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Perspective: Michael Anderegg on The Movie

Excerpts from “Lawrence of Arabia: The Man, The Myth, The Movie” by Michael A. Anderegg, Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 1982

From pages 288, 299-300:

“‘Lawrence of Arabia’ does not attempt to present or to explain the ‘real’ T.E. Lawrence (whoever he was); it is, like all films even those that aspire to documentary truth-a fiction. The person who was T.E. Lawrence does not and could not exist in the film. As soon as he appears on the screen, the Lean/Bolt/ Peter O’Toole Lawrence takes on a life independent of historical fact. All the same, the film from time to time draws upon extra cinematic Lawrences (Lowell Thomas’s Lawrence, Richard Aldington’s Lawrence, and, of course, Lawrence’s Lawrence). At such moments, we the audience are able to compare other texts to the filmic text, insofar as those texts are available to us. Nevertheless, the film presents its own, self-contained world. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is, among other things, an essay on the paradox of heroism, on the inevitable, unfathomable fissures that separate impulse from act, history from myth, the self from the image of the self. Lean and his collaborators make no attempt to resolve the paradoxes I have outlined above; rather, they interknit and transform them in such a way as to enrich, in filmic terms, the texture of the Lawrence myth. The first paradox - Weak Man/Strong Man - finds expression in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ primarily in terms of Lawrence’s psychosexuality: as is true of the various written accounts of the historical Lawrence, suggestions of homosexuality, masochism, and sadism inform the film’s text. Here, ambiguities are especially pronounced: censorship, in 1962, maintained its strong grip on the commercial cinema. Thus, homoeroticism is simultaneously repressed and exhibited by the text. For many viewers, this coyness probably resolves itself into an assertion of Lawrence’s homosexuality. Since sexual “deviancy” has nearly always been treated obliquely and ambiguously in the mainstream cinema, obliqueness and ambiguity themselves signify the presence of what is absent. Even a hint of the forbidden equals the forbidden when the forbidden can only be hinted at.”

And from pages 299-300:

“But the more Lawrence penetrates the landscape, the more he seems to absorb it into himself: Arabia is a theater in Lawrence’s mind. “The passage of the mythological hero,” Joseph Campbell reminds us, “may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward-into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified.” Lean’s epic style depicts Arabia as both a magnificent stage set and a metaphysical landscape, his elegantly tracking camera capturing the grandeur and barrenness of the desert, his slow dissolves and subliminal editing suggesting the illogical continuity and dreamlike texture of the forbidding terrain. Initially dwarfed by the desert’s vastness and buffeted by its inexorable brutality, Lawrence learns to come to terms with it, to become at once part of it and apart from it. He inhabits this world, as he does everything, self-consciously: grandiloquent of gesture, ostentatious, vainglorious, he plays his part as well as he can for a man who does not know what his part really is. Such role-playing inevitably leads to the borders of schizophrenia. Twice in the film, Lawrence looks at his own reflection in the blade of his knife. In the first instance, he is still relatively innocent. He has just put on his white robes for the first time, and he studies the image reflected back to him in puzzled admiration, not quite believing that he has been able so thoroughly and drastically to change his identity. The second time, much later in the film, the context is very different. Lawrence, after giving the order to take no prisoners, participates in the massacre at Tafas. The white robes are now soiled with blood, and the face Lawrence submits to reflective scrutiny seems to be that of a madman. Neither man nor role are recognizably what they were before, and Lawrence can now only retreat from heroism, put aside his Arab dress, and return to England and the absurd, perhaps not entirely accidental death with which the film began. The paradoxes I have been discussing do not, in David Lean’s film, resolve themselves into a solution to the enigma of Lawrence’s character. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ ends, as it began, a deeply ambiguous film; indeed, it ends and begins simultaneously. Lawrence enters the film in order to die. As his motorcycle speeds along a country road, his intense face is illuminated by areas of light and shadow in alternation, an effect that becomes more and more bizarre as his velocity increases. Swerving to avoid hitting someone on the road, he loses control of his machine and, thrown offscreen, quite literally disappears. Here, in the first moments of the film, we have the essential Lawrence: brave but foolhardy; a thrillseeker who seems to invite disaster; manic intensity; a self-sacrificial bravado; a fatal gesture; the superhuman will in conflict with human possibilities; the hero as scapegoat. Such a beginning to what most viewers would rightly consider a rousing adventure story should warn us to expect a film that constantly questions itself, not only in terms of plot, character, and theme, but also as a particular kind of discourse, as a method of presentation. Lowell Thomas’s film created a hero; Lean’s film, at least in part, is about the power of the cinema to create a hero. Though Lawrence’s motives may be beyond recovery, his image speaks eloquently to our hopes and needs. Time and again, Lean’s camera closes in on Lawrence’s face as if to penetrate its mystery, and each close-up leaves us with a deeper enigma than before. The image cannot be questioned; it is inviolate. But if he refuses to solve the puzzle of Lawrence’s character, Lean brilliantly depicts Lawrence’s world. He thus transcends and at the same time pays homage to film as spectacle. Allusive, open, self-conscious, mystifying, unfinished, complex, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ remains one of the richest and most satisfying of modern epics.”