King and Country: On Lawrence of Arabia

for Christine Harmon

The opening of Lawrence of Arabia tells much of the story, if not the whole. There’s that sense of adventure, a sense of exploring the world anew, underlying our highest desires and some not so high ones. It can lead one to ride a motorbike too fast, seeing more while daring anyone or anything to stop you. And it can lead to wanting to conquer your fears, know as much as possible, and take control. The link between such a spirited individual and the highest political objects is the want of freedom, but is the freedom that screams from within oneself the same thing as freedom for a people? No wonder the bureaucrats at Lawrence’s funeral refuse to explain his legacy. They can’t. The tension can only be felt by someone aware of freedom in the first place.

To be sure, this is somewhat of a boyish enterprise, and that is not meant as a compliment. It stems from another tension, one central to anything we call education in the West. British schoolboys were bred to be noble. Discipline, respect for authority, strength from order. But British schoolboys were also Christian, believing in miracles and a Providence benefiting one personally. Discipline and order do not simply create boy scouts or automatons. Self-discipline and an intellect that recognizes where things are properly put accompany the most daring curiosities and the most creative personalities. Add the idea that God becomes man and the most explosive hubris can unearth itself. The noble sees itself confirmed in the world, as it thinks it sees its own narrative unfold. One might see Lawrence as a kind of holy warrior, fighting for the cult of himself. One might accuse him of immaturity.

But Faisal’s comment that war is a young man’s game and peace an old man’s game does not begin to do the situation justice. It’s a cheap characterization which directly substitutes manipulation as control for the freedom which comes from the feeling of control. It already assumes that the only thing worth being is the manipulator who can always manipulate. What makes Lawrence so compelling to those around him is his boldness which has a certain honesty about it. That he can be broken, that he can be “half-mad,” is his being an extraordinary man. This is not a simple case of a man who is only a warrior failing to recognize the realities of politics. If anything, he sees the political situation too well and plays a complicated, deadly game that of necessity will find his weakness. We’re all naive about politics to a degree.

We witness the slide from man to divinity primarily through his learning. We see him restless in Cairo, wanting to be useful. But he does not simply exercise patience; he builds an inhuman tolerance of pain, putting out fires with his fingers as a parlor trick. He says the pain does not matter if one pays it no mind. This sort of continence, while in this case obviously exaggerated, is discussed as useful to leaders in Xenophon. It is the key to understanding both Socrates and the Spartans. Lawrence makes sure to know the region he operates in and act on that knowledge. He wins over Faisal and Ali by letting Faisal’s men do what they are best at, guerrilla fighting based on mastery of the terrain. This allows him to build a serious basis for Arab identity through the Bedouin spirit. His propensity for stupid risks endears him to his men. Prone to excessive compassion and violence, he shows a daring they wish they could have. This may be the deeper truth underlying why the best generals do whatever they order their men to do, whether Xenophon, Caesar, Napoleon. It isn’t as simple as challenging another’s manhood; it’s showing another what they can be, truly. That they never need to feel constrained by the world.

That Lawrence is successful becomes the problem. If you perform miracles, who are you? And what is the price of performing one miracle? What makes the movie so powerful is that it is the performance of a miracle which breaks Lawrence. He saves a man in the desert who by all rights should have died. He kills him later and preserves a peace which lasts even in Damascus. To perform a miracle once – to have a pillar of dust be one of fire – is to never look at a pillar of dust the same way again. That Lawrence performed a miracle at least once makes the problem more acute. For nobility, as pagan authors like Plutarch and Tacitus noted, is not meant to result in victory. Nobility actually exists as a substitute for the good. When we don’t get what we want, we content ourselves with the honor and respect due us. To be honored and respected while obtaining the good is to be no less than a god.

Lawrence grapples with this problem and it drives him mad. The central moment in the movie is recognizing how low he has fallen at the peak of his reputation. He has crossed the desert and won the unwinnable. Yet he is profoundly troubled by two deaths. First, the death of one he was directly a protector of, the outcast youth servant. The other death is Gasim, who he says he enjoyed killing. It isn’t clear how much he liked shooting Gasim from our vantage. It does look like he is disgusted with himself during and after the killing. But maybe Lawrence’s “enjoyment” is coming from being a miracle-worker, a founder of peoples, a giver of independence. As a truly free man, bound to no order, he must take pride in the actions that mark his effectiveness. His is not a role one gives up easily, evidenced by the times he tries to walk away.  He ultimately knows the importance of oneself as a symbol and a cause. Yet it is impossible to take any pride in the actions constituting that, as they force one to see one’s inhumanity.

The back-and-forth instability of one’s own self, weirdly enough, can be the fuel for success on the battlefield. Lawrence dares to create an Arab revolt with his personality. It fails, as even his captors do not recognize him. He returns after a crisis of confidence in himself, and his strategy is to indulge the cult of personality even more, bribing as many as possible and openly embracing savagery. It is easy to dismiss this as the actions of a potential tyrant. In truth, a broken man struggling with himself is still aiming at the higher objects. And he does this very well, giving his army a number of reasons to fight: those who love honor and freedom need no other motivation than Lawrence’s brilliance; those who love money have it; those who love to kill have that too. Small wonder he can move his army far faster than the British.

Neither the noble nor the miraculous alone make us human. But they are not just extremes with no value for our lives. Ali goes from murderous thug to a real believer in order, a commander who cares for his men, and a potential leader in a Arab nation which stands together. Lawrence serves as educator to him. And the political disarray proximately caused by the too hasty occupation of Damascus is not political naivete. It is a real chance at an independent Arab nation. The project fails for a number of reasons, not least of which the attempt to steal Arabia from the people living in it, but that Lawrence gives them a chance at success is a small miracle unto itself. The boy scout colonel looks absolutely disgusted when he leaves the room, after Faisal and Allenby acknowledge how much of a pest Lawrence was to them. I wonder if he’s angry at nobility being manipulated so basely. People really do fight for causes, and the highest causes tear us apart from the inside.