The East is distant, mysterious and sensual. An archetypical oriental picture would have been an Indian Raj lying comfortably on the soft Turkish carpet, drinking wine in a silver jeweled cup and watching a group of young thinly dressed Indian women performing belly dance. Another typical oriental picture might be a group of Arab nomads ridding on camels in the limitless golden desert. At night, they set – up a little camp fire whose flames compete with the glow of the night’s multitude of stars. The little children surround the fire and listen to the old wise man narrating ancient tales that his grandfather has told him when he was small.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film like this. Its sheer scale is breathtaking. It spans for 4 whole hours, including a 15 minute intermission. Yet, it achieved immense success, winning 7 Oscar Awards and being considered as one of the greatest epic films. Part of the reasons, I believes, lies in its exploration of the exotic Arabia.
The plot is about how Lawrence as a British officer united the different warring Arabian tribes against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. In the first part, the eccentric yet immensely knowledgeable Lawrence was sent to evaluate the prospect of Prince Faisal for joining the British against the Turks. Arrived, the outspoken Lawrence promptly proposed a daring scheme to Prince Faisal to cross the deadly desert for occupying Aqaba, a crucial port for loading British supplies.
In the second part, after achieving an almost impossible victory in Aqaba, Lawrence was so highly regarded by both the Arabian tribes and British general that he continued to play a key role in the struggle against the Turks. Shortly interrupted by a traumatizing experience, he later led the Arabian tribes to take Damascus. He set up a council for the Arabs to administer the city but as desert tribesman, they proved ill – suited for this task. Eventually they gave up control to the British force and we see a dejected Lawrence being driven away, since his usefulness has already been exhausted.
The movie is made against the background of decolonization in 1970s. It should have been a very good chance to reflect on the West’s barbarous colonization in the past few centuries. However, instead of taking the lead, Lawrence of Arabia seems to serve to deepen our oriental conceptions/misconception of the East.
This kind of orientalism has a long history. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Western Europeans experienced their first taste of ‘Orient’ after waves of Orthodox Christian émigrés flooded to the Western world. The later explorations of Western explorers in the ‘Far East’ of China continued to feed on their oriental interest with items like tea and china. In this process, the West constructed a fictitious Orient, along with a set of other assumptions that become orientalism.
Edward Said has much to say about orientalism. According to his idea, orientalism is a power relation that not only extremely narrows the scope of oriental reality but also perpetuate the self – affirming Western bias. The West built a feminized image of the East by depicting its culture as essentially highly sentimental and mysteriously sensual. It waits for a formal, rational and masculine West to rescue the feminine East.
The role of Sherif Ali is instructive here. He was initially perceived as a ‘greedy, barbarous and cruel’ man when he killed a man for drinking his well without permission. He later assisted Lawrence in his expedition to take Aqaba. A man was missing. Sherif Ali pressed on and said that his death is already ‘written’ by Allah. Lawrence showed him that ‘nothing is written’ when he turned back in a suicidal attempt to save the missing man, and unsurprisingly succeeded.
Impressed by Lawrence and his vision of a united Arab, Sherif Ali learned the art of Western politics, as illustrated when Jackson Bentley, the American journalist, found a children book on parliament from him. In another scene at the townhall amidst the noises of the Arabian tribes arguing how to run the city of Damascus, Sherif Ali was almost provoked to anger and sprung up to action, but for Lawrence ‘s advice – ‘If you answer, there will be bloodshed.’ He calmed down and ‘humbly’ asked for an apology.
However, he ultimately failed to learn this rational Western manner in politics. The same person who provoked him found him afterward and asked him about Lawrence. Sheriff Ali was so irritated that he produced his dagger and threatened him to take his hands away.
Sheriff Ali is not merely a typical image of a barbarous Arabian waiting for Western enlightenment. His tendency to excess emotion and responsiveness to provocation exemplified the feminized image of the East which is essentially emotionally volatile. Sheriff Ali needs the rescue of the rational and masculine British officer to teach him that ‘nothing is written’ and that he must stay calm or otherwise bloodshed will follow.
Another interesting observation is clothing. Clothing, like languages, is a ticket to be admitted as one of their kinds. After achieving the suicidal task of saving the missing man, Sheriff Ali was so awed and impressed that at night, he burned Lawrence’s British uniform and gave him a white and grand Arabian robe – an admission that Lawrence was now one of them.
Few watching Lawrence of Arabia would have known that Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence, subsequently played the role of Reginald Fleming Johnston – the first and the last Imperial Tutor of China – in the Last Emperor. The Johnston in the Last Emperor movie was curious with his Manchu court robe. However according to his memoir in The Twilight of Forbidden City, the real – life Johnston was so excited to receive such privilege distinctions from the Chinese emperor that he took multiple photographs as souvenirs.
Edward Said would have been quite critical at that. In chapter 3 of Orientalism, he said that new orients lived with the people in East, as if they were one of them. However the purpose was not to appreciate the realistic Eastern lifestyle but to know more about them so that they can rule them. Lawrence of Arabia, he continued, was such an example.
Lawrence of Arabia is a cinematic achievement by its own right. It also talks about divided allegiances and confused identity but its very basis lies in its Orientalism. What is more important is that it has continued relevance in the modern world. During the Cold War, the Sovietologists from the USA wished to understand Russia – ‘a riddle wrapped in enigma’. Now, the so – called Sinologists wants to know more about China (a book like this shows how the West – East (artificial) distinction has been so firmly imprinted in popular culture and academic disciplines) In the 21st century, the kind of orientalism expressed in Lawrence of Arabia is as fresh as it was released 50 years ago.