By Peggy Nelson
Lawrence of Arabia – 1962 – dir. David Lean
Size DOES matter.
Some films need to be seen on the big screen. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia (dir. by David Lean, 1962) on one of the biggest, the UC Theatre in Berkeley, California. A giant screen is not only the appropriate frame for the stunning cinematography in this film, it is the only canvas large enough for its title subject. T. E. Lawrence was one of those rare people whose life comprised a perfect storm of circumstance and talent, creating a man worthy of a 70mm, almost 4-hour film; a figure truly larger than life.
We flash back to Lawrence in his less-than-remarkable-so-far military career in Cairo in 1916, where he is painting watercolors. Watercolor maps, that is, anticipating the scope of his later activity. Peter O’Toole is Lawrence in too much mascara, whose classical allusions and decidedly unmilitary body language earn him the amused tolerance of his fellows and superiors. But he has a secret, one barely hinted at by his odd hobby of pinching out matches with his fingertips. Underneath the delicate eccentric, he is a fighter. A military strategist of the first order, he has the ability to lead and inspire others, which, combined with his impressive personal bravery, help him to unite the entire Arab world almost single-handedly.
What was he doing, meddling over there, one might ask? And to what end? In WWI, “over there” was an extension of “over here,” as the interlocking alliances of various nations spread the conflict out of Europe into northern Africa. The Ottoman Empire (of which today’s Turkey is a remnant) was allied with Germany and thus an enemy of England. Lawrence was English, and was, among numerous other accomplishments, an Arab scholar and an expert in the languages, customs, history, and geography of the area. He also had first-hand knowledge of Ottoman government officials, and key strategic installations, such as railways. Rather than defeat the Turkish army through sheer force of numbers or weaponry, which would be prohibitively expensive, the English/Arab allies put their resources into speed, agility and the element of surprise, eventually convincing the Turks to withdraw from certain strategic holdings. Lawrence was instrumental in this guerrilla-style campaign.
The first half of the film focuses on Lawrence’s military campaigns in the desert, and his gradual adoption of Arab dress and mores, a tiny form on a miniscule camel against giant, numberless dunes. The second shows his struggles to translate the fragile military alliance into an enduring peacetime unity, so that Arabia could be governed by the people that actually live there, and not ruled from afar by Turkey or Britain. In the latter, Lawrence is dwarfed not by nature but by culture, one voice against the clamor of the crowd.
Lean uses size and scale to convey Lawrence’s achievement. We only really appreciate the difficulty of what Lawrence was trying to do when we can empathize with his situation. And that, for Lean, is key. When the scale becomes larger than life, one’s response to an artwork is qualitatively different than viewing the thumbnail version. Looking out from the top of the Empire State Building is a more intense experience than seeing a picture of it in a magazine. We have a visceral reaction to experiencing an image larger than the human body. This fact enables Lean to use scale to allow us to feel, and try to understand, what Lawrence was trying to do.
To watch this film at home, on a screen smaller than you, where you can “pause” it to finish your laundry, is to change the scale and diminish the experience in a way that drains the intensity out of it. You might not even get around to loading the second DVD; after all, there’s probably something new on YouTube, and isn’t it time for the Colbert Report?
We can’t really feel what Lawrence felt, obviously. We can’t feel anyone else’s feelings. Even with the most realistic of reality TV, we are not really there, we are sitting in a chair watching light flicker on a flat surface. But we do get caught up in good stories, and part of that mechanism involves empathizing with the characters onscreen, imagining being in their place, and constructing an internal model of how we might feel in that situation. The scale of this film encourages empathy; since we cannot physically escape the size of the image in the theater, the suspension of disbelief is furthered.
Lawrence was instrumental in capturing Aqaba, a strategic port city. Aqaba was defended by heavy artillery, but all the guns faced the ocean and were fixed in place, because on the landward side Aqaba abutted a desert considered impassable. In his great feat of the first half of the film, Lawrence not only crosses the desert, but unites warring tribes to accompany him, successfully taking the town. The idea originated with the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office, not Lawrence himself. But it was Lawrence who carried it out, and his success is no less incredible for that.
Was it worth it? The enemy was defeated. The Arabs overcame tribal divisions to work together. Lawrence helped establish a provisional Arab government for the area. But it didn’t last. A French invasion of Damascus in 1920 started a new round of colonialism. And Lawrence didn’t last either. After the war, he continued his military career but was eventually posted back to England, where he died of injuries from a perfectly ordinary motorcycle accident at 46.
Lawrence tried to do something big and noble, in a part of the world he was passionate about understanding. And he succeeded, for a time. If his achievement did not last forever, in another way it did: his deeds are part of history, just as the dunes are a part of the desert. If that is not a way for man to attain the immortality of nature – then what is?