What I Learned From Lawrence of Arabia

So, I watched Lawrence of Arabia last Saturday night.

For the first time.

No, seriously. I lived nearly three decades without seeing one of the greatest films ever. Yeah, yeah, feel free to laugh. I don’t blame you. That’s like not seeing Star Wars or The Shining. But I’ve always been more into literature than movies, and until a few days ago, I’d never had the time or enough interest to watch it. And man, I didn’t know what I was missing. I could wax poetic about the acting, cinematography, score…everything. It’s impossible to not get swept up in it. The image of a burning match and a desert sunrise is still etched in my mind. After 222 minutes of epic storytelling, I went to bed knowing that I had seen something special.

The next morning, Peter O’Toole died.

I was stunned. Not twelve hours before, I’d seen him willingly ride back into the desert to save his comrade. Nothing is written, he had shouted defiantly. I’d been drawn in by those piercing blue eyes, and those iconic white robes. I cheered at his victories, and saddened at his losses.  And now this man – someone who managed to bring to life a character larger than life itself – is gone. However, the lessons of that story are not. Lawrence of Arabia may be over 50 years old, but its messages are timeless.

What makes the movie so fascinating is just how little it seems like one. Compared to modern films, anyway. Hey, quick question: What’s your favorite epic adventure and/or action flick? Is it Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Matrix? The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? They’re all great, but why are they loved so much? It’s because they give us just the right amount of escapism and entertainment we need. We revel in violence and explosions, and stare in slack-jawed wonder at the style and majesty of the exotic settings. They’re great distractions from the lacking character development. Think about it. Why do you like Indiana Jones? It’s because you like seeing him traveling the world and punching bad guys, isn’t it?  Come on, be honest. Do you actually care about Indy as a character? Probably not. The same goes for every Neo, John McClane, and Terminator out there. They’re phenomenal action heroes, but their character depth is sacrificed for the sake of pacing and appeal.

***SPOILERS FOR A 50+ YEAR OLD MOVIE JUST IN CASE***

Lawrence of Arabia averts this by examining what would really happen to such a heroic figure. I’m not sure if it’s a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing, or just common sense. If you’re reasonably-versed in the real T.E. Lawrence’s exploits, you know how things end up. But even if you’re going into the film blind, it’s pretty obvious how things are going to play out once the realistic tone is set. Lawrence seems like an eccentric, but undeniably brave and charismatic leader. He gets various desert tribes to work together, goes native, forms a small army, and proceeds to wreak epic havoc all over the Turks. Lawrence seems like a typical action hero…until the first time he has to kill someone. He doesn’t say a badass one-liner; he hesitates, his hands and voice tremble, and he throws the gun away afterwards. It’s not just because he feels horrified about committing murder, but because he knows he enjoys it. Compare that scene with the massacre at Tafas; Lawrence goes on a killing spree, and the manic look on his face is chilling. Not only does he willingly shoot a gun, but he quickly runs out of bullets and pulls out his dagger. By the end of the battle, his arms – and his once-white robes – are drenched in blood. Dozens of bodies are left to rot in the sun. No one applauds, there is no victory fanfare. Only horror and disgust. Sherif Ali stares at Lawrence and says with a broken, bitter voice:

“Does it surprise you, Mr. Bentley? Surely, you know the Arabs are a barbarous people. Barbarous and cruel. Who but they! Who but they!

At its core, Lawrence’s story is nothing new. It’s of the oldest Aesops around: pride and vanity can be dangerous. Basically, he buys too much into his own hype. It’s easy to understand why; for the first half of the movie, he seems unstoppable. He willingly went back alone into one of the deadliest places on Earth just to save someone, and survived! Who wouldn’t want to follow him? However, it becomes clear that he doesn’t fully consider the consequences of his actions. The two comic relief servants die because of his needlessly risky planning. While he’s enjoying a private moment of victory at the shores of the Red Sea, his army is plundering Aqaba and destroying his only method of long-range communication with the British. Lawrence believes himself to be untouchable, yet is shot during a raid. He tries to brush the injury off with some boasting, but is left scarred. Not only does it further demonstrate Lawrence’s carelessness, but hints that he’s still vulnerable beneath the bold exterior.

His scouting expedition into Daraa results with more blatant and damaging consequences. Lawrence – a blond, blue-eyed Brit – thinks he can pass for an Arab tribesman. Sherif Ali knows what a stupid idea it is, but accompanies his friend anyway. Reality ensues; Lawrence is immediately caught by the guards, and sent to be interrogated by the Turkish Bey. That scene isn’t visually graphic in its violence, but its subtext and implications are. The Bey doesn’t just hit Lawrence; he takes the time to strip him down, examine his body, and creepily fondle his chest. Then the torture and implied off-screen rape commences. It’s in this scene that we – and Lawrence himself – realize that he isn’t untouchable. It’s hard to watch. Unlike other action heroes who survive that kind of punishment and get their revenge, he is left a shattered, defeated remnant of his former self. He finally understands that he is just a man, and not a prophet.

The British authorities have to shamelessly appeal to his vanity to get him back into the fray. He is essential to their plan for Damascus, after all. The Tafas massacre aside, it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong with Lawrence of Arabia. He’s not smiling anymore. The twinkle in his eye has given way to a stone-cold stare. He naively assumes the Arabs will come for his sake rather than money, yet hires mercenaries that don’t care about his cause. It’s clear he understands the difference – Sherif Ali calls him on it point-blank – but doesn’t seem too concerned. For Lawrence, the conquest of Damascus is his chance to heal his wounded pride and regain any semblance of dignity. And for a second, it looks like he succeeds;  his forces take the city and set up the Arab National Council. But in typical fashion, he overlooks the obvious:

They don’t know how to run a modern city.

The tribes represent a culture steeped in centuries of tradition…in the desert. That doesn’t change overnight; there’s just a mountain of new problems. When the fighting is over, a civil engineer is way more useful than a swordsman. The image of Lawrence desperately trying to get water out a disconnected faucet is sad and pathetic; for all his charisma and bravado, he can’t save the thousands of injured and dying in the streets. We even get to see our hero slapped by a disgusted army medical officer! With no options, he relinquishes control to the British, the only players left in this scenario with resources and practical skills. What’s most telling is the return of Prince Faisal, the real leader of the Arabs; while Lawrence was gallivanting all over the desert, Faisal was preparing for his inevitable negotiations with the British. Not only is he much savvier, but it’s clear he kept Lawrence around for only as long as necessary:

“Aurens is a sword with two edges. We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?”

Thus, Lawrence is given an appropriate end: He’s sent home. That’s it. The job is done. He did amazing, death-defying things and helped change the course of a nation. The adventure was incredible, but it broke him physically, mentally, and spiritually. In the beginning, he rode confidently into the desert on a camel and connected with people. In the end, he’s lost all connections and is despondently driven out of the desert in a jeep. There’s nothing epic or romantic left. Once he’s completed his role, no one has any more use for his heroics; all he gets to look forward to is a lack of purpose and the legions of fans who know nothing about him on as a person.

That’s what really happens to an action hero.

So, what can we learn from Lawrence of Arabia? It’s not just about the epic adventure or the political intrigue. It’s a moral about not letting yourself be consumed by your flaws. Your idols and role models are people, too. Pride and vanity are powerful things, and they can be used creatively and destructively. It’s great to be brave and ambitious, but you have to think things through to be effective. You need heroism and common sense. If you define yourself by just your fame and exploits, you risk not only your identity, but the lives and happiness of the people you care about. Never forget why and for whom you do something. Your choices have consequences, and irresponsibility leads to suffering. For better or worse, your actions are your only legacy. Make it a good one.

So it is written.

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One thought on “What I Learned From Lawrence of Arabia

  1. Pingback: Zero To Hero Day 1: Introduction | polymathically

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