April 18, 2004


'Lawrence of Arabia' Redux (Frank Rich, 4/18/04, NY Times)

AS the Iraq war enters its second year, it has already barreled through at least four movie plots. What began as a "High Noon" showdown with Saddam Hussein soon gave way to George W. Bush's "Top Gun" victory jig. Next was the unexpected synergy with "The Fog of War," Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary underlining how the Johnson administration's manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the ur-text for the current administration's hyping of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And then Fallujah: "Black Hawk Down."

If the news from the war were better, there might be an audience now for Disney's new version of "The Alamo," with which Michael Eisner had once hoped to "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism." But its opening weekend may have drawn fewer moviegoers in total than there were Jews at "The Passion of the Christ." Triumphalism is out. If we are to believe most commentators, the next title on our wartime bill will instead be "Apocalypse Now" (if we stay and sink into the quagmire) or "Three Kings" (if we cut and run). Though perhaps not quite yet. The most apt movie for this moment just may be David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations whose foreign service career began in Vietnam, said to me last week, "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now."

What Mr. Holbrooke is referring to is the story's mordant conclusion. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T. E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded. The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away. But as the local leaders gather in an Arab council, a tentative exercise in self-government, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public-health outrages roil the populace. "I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired. But the bloodbath continued — and now that we've ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off. Only Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.

It was last weekend, after I watched "Lawrence" again for the first time in years, that L. Paul Bremer was asked by Tim Russert to whom we would turn over the keys in Iraq on June 30, and gave his now immortal answer: "Well, that's a good question." We don't have a clue, and in part that's because we have no memory.

No, seriously, he wrote this. I know, you're saying to yourself: "No intelligent human being thinks that the movies tell it like it was"--but he really wrote this.

Anyone who's read any of a number of books--the best of which is probably David Fromkin's Peace to End all Peace--will be aware that most of today's problems in the Middle Easty trace directly to the failure to heed Lawrence and allow the Arabs to develop their own states. All the Brits and French did was to delay the necessary process of self-determination and democratization for several decades. Unfortunately, we're left cleaning up the mess they made.

If he's going to base his view of history on the movies alone, Mr. Rich would do well to at least choose his viewing more carefully. In this case, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia is more accurate than David Lean's masterpiece.

George W. Bush is indeed T. E. Lawrence, but he's also David Lloyd George and that makes all the difference in the world.

The importance of T. E. Lawrence (David Fromkin, September 1991, New Criterion)

The celebrity brought about by Lowell Thomas’s “Lawrence of Arabia” show propelled T. E. into the political limelight. Long before George Murphy became a U.S. Senator or Ronald Reagan became America’s President, Lawrence was a sort of actor in politics. He threw himself into his roles wholeheartedly. Dressed in the uniform of a British officer, he spoke cynically of how he would manipulate the peoples of the Middle East, but wearing his native robes, he was the only prominent Englishman in favor of genuine independence for the Arabs.

In 1919 Lawrence was Feisal’s confederate at the Peace Conference, maneuvering to get Hussein’s son the crown of an independent Syria and causing some on the British side to wonder whose team he was on. In 1920, T. E. became a public critic of Britain’s Middle East policy. Attacking the central justification of imperialism—that native peoples are incapable of self-rule—he wrote to the Times that “Merit is no qualification for freedom.” Of the Arabs in Syria and what is now Iraq, he wrote that “They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2004 9:52 AM

Perhaps the disastrous box office for The Alamo is because the reviews all mentioned that it was "even-handed" in its retelling of history. Americans can read, even between the lines, and they don't want to spend their money on some PC retelling of our national myths.

Posted by: brian at April 18, 2004 4:11 PM

I wonder when we'll finally get to see an even-handed account of Iwo Jima.

Posted by: Peter B at April 18, 2004 6:43 PM

The irony is that "Laurence of Arabia" ends on film sometime in 1917; before the unmentioned
Ibn Saud, and scarcely mentioned in Pillars,
depose Hussein & co. and send them packing to
Transjordan & Mesopotamia. Which makes the whole
"Thanks to the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia"
a puzzler. It's interesting that no one has made
a film of Orde Wingate,the Zionist Lawrence, in this context.

Posted by: narciso at April 18, 2004 9:35 PM

Those interested in bursting myths may want to read Richard Aldington on Lawrence.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 19, 2004 1:53 AM

Though the Versailles: 1919 episode of The Young Indiana Jones did touch on it.

(That was the most depressing episode of Young Indy I ever saw; watching every major war of the 20th and 21st Centuries -- WW2, the Cold War, Iraq, Arab-Israeli, Vietnam -- set up to start.)

Posted by: Ken at April 19, 2004 7:13 PM