed Arab who is angry at his presence there at the well, he hides the fear very well and he essentially Sassy’s Ali back and, you know, gives him whatfor which will create a future respect between them. And I think it’s worth listening to a little of the dialogue from the scene in which Lawrence kind of holds onto the high ground of you were wrong to shoot that guy.
S7: He was nothing. Well, is everything the Hasumi may not drink at our wells. He knew that Sherif Ali, so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cool as you are.
S5: So I want to linger a bit on this scene in Feisal’s tent, Prince Feisal being played by Alec Guinness, in which Colonel Brighton brings both Lawrence and Ali into the tent of the Prince and starts talking about their strategy for attempting to unite the Arab army, which is to some degree a new concept. Right, to this prince who thinks more in terms of individual tribes in order to accomplish this common goal, because there’s so much going on strategically and psychologically in this scene. Right. I mean, we have Sharifs character, Ali, who doesn’t trust either of the Brits and essentially says you’re all in it together and all you Englishmen are the same and want the same things. But at the same time, there’s this insubordination happening where Lawrence is kind of going rogue and trying to align himself with the Arab revolt in a way that the British do not want to do. Prince Feisal is trying to suss the entire thing out while being somewhat seduced by the charm of this Englishman who seems to not fit into the mold that he expects politically.
S4: Yeah, yeah, politically it is.
S2: I mean, I feel like it’s worth reiterating that Lawrence was sent here to assess the extent to which Prince Feisal and his army were going to be able to handle the Turks. And he’s meeting Prince Feisal at a moment when they’ve just sort of suffered major losses. And Colonel Brighton’s instruction to Lawrence in concert with his overall instructions here is to be quiet. He is not supposed to be speaking, is not supposed to be providing any sort of political ideas to anyone. He is there to assess the extent to which Feisal can carry out what the British want him to carry out and their own plan to overtake the Turks. So. Right. It’s a big deal, actually, that Lawrence is even speaking in this scene to Prince Feisal, let alone the fact that they immediately seem to kind of click and that Feisal is actually quite interested in this insubordinate, odd, skinny, tall, pale man who survived in the desert heat. Except that he did and who doesn’t really seem like the other British. There’s a mutual curiosity here. And I think personally, like this scene really nails the why would anyone take Lawrence seriously? And it’s because of even as they’re suspicious, I think rightly, of any British person who isn’t at all trying to intervene in Arab politics. They are interested in him.
S8: The English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia. Then you must deny to them you are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England, to England and to other things, England and Arabia. And is that possible? I think you are another of these desert loving English that is in a garden of cartoon. Little out of love the desert. We love water and green tree, there’s nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. Is it that you think we are something you can play with? Because we are a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.
S2: Yeah, this is a really complicated piece of writing because I think that’s all it is getting a lot of things at once here. He, first of all, is saying explicitly what was implicit, but also what becomes one of the quandaries of the movie for Lawrence, which is this problem of dual loyalty. You know, he is ultimately an Englishman in the desert and it does sort of set up this strand of the plot where he is going to have to prove himself in some way. But also it is explicitly saying that, you know, you are an imperial presence here. So there is no way that our immediate understanding of you, no matter how good your advice is about, you know, us taking Aqaba, we can’t see that outside of the context of the history of empire. But he’s also I mean, in the ways that he’s characterizing the English impression of his world. He’s putting his finger on a few other things, too. I mean, something that we haven’t mentioned. But that is I would say the key object in this movie is the gun, you know, guns as these symbols and tokens of modernization, like the first reaction that we see, the Bedouin type with gun is this fascination, but also this need and hunger for it. Because the Turks have guns, they have guns by way of Europe and Prince Feisal’s Army doesn’t. That’s why they’re sort of suffering. But the gun as a tool of modern warfare is part of you know, when Feisal talks about the British oppression of the Arab world, being of these savage people with their savage ways, every time that Lawrence throughout the movie reacts to their reaction to the gun, it for me is this mutual sense of him regretting even bringing that into their world, because it is this modernisation of warfare that is very European. And that is, I would say, on the whole bad as far as objects go. But also there is a reading of the movie in which, you know, I feel complicatedly about Prince Feisal saying in the same moment, there’s nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. I take the line reading because of Alec Guinness nuance to trying to think about why a Brit would even be so interested. Also, I think is a tension that is important to keep in mind. Just what are the ways in which the movie characterizes or deals with the impressions it gives of the Arab world and primitiveness and reactions to weaponry? I mean, this gets us back to in your summary, Daina, the way that the movie handles Damascus and the running of Damascus at the end and the strangeness of that. But I think it’s a really complicated scene. And I also just love the line. The English have a great hunger for desolate places because I don’t think anyone in this room is unaware of what Britain’s broader interests could be. I think what Lawrence is not quite aware of yet is the extent to which his facility in this world has ability to be in a way of the people is going to be used for imperial purposes. I don’t think he realises quite yet that he’s a vehicle for something bigger because he is genuinely interested, he is genuinely sympathetic, and that’s going to be used against him. Like, I think that Prince is getting at that.
S5: Yeah. What you mention about the gun and the meaning of the gun is really fascinating in relation to that specific prop, the actual gun that early on in the movie Lawrence gives to his guide, his guide to who’s taking him through the desert. And it’s really because of that gun that he gets shot by Sharif Ali. Right? I mean, it’s because he goes and grabs the gun from the saddlebag that he’s just been given as a gift, that he presents a threat and is thus shot. And I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be the same gun with Ghasem get shot later on in the movie, which then gets tossed to the troops who fight over it. Right. But there is the sense that a gun is this dangerous object of desire, that once it has entered the economy of this Bedouin world, it’s going to create destruction and death wherever it goes, even as it is this much coveted symbol of, you know, westernisation and honor. So, yeah, the movie’s extremely ambivalent and I would say dark about that possibility for violence that the Western Army brings into the desert world. And moving on from here, we’re in this kind of visionary period of the movie where kind of Lawrence can do no wrong, whatever crazy military decision he makes seems to somehow be the right one. And, you know, for this brief period of time, he is both achieving all the military objectives he wants to achieve and being more and more lionized by the Arab side.
S2: Right. And it’s taking a minute. If there’s one person that is sort of skeptical for longer than anyone else, it’s Omar Sharif’s character, Sharif Ali, because, I mean, even the way that Lawrence acquires to Helper’s is by saving their skin, he sort of intervenes on their lives out of compassion. And the idea of compassion is one of his qualities is another strand in the movie. The movie complicates because in a way, for all his political facility, it seems like his compassion is a flaw. It seems like his compassion is a thing that will make it harder for him to do the things that the Bedouin people feel he has to do. You know, this is war. So in order for him to really go forward with what they’re committing themselves to, he has to learn how to take a life and the next stretch of the movie in which he saves a life and then take that same life become for me a commentary on does Lawrence have what it takes not only to be a visionary, but also to commit the violence that might be necessary to commit to that vision. And that’s something that’s a little different about him than the people around him, who as a character in the movie, you know, for example, leave no man behind if someone is left behind because they fell off their camel, we’re not going back for them because it’s literally the desert. And if we have injured soldiers, we are not going to let them live, because if they’re caught by the Turks, worse things will happen. So that is a form of compassion. But is Lawrence up to that form of compassion? Basically, it’s a moral wrestle from start to finish. Right. But in so many ways, this is playing out on multiple levels right at the moment when he goes double rogue.
S5: Right. I mean, he’s already gone rogue from what the British expect him to do and kind of tried to go native with this group of Arabs riding across the desert. Then he kind of turns his back on their moral code to go and do this thing that only he thinks he should do, which is rescue Ghasem. And then there’s a real ambiguity to me. And here, you know, I have no idea to what degree this is. They’re not true to what happened to the real T Lawrence. But this incident of rescue is true. It is something that happened. And it’s written about in seven pillars, you know, that somebody fell off their camel and that he went back against not against orders exactly, but against custom. And that’s right. And this moment that he rides back with him is seen in the movie as a moment of moral triumph, which, you know, arguably could be seen as a somewhat colonialist moment in the film in that, you know, his value system is the one that wins over their value system is awarded by Ali with these honorary white robes because of the act that he commits in rescuing. But you also see the joy of the two servant boys, right, that he not only has made it back, but that he’s done this impossible thing.
S2: I think a really important thing is that this desert rescue operation, which in the way that he’s been discouraged from doing this, has really been built up. Also, just throughout this, Sharif Ali is building up the idea of the difficulty of what they’re all undergoing and how hard it’s going to be to take Aqaba and really trying to like make sure this Englishman understands exactly what he’s getting all of them into. And he also on the moment that Lawrence is going back to rescue Kaseem is like, it’s just not possible. You’re not going to make it. I think it’s telling that although this is like a nearly four hour movie, a thing that we don’t see or don’t get really expressionistic sense of is the duration and the hardship and the struggle of the journey back to get the man and the journey back to meet up with everyone. It’s actually sort of limited to seeing him right away and the suspense of his return. It is not a moment in which we see him struggle. Our sense of his struggle comes from the way he collapses when he and Kaseem arrive back. And that sticks with me in part because that is a really interesting way to show the man’s mettle, not by depicting the hardship like the movie does. More depiction of moral struggle than it does of this physical reminds me a little bit of early in the movie, There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson. There’s a moment when Daniel Day Lewis falls down a well and it’s implied that he, with his body broken, crawls to somehow re-establish himself. But we don’t see that crawling. We see what happens afterward. And, you know, it forces us to think about what went down in that span, forces us to think about the character. In a way, I think that’s a really interesting narrative strategy. Also just, you know, a convenient. To shorten in a very long movie, but that’s always been telling to me for a movie that shows us so much. This is one thing that it doesn’t show quite in the same way.
S5: Right. And that’s communicated through the framing as well. I mean, we haven’t talked about this too much, but something that I kept on thinking about watching this movie is the way that Leon plays with scale and is constantly going in between these unthinkably vast scales. Right. Where people are tiny specks against this endless expanse of dunes in the desert and moments when you see close ups of faces and faces in conversation and these more intimate moments. And I think the Kaseem rescue, if I remember right, is almost completely in those very long shots that emphasize the vastness of the desert, you know, and not the individual suffering of either Ghasem or Lawrence on his way to pick him up. It’s a moment when the grandiosity of the desert is what’s being focused on, in particular, a really wonderful shot when he comes back. And one of the servant boys, I think it’s Dowd goes riding to meet him on his camel. You remember what I’m talking about and you see the two camels in silhouette running toward each other across the desert and kind of crossing each other. And you could, of course, have shown the joy of that reunion with close ups of their faces smiling as they see each other again. But there’s something all the more moving about, seeing them traverse that space in order to agree.
S2: Absolutely. And also, I just want to say the moment of still skeptical Omar Sharif sort of lounging, waiting for this guy, waiting to see if he’s going to get back. You can tell that, like when we see Omar Sharif as this is happening, he is on the verge of being like, you know, let’s frickin leave this guy, because why are we even waiting for them? And there’s just this great moment of him just laying on a pallet and just looking into the distance. But it’s also he wants to know if Lawrence can do this, too. That’s what keeps him there. It’s important that he waits and it’s important and significant gesture, of course, that he hands Lawrence the water once Lawrence gets back. It’s like there are no words that need to happen. It’s the handling of the water even before giving him the new outfit that really shows that Sharif Ali’s character has come around. But this moment also gives us the line nothing is written, which is calling back to a conversation about a man’s fate. And this is some of what you were mentioning before and what we’ve been getting at. Also, the ways that the movie paints the cultural differences between the British and the Bedouin people in this case, where the Bedouins believe more strongly in a sense of fate and destiny. And Lawrence, with his bravura confidence, I think becomes to symbolize, you know, the idea that a man can write his own fate. This becomes a matter of conversation. So it’s important in this moment that Lawrence survives because that is against, I think, what anyone would have expected the destiny of this man to be. But we’re going to get back to win. This again comes up again involving the man that he saves.
S9: Before we do that, though, we have an outfit change makeover montage, a makeover.
S5: So, yeah, because the sequence of the rescue of Ghasem ends with this shot of the British army clothes being burned in the fire and their replacement with these white robes for Lawrence. I want to talk about that scene. I guess it would be the next day, right? The scene when he wakes up and kind of models his new robes for everyone and then has this odd moment where he goes around a corner and is by himself essentially posing in the robes. I have a bunch to say about this moment because I think it introduces the side of Lawrence that is been vainglorious. You know, that kind of is in love with himself and with his own image as the fantasy Arab that he wants to be. And also because it was a rare moment on set. Apparently, David Lean was a real stickler for the script. He worked really closely with the screenwriter Robert Bolt and wanted things to stick to script and didn’t often encourage improvisation. But he felt that there was something lacking in this moment when Lawrence was trying on the costume and wanted him to figure out something to do to improvise in the solo scene. And so all of these ideas of, you know, his sort of holding up the knife to look at his reflection and, you know, just in general, those very Men’s Vogue kind of poses that he strikes with the robes. We’re all Peter O’Toole’s idea and something that David Lean really, really liked. And one kode I would put on this discussion of the white robe scene is that Phyllis Dalton, the wardrobe designer for this movie, who is still alive, incredibly at age 95 and has designed all kinds of movies since, including The Princess Bride. She had some things to say about this white robe moment that I thought were interesting. One of them is that the British army uniform that he wears, the one that’s burned, is something that she deliberately misfit to him. She wanted to be too tight and too short and to fit him in a kind of ill fitting way so that we got a sense that when he was in that uniform, he wasn’t himself. And so the whole white robe scene is designed around this idea that he has found a kind of physical freedom and comfort that he didn’t have before. And something else she did with the white rose, which you really notice once you know it going into the movie, is that from the moment he first acquires them up until the end of the movie, she kept remaking the white robes and making them more and more. It so that by the end of the film and in particular in that scene, when he’s up on top of the train in the second half, that they have this very diaphanous quality. I mean, I would say also a more feminine quality, although she didn’t put it that way. But you know, that he starts out with these kind of heavy, opaque robes in that scene, but they become more and more see through and kind of fragile as the movie goes on. So as we move toward the last bit of part one of Lawrence of Arabia, there’s some really important turning points having to do with violence and Lawrence’s relationship to violence in these last few scenes of the first half, which are going to really color that second half, which, as I said, is almost like a dark mirror reflection of, you know, the things that we’ve seen happen in the first half. I think maybe the most important of those moments to touch on first is the killing of Ghasem, the man that he has just rescued. Right.
S10: Right. Which is related to the entrance of another prominent character in the movie played by Anthony Quinn at Abu Tayi, which is important because what happens with Kassim is that he gets into a feud with someone in Outis Tribe and shoots that man and Lawrences intervention again.
S2: Lowrance always intervening is to not allow there to be a blood feud from here on because he’s trying to unite these warring peoples. So he decides instead of allowing one of autist men to then kill Kaseem, he will kill Besim. He will take it on himself.
S10: And again, this is a moment with very pointed shots of the gun.
S2: And this is beginning, I think, of a moral not downfall, but a darkening of his character, his embracing as violence in this way. Because I also just want to say a really eerie thing about this moment is that he fires the first two shots with a bit of space between them. But you can hear without seeing Kaseem struggling and then he fires a succession of three shots that finish him off. And we know that he’s died because the men behind him react like, OK, it’s finally done. But it’s not just that he has to kill the man. It really hits you over the head. And this is a big thing for him.
S5: Right. And the surprise that we’ll find out later in the very closing scene of part one is that he enjoyed the killing. I mean, O’Toole’s acting is quite incredible in this scene because he has this face of sort of panicked alarm and shame. Right, as he kind of runs out of the sight of everyone after killing Kaseem. And, you know, you maybe want to assume the best that he’s morally horrified by what he’s done. But we’ll find out later that he has this double edged moral horror in that he has also found a kind of sadistic pleasure in the act. And in fact, the rest of Part one moves very, very quickly. I mean, the taking of Aqaba, which was so built up to write with the mythology of we’re going to take this town with the cannons that only come from one side. You see it in a matter of a couple of minutes from a distance. Gorgeous shot of an entirely fake Akaba that was constructed on the coast of Spain. And you see them sweeping into town and taking it in what seems to have been a fairly easy siege. Right. I mean, you don’t even get the impression that a great deal of blood was shed in this siege because it was such a surprise attack. Then in order to inform the British army of the success at Aqaba, Lawrence goes off on another impossible desert journey, this time with Daoud and Faraj, his two young teenage helpers. And the main thing that we need to know about that journey, which is a further moment of kind of moral degradation for Lawrence, is that he loses one of the two boys and that Daoud falls into quicksand. And, you know, we watch him die. Lawrence is not able to do anything to save him. So left only with Faraj, his other teenage helper. Lawrence comes staggering into Cairo. You know, they’re completely destroyed from their trip across the desert. There’s that wonderful scene where they go into the officer’s bar and insist on having two glasses of lemonade and, you know, sort of integrate the bar, essentially. Right. He insists on having this young Arab boy come in with him. But the scene that I wanted to get to is the last scene of the first half of the movie where he goes staggering into General Allenby office and has this very confessional scene in which you see Lawrence in this pretty emotionally broken state.
S2: First of all, this is just like brother acting. And I think David longing for all of his largesse has not forgotten the man who made brief encounter. You know, it’s a long shot in a room where there’s a lot of space. There’s a desk between him and the general. The other man in the room are very far away.
S10: Lawrence becomes increasingly isolated within this shot. And Peter O’Toole doesn’t give a line reading that so easily suggests a sense of pleasure. But neither is it totally. Same for me that I’m hearing here. I hear a sense of sort of grim amazement. I think that he is recognising something in himself that he didn’t know was there. And that is part of what’s so surprising to me about this scene, that it’s you’re watching someone recognise himself in a real way. And I think that’s important because, you know, what happens between now and the very end of this first part is we learn the ways in which the military leaders above. And are more explicit, they’re going to be using his idealism to further their own ends. And this is a man who in the midst of that, is having a kind of moral crisis, but not the kind of crisis that’s going to prevent him from continuing to do it. That’s the thing. I think what’s interesting about this monologue is that when he expresses a sense of pleasure, it is not to say and I’m horrified by that. So I’m not going to stop doing this because not long after this, he’s going back into the desert.
S5: Right. And it’s way it’s a cry for help. But, you know, it also is sort of a sign to them and maybe to him, too, that he’s going to continue down this road of sadomasochism, of seeking out violent situations for their violence, of maybe being governed by something besides the ideals that governed him in the first half of the movie. And just as striking as his confession out of the blue that he enjoyed the killing is the response of the British officers, which is essentially, oh, rubbish, stiff upper lip back into the desert with you. Right. I mean, there is certainly zero sense that, you know, this man needs to be helped or maybe kept away from scenes where he could create further violence in any way.
S10: You would think that someone saying I think I might be blood hungry would be like I mean, I guess in the context of war, who would think that’s a bad thing? But I’m not a warlord, so I think it’s a bad thing. To me, it’s a red flag. But again, this is almost what they want to hear because he was sent into the desert because he is not like them in the military sense. In that way, he is someone who’s deeply intelligent, who cares a lot about the people, who knows a lot about the people. And that’s why he’s useful to them to learn on top of that, that he has a capacity for violence and also that he can survive out there, makes him more of an asset in a way that I think he’s a little slow to realise and is alarming.
S1: I think it’s a really great sequence and a beautiful way to end the first half.
S5: Right, because you end on this sense of moral ambiguity about Lawrence, who, you know, you spent the entire first half of the movie sort of falling for, and suddenly you start to be repulsed by him.
S9: This kind of indeterminacy of his character to me is a great strength of the movie, although it’s something that Pauline Kael, back when it came out in 62, actually objected to. She praised the technique of the movie. She thought it was a gorgeously produced epic. But she says and this is from her review, this picture fails to give an acceptable interpretation of Lawrence or to keep its action intelligible. She thought that he was too ambivalent and that we needed to know more about how to feel about him.
S5: So now is when the original viewers of the film would be coming back from their intermission. And there are a few roads we could go down here. But I know there were a couple of things you wanted to talk about in terms of how Lawrence’s approach has changed in the second half.
S2: Yeah, I think it’s just an important couple of things to keep in mind about the second part as we go into it. Ah, that Lawrence now is using a mercenary army, you know, an army of people who are in many ways doing it for money or for reasons that seem much less noble than the cause that defined so much of the first half of the movie, which is a sort of unification effort, the idealism, the interest a movie with. And the second is that we have the arrival of the character Jackson Bently based on Lowell Thomas, the journalist who’s immortalise Lawrence. And so here it’s like the twining of the deterioration of his idealism in some ways, but also the very explicit heightening of his mythology happening at the same moment like this is when the journalist steps in, when he is sort of at a lower point and the journalist is looking for a hero for his own stories and his way. His goal is to sort of make American audiences more interested in this war so that America might consider entering the war, which is its own sort of complicated set of motivations. But essentially, it comes down to a lot of taking pictures of Lawrence that become the image of everything that happens in the Arab world in this moment with regard to the Turks and England and all of these things. These are the immortalizing images that speak to Bill Lawrence, who seems unknowable when we start the movie.
S11: Yeah. And his response to this lionization and this publicity hound following him around is also fascinatingly ambivalent. Right. There’s that moment that he very scornfully says to him, you know, why don’t you take your stupid bloody picture of my stupid bloody face? Right. And he seems to have contempt for this journalist who’s following him around. But I think a very key moment in this second half, early in the second half is also when after taking that Turkish train and derailing it with his mercenaries, Lawrence climbs to the top of the train and essentially has this sort of men’s Vogue model shoot right where he’s flourishing his white robes and enjoying the adulation of the crowd and really helping to create that same mythology. I think another moment to mention in this second half, which is very moving, which is actually based on a true thing that did happen to t e Lawrence, that he writes about its seven pillars. And that is sort of part of the further moral alienation and degradation of his character, is when he. To kill Farraj, the second of his two boy servants because of him, Dode has already sunk in quicksand in the first half. And then we have this moment when they’re trying to detonate a train. The detonator somehow remains on Farraj, his body, and he gets so badly injured that they decide to shoot him so he won’t be taken prisoner. And that’s a really hard moment for Lawrence and really, I think could be looked at as the last moment that we see him doing something recognizably human. Right, because it is after that that we get a couple of really, really harsh scenes and the hardest parts of the movie to watch. The first of them is this incident that happens in Daraa, the town where he is taken prisoner by this Turkish chieftain played by Jose Ferrer and certainly tortured, possibly also raped. This is another scene that appears in TV, Lawrence’s seven pillars and while somewhat tiptoeing around what happened, makes pretty clear that there was some sort of sexual violation that took place. And I wanted to talk about the way the scene is filmed, because it is especially for a movie made in 1962 for mainstream audiences, is just really remarkably graphic and direct.
S12: This would be a good moment for us to mention that there are historically disputed parts of the Seven Pillars story in the first place. There are multiple editions. There is the unexpurgated edition that came out, I think in 2004, but that only sort of refueled further debates about a number of incidents in the book, but particularly, I think, this sexual assault incident. And I think the historical consensus at this point is that it didn’t go down in the way that we understand it and in the way that it’s adapted for the film. I think this is worth mentioning because I mean, it’s partially an interesting thing that historians have been saying about Lawrence and his sadomasochism and his kind of fantastical narrative since the sort of story that he wanted to relay to the public and the role that it might have played in potential exaggerations here, but also that this might have been politically motivated, his description of this assault as a way of smearing Turkish enemies. It seems like there are a couple of possible explanations, but historians are not sure about this one. And I mentioned this up front because in its adaptation into this movie, we’re getting into some of that slippery political territory where, as represented here, I’m about to make the case that I think it’s pretty unambiguous that that he is sexually assaulted in this film. And I think as as we see the case made here, you can see the ways that people might feel that it ties into these bad stereotypes of the Arab savage right there. You know, you can get there through sort of depictions of war violence. But there’s also just this kind of unthinkable in the way that sexual assault broadly, of course, but also sexual assault against men is still in some ways not kind of reckoned with. And it is unrepresented at and certainly is unrepresentative all in this era, in the era of this movie. So you can see the ways that by even going there, as blatantly as I feel that it does, that it can feel like it’s a part of the racial characterization and the characterizations here of Arabs broadly.
S2: And that’s complicated, something I don’t think we’ve harped on quite yet. But a lot of this movie is anchored in Peter O’Toole’s face in a way that this is a movie about the iconography of Lawrence. It as a movie is obviously about the iconography of Peter O’Toole as well. That’s the way it’s kind of been immortalized. And it very smartly centers a lot of this face and the action that we see or against the skyline. And there is a distinct difference in the face that we see from this incident onward. It is much more fraught. It is much more imperiled and confused. And it speaks to me to the level of violation that happens in this scene. Also, what makes it unambiguous is the cutting and the framing in this moment, the moment that Turkish Bey rips his clothes off and we get in a succession of shots that bring us closer to Peter O’Toole’s eyes and the worry in his eyes, because we should say before he was captured, you know, when he untruthfully were walking around, he just thought that he was invincible. He gave this impression of no one’s going to stop us. No one’s going to catch Sharif Ali is like, I’m a little concerned here. And now in this moment, we finally with the stripping, with the moment that Turkish bear touches his arm, just the contrast between Lawrence’s robes on the floor and the gleaming, polished boots that are directly next to him, the way that he has bent over the. Bench to be whipped the way that Turkish bath is looking from a distance through a crack in the door at what’s happening, but also he’s looking at Lawrence’s ass in this moment. That’s the view that he has. It’s just not subtle to me. But it’s it’s Hollywood, right? So it’s doing all the things it can possibly do to tell you what’s happening without actually depicting undetectable in this case in this era of violence. And it’s fascinating as a study of that alone, but also just what it does to his character from here on is kind of extraordinary. I almost stopped thinking of the politics because it so much becomes to me a man who has been violated and the way that he then interacts with the world afterward and the way that he succumbs to a sense of I’m just a man.
S11: I am not someone who determines how could I possibly be that person when this happened to me, write the scenes in the cave afterwards where he has completely changed his relationship to the culture and his ability to infiltrate the culture. I mean, that also made me want to mention something about just the racialization of that scene, because as that scene begins, even though the Turkish border is somewhat suspect, there’s this idea that Lawrence has been passing himself off racially. Right. As a Bedouin, he’s sort of in disguise and trying to infiltrate this town. But at the moment when he’s literally unmasked and his robes are taken off, there’s this series of questions where the Josepha character is trying to sort of figure out who he is, where he’s from, what his real game is. And the whiteness of his skin is so foregrounded in that scene as he’s kind of pinching his chest. Right. And you see that beneath the robes where he’s gotten so bronzed on the outside from being in the desert. He really is this very pale man still. And it feels like one of the moments when his racial masquerade that throughout the movie we’ve kind of been encouraged to think of as something noble or at least something admirable in his character that he wants to understand and assimilate to this other culture, that you see the violence of it. Right.
S2: You see beneath it lies someone who was hiding, who he truly was, you know, actually reminding me of something that we haven’t explicitly talked about, even as we’ve mentioned, some of the actors in this movie and the characters that were playing, which is Brown face and the use of it for some of the major characters, you know, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn. And since we’re talking about unmasking and revealing, but also talking about, I think, a specific kind of racial complexity, the paleness of T.E. Lawrence in that room as he’s about to be violated, like the skin color is a heightened fact of those shots to me and what they imply about his femininity and all these things. I know that the Brown piece is a very, very complicated subject for people with regard to every movie. I was wondering how you feel about it. I mean, it’s certainly consistent with movies of the moment.
S13: I mean, I think we talked about this a little bit a when we talked about re encountering this movie after many years of not having seen it, I think that I see it differently and more critically than I would have. You know, certainly as a teenager watching this movie when I was probably still in the world where actors on TV were wearing brown face to play characters of different ethnicities. But as much as the use of brown face points to, you know, this movie is extremely dated historicity and the fact that there are things that Lin himself was oblivious to as he was sort of critiquing colonialism and critiquing those who try to take on racial otherness, he’s doing it himself with the use of brown face. There’s something about the fact that Omar Sharif is cast in the movie that anchors it and somehow saves it for me. I mean, I don’t think that, for example, the characterization of Faisal is at all offensive. I think arguably that perhaps Anthony Quinn’s characterization is a little bit more so and not even necessarily because of his acting, but because of the makeup job itself, the big fake nose, the fact that he does just look so much like this generic racial other, which Anthony Quinn was always being forced to play. Right. I mean, he was handy for whatever kind of ethnicity you needed him to be. I sense that awkwardness and embarrassment and shame with that performance the most, I think, and a bit less so with elegance. But it’s the fact that Omar Sharif was cast and not one of the many Western actors who was considered for that part. That gives this movie some little glimpse of what it turned out to be, which was the opening of a crossover career for an Arab actor in the Hollywood world. As you say, Omar Sharif did not need Hollywood stardom. He already had big time stardom in Egypt. But it was because of his appeal in this movie that, you know, he suddenly found himself in Doctor Zhivago the next year and in Funny Girl a couple of years later and found himself as this very plausible romantic lead in Western films. So I can’t look at this movie entirely as one that was using Western actors to perpetuate stereotypes about Arabs. But I very much feel that awkwardness in every one of those scenes, especially the Anthony ones. And of course, I’m a white person having this reaction. So maybe my reaction is less problematize than. A person of color watching it. What about you?
S10: Yeah, I mean, it’s complicated in part because I mean, look, I like movies. I like the history of movies and brown face when it comes to depictions of any indigenous peoples, any Arab peoples. Of course, there’s the history of blackface, et cetera, is, I guess, something that I have already sort of worked through in my feelings, because there’s no way in which you can watch a ton of movies across history in Hollywood and not encounter it. So it’s not to say I’m numb to it.
S2: You know, I think there are things to be said for the way that Hollywood financing works and the ways that, you know, white actors who are established and are known quantities. For example, Alec Guinness had done Bridge over the River Kwai before this and I think believe won an Academy Award for it, did he not? I think he did. So it kind of name on a bill is what I’m getting at, the kind of name that secures money. And I wouldn’t doubt that that’s a part of it as well. You know, I mean, Elmasry role, you know, the people that they had in mind were originally not Omar Sharif. They were white. So there’s an extent to which there’s also just a complete lack of imagination about this. And I think part of what even gets Omar Sharif this role is the fact that he is so multilingual, so learned he would have to be that good of an actor and that convincing and multiple modes and in speaking in English, et cetera, to get a role like this, to even be like the third or fourth pick. And that’s a weighty history. I guess my response to it is that it’s so much bigger than this one movie that I don’t put it all on this movie. But of course, look, it’s there. It is impossible not to notice. And I think rejection of the movie, discomfort of the movie on those grounds, rejection of Hollywood, in many ways, you know, it’s not invalid to me. What can I say? You know, if you want to say fuck Westerns because of the white men who dressed up as Native Americans that were completely damaging stereotypes. I hear you. I’m with you. It doesn’t make me hate Western decisions like that in itself doesn’t make me overdetermined, my feelings about it.
S10: But these are things that we’re talking about. But it really came to mind because, you know, a moment when we’re forced to think about whiteness in a real way is this moment of violation at the hand of a Turkish man.
S11: It’s sort of hard to miss the complicated all the more right by the fact that Ferreras also wearing brown face.
S2: Right. And he is Puerto Rican. So he is brown, you know, he’s non-white and also the first Puerto Rican first Hispanic Bradley actor to win an Academy Award and just a harp again on the standards here. He was already an Oscar winner by the time he got cast in this movie, too. But it’s also complicated. Hispanic doesn’t mean non-white.
S11: So, yeah, you’re right. And one of the two boys, actually, I believe the actor who plays Dowd was Brazilian, was an Anglo Brazilian kid. So, you know, I mean, it really was the era which has lasted until fairly recently where you could just go fishing for anyone with a darker complexion and cast them as whatever ethnicity.
S2: I mean, look, I remember moments where I actually had to look up what Ben Kingsley’s actual ethnicity was because he has played a range of them. And that’s not to accuse him of explicit brown face, but it’s more to say that ethnic ambiguity in the way that that is trafficked in Hollywood images is really a ripe subject.
S11: So Lawrence’s ordeal in Deira in that garrison with Pfarrer is followed by this interesting moment of sort of cave PTSD. I think of it, that portion of the film where he’s essentially hiding out and recovering from the attack and being cared for by these Arabs that we haven’t really seen before. They’re not people who have been major characters in the movie up to now, but who are sort of responsible for nursing him back to health. And these are the scenes where, as you say, we see him completely hollowed out and essentially saying, I don’t belong here, I’m no one special, I’m just an Englishman. But the last big military push that he’s going to make in the movie is really the moment that he goes the deepest into this bloodshed. I mean, it almost reminded me of the moment in Macbeth. I can’t remember which speech it is or who he’s talking about killing. But there’s that great speech in Macbeth where he essentially says, you know, I’ve now waited this far into the river of blood and I might as well wade to the other side. Right. Like he’s killed so many people that there’s no point in turning back now. And that is where we find Lawrence at this moment in the movie. So General Allenby has once again decided to send him into the desert, this time with this mercenary band that you described, not the sort of, you know, loyal tribesmen that before rallied behind him, but a bunch of people that are doing it, surely for the money. And on their way to take Damascus, they pass this village that’s been destroyed. There’s a horrible shot of all these women. And I think children, too, who have been killed by the well, something that my partner kept observing as we were watching this movie together is that every time you see a woman, she’s either completely covered up in a hijab and ululation. Shooting from a cliff or dead next to a well, or there’s that one pin up, right? There’s that one moment where the camera goes by, this kind of pin up of a belly dancer or something. But I mean, women in this movie are really, really on the margins and essentially exist only to be seen as property to be protected. So upon discovering the motive for vengeance and some of the men he’s with are from this town that was completely slaughtered by the Turks, they decide that they are going to fall upon the entire Turkish column that committed this atrocity and is at this moment that Lawrence could have turned things the other way. He still has the power enough over his army that he could have forestalled this attack, that instead he yells this famous line.
S2: You know, this is one of those moments that I had in mind when I talk about how the way that Leanne’s camera regards Lawrence’s face and the emotions that he’s feeling here, because, you know, he’s not the first one to kind of lead the charge here. One of the mercenaries is who has his own motivations and the level of hesitation and uncertainty and beaten down ness in Lawrence before another man leads the charge and sort of empowers him to then sort of enact this kind of blood vengeance. In a way, this is what I kind of had in mind when I say that after the assault in the prison, he is a different person. Peter O’Toole’s range of emotions in this shot, it just makes so much of the rest of this movie about how a man who’s undergone this specific drama, which is just a complete dislodging of his sense of even authority. He’s demonised in a way the more powerful shots and, you know, prisoners feels like it’s as much about what happened to him as it is about whatever they’re specifically thinking about in that moment. Why would he want to take any vengeance against the Turkish? Because of what happened to him.
S11: Right. Has become a private vendetta for him, which is exactly what he was trying to unite the tribes earlier to not pursue. Right. To not pursue all these individual beefs, which, in fact, is exactly what he’s been reduced to. I also love that there’s a call back to his the moment when he had regarded himself in his new golden dagger and looked at the reflection to admire himself in that famous shot, which you’ll often see in, you know, roundups of clips or even, I think the trailer for Lawrence of Arabia, where he’s sitting with his dagger at dusk, just completely covered in blood and dust with, you know, you have the sense that he’s just slaughtered countless people and he’s staring into that same mirror, which is, of course, now clouded by blood. And ultimately, to me, that’s sort of the moral end of the movie. There is a little bit more movie to go after that. And we have these scenes back in Damascus where Lawrence is trying to help set up a council of different Arabic tribes to run the city of Damascus. And it seems to be turning into a huge failure. But really, I feel like we reached the end of Lawrence’s character arc at that moment with the massacre of the Turks. The only thing I have to say about that final scene where we do see the incredibly disorganized attempt of the Arabs to establish some sort of council to run the city is it reminded me very disturbingly of a scene in birth of a nation. If you remember the birth of a nation where Griffeth imagines this moment in reconstruction, when there’s a sort of a legislative floor that’s overrun by all these former slaves who are, you know, drinking and putting their feet up on the table and generally kind of making hill in this chamber, it’s played much more for comedy in the D.W. Griffith and sort of the idea of like, who are these jokers to think that they can run a council. I think in Lawrence of Arabia, there is more respect for the attempt. But there is also a very clear message on behalf of the movie that it would not be possible for these tribes to unite in a democratic way.
S2: Yeah, and it feels like ultimately, even that idea feels like it’s still about Lawrence, because this is where the entire movie was leading. Right. And in a way, it’s all sort of for not because the British take over anyway.
S11: Right. It’s a very short lived moment that there’s any thought that the Arabs would be running their own city. And you really almost get the sense that, you know, the British just simply dangled that as an excuse to get them to take Damascus. Right. And that now what they refer to in the movie, the SAIC’s Pekoe Agreement, which is this postwar agreement that Britain and France would divide up the Arab lands among themselves, is going to go forward no matter what anybody wants or no matter what Lawrence does or doesn’t profess to believe.
S2: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s really notable about the end of this movie is not only that we are going to get an echo of the motorcycle that we start the movie with, and it’s going to be passing Lawrence by and literally kind of leaving him in the dust. But just the overbearing sense of defeat, you know, no one needs Lawrence anymore after this. Prince Feisal doesn’t need Lawrence. The British don’t need Lawrence. His sense that he has become an ordinary nobody is really sort of frightened by the fact that his job is done. And not only is it done, but he’s been used by people in the sense that he’s been used, I think is really what set with me at the end here and the way that sort of ties up his relationship to Sharif Ali and the way that his own demeanour. It’s sad. It’s poignant. This is a man who, for all the ways that every image that I associate this movie, it’s about his triumph that is not with the end of this movie, which ends up being about. And it only adds to me this weird layer to the unknowability that we start with.
S9: Yeah, it’s hard to think of another movie that’s as triumphant in many of its scenes and has as many grandiose moments of, you know, incredible sweeping sand dunes with gorgeous music soaring over the. That ends in such an anticlimactic and really kind of pitiful way, right? I mean, they’re being passed by this motorbike. So even the image we have of him at the beginning as this much domesticated Brit riding around on his motorbike through a small town, I mean, he’s being outrun by a motorbike in that last scene as they’re sort of heading back to send him back to England.
S13: And I guess that ending that very deflated feeling of the ending is part of what makes me feel that, you know, brown face and all triumphalism and all that. This is an anti colonialist movie in the end. And I think it can be picked apart on many grounds, you know, for not fully knowing what that means or for not fully grappling with what it means to try to portray a culture as different from Lawrences, especially with a bunch of guys in brown makeup.
S9: But in the end, this movie seems to be both anti war, anti violence and anti the British project or French project, the general Western Project in Arabia, and sort of seems to be wishing that Lawrence and all of the British military had just left well enough alone. All right. Well, Kim, I think that we have been on an extreme journey now. I feel like I need to have one of the foam pads that Peter O’Toole supposedly cut out to put under his. Campbell said this was some innovation he came up with on the set and then all the Bedouins started wanting foam pads as well so they would have more comfortable saddles. But I am definitely feeling camel saddle sores from our discussion of this almost four hour movie. So thank you for coming on my masochistic journey with me.
S2: Yeah, no, I mean, I really value revisiting this movie. And just generally, I mean, it belongs to a category, a movie that I don’t often revisit, kind of like Casablanca. Like it has nothing to do with how I feel about the movie, but it’s just such a part of Hollywood history and looms so large that I almost feel like I should be watching all the things that we aren’t talking about when we still talk about these movies. But I value revisiting it and it’s a more complicated movie than I remember.
S9: It was a great experience to revisit. I agree that it is a more kind of like honkin big famous classic than we usually talk about on flashback. But that was a kind of an interesting diversion for my normal course. So what do you have for us next time? I think that we need an antidote to all this doonas and I’m sorry, as the, you know, women of the team to have brought you into this such a dude filled world. But please bring me some lady love for our next discussion.
S2: Well, I’m going to break one of our initial rules. We said that this podcast would not traverse two thousand, but you reminded me that it’s almost 20, 21. I mean, frankly, it feels like 20, 50 after this year, if you like. But, you know, honestly, it’s a holiday season. The episode in question is going to air after Christmas proper. We don’t celebrate Christmas, so I still will probably be eating cookies, cetera. And you know what? I just want to be a little shit and choose an Nancy. She’s a Nancy Meyers movie because I happen to quite like Nancy Meyers and fight with my friends about her all the time. But I would like to choose the holiday classic, appropriately titled The Holiday by Nancy Meyers from 2006, because I’m in the mood for Jack Black dating, as I recall, Kate Winslet. So I guess it’s sci fi, really. But Nancy Meyers is so strange. We don’t talk about how strange and interesting she can be. So I’m excited to. Yes. Take a Nancy Meyers movie seriously when I think the inclination is often not to. You know, she is the pinnacle right now of sort of glossy, quote unquote, chick flicks. But I think her Hollywood ness is so interesting. And Cameron Diaz, my fellow Cameron, I just have to I love it.
S9: I especially love it because there could not be a more anti Lawrence of Arabia movie. Right? I mean, instead of the wild dry exteriors and the kind of gnawing on camel meat for dinner, we suddenly are going to have these big cozy kitchens full of warm things baking in the oven. I need it.
S2: It is available to rent and all the usual places I, iTunes, Amazon, etc. to pretty famous movie. It’s pretty popular, pretty easy to find. So I hope you’ll join us. Although I will just say for the record, my favorite Nancy Meyers movie is The Parent Trap. If it were not for the fact that the holiday isn’t literally the holiday, that would have been my first Nancy Meyers.
S4: That would be so fun to talk about.
S11: My daughter and I have watched it countless times. I mean, the Lindsay Lohan parent trap is practically playing on loop at my house.
S2: So I have so much to say about a capital C classic as far as I’m concerned. But we can talk about that when we get to Nancy.
S9: All right. So we wish you all a very happy holiday. And please, if you can watch Nancy Meyers the holiday and join us in two weeks to talk about it.
S14: Our producer, as always, is Chow, too, and you can write us with suggestions or feedback about any episode at Flashback at Slate Dotcom focused on Colins. I’m Dave Stevens. Thanks so much for being a Slate plus subscriber. And we will talk to you in two weeks.