Lawrence of Arabia

If there had been no newspaper strike, and mine were a lonely voice instead of an only voice, Lawrence of Arabia might now be festooned with the superlatives accorded such previous superproductions as The Best Years of Our Lives, Around the World in 80 Days, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Ben Hur. But like its almost forgotten predecessors, Lawrence is simply another expensive mirage, dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal. Its objective is less to entertain or enlighten than to impress and intimidate. It is not as stupid as The Longest Day or as silly as Mutiny on the Bounty. Some of its acting and technical effects are interesting. But on the whole I find it hatefully calculating and condescending.

What baffles me about the promotion of the film is the assumption that everyone is passionately interested in T. E. Lawrence. Perhaps there is a cultural gap between generations. Lawrence was born in 1888 and died in 1935. Lowell Thomas popularized the legend of Lawrence of Arabia between 1918 and 1920. Those of us in America who grew up during the Depression had little reason to cultivate a champion of Arab nationalism as a personal idol. In my cultural adolescence I associated the name Lawrence with the initials D. H. rather than T. E. I even wondered whether my earliest literary hero had been involved in Arabia. Then I learned this was another Lawrence and that there was something disreputable about him, something that inspired veiled queer jokes. Somehow I failed to pursue the subject until quite recently—and I must concede that is one of the film's fringe benefits. The main trouble with this four-hour ordeal, two years and $13 million in the making, is that it grossly oversimplifies the murky politics of the Middle East without coming to grips with the man himself.

The film begins with a short prologue re-enacting Lawrence's fatal motorcycle accident and the dedication of his bust in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. After several of his acquaintances—some historical, some fictional-historical—have been briefly interviewed the plot flashes back to Lawrence in 1916 as a junior officer in the Maps Division of British General Headquarters in Cairo. This reverse opening suggests a possible "Kane" approach to the mystery of the hero—that is, a depiction of Lawrence as others saw him. However, David Lean's meticulously bloated direction and Robert Bolt's limply epigrammatic dialogue quickly dispel that notion.

The strange thing about this movie is that people look smaller in rooms than they do on the desert. I am sure that Lean was trying for some bizarre caricature of officialdom to the advantage of the wild Bedouin existence, but this stylistic trick never comes off because it is both too obvious and too unpleasant. As Lawrence, Peter O'Toole gives a nervous, hysterical, and at times effeminate performance that is not entirely wrong for the part but that somewhat distorts the historical magnitude of the character. For example, Lawrence's remarkable skill as a diplomat among the warring Arab factions is only vaguely suggested. Too often his image on horseback or camelback is allowed to prevail over his insight in the conference tent. His first great victory, the capture of Aqaba, is described from a towering crane as an exciting charge. The real Lawrence astutely persuaded the Turks to surrender without firing a shot. Of course a charge is generally considered more "cinematic."

Lean's interpretation of-Lawrence's capture by the Turks is a further "cinematic" exploitation. Lawrence himself records that he was flogged and sodomized on that occasion. Biographers differ on the comparative traumatic effects of the torture and the perversion. B. H. Liddell Hart emphasized the awakening homosexuality, Anthony Nutting the discovery of a raging masochism. There appears to be no evidence that Lawrence was ever an overt homosexual. Terence Rattigan's Ross suggests that the Turks, with their Byzantine cunning, detected a latent homosexuality in Lawrence and brought it to the surface to destroy their prisoner as an Arab hero. This silly interpretation defies all logical, psychological, and historical probability, but it is an interpretation. Again Lean and Bolt try to have it both ways in the film. José Ferrer plays a coughing Turkish pederast to the hilt as he literally unveils his blond captive and fondles his breast. We see the hero striking his tormentor and being flogged for his pains, and then we see nothing more until Lawrence is cast out of the barracks. We never find out what happened, and an incredibly naive spectator might even assume that Lawrence was disheartened by his inability to endure torture.

I find the treatment of this episode thoroughly distasteful. For one thing, it seems to be the big sales gimmick of the film. If a beautiful girl were stripped and then flogged for her resistance, the censors would be up in arms demanding an end to this immorality, and the critics would chortle about such outrageous Arabian Nights commercialism. But let a man be stripped and flogged, and we are supposed to be impressed with the seriousness of the theme. Perhaps Lawrence of Arabia is one brutal queer film too many. Perhaps I am a little weary of people telling me about the silliness of the heterosexual action in The Lovers and about the profundity of the sadism in Billy Budd. Perhaps I am just plain tired of all these "serious" moral films with no women in the cast. There is a calculating sickness at work here, an Anglo-American syndrome of abstract morality for men only that sickens me as a recurringly acclaimed theme of the cinema. By all means, let's bring on the girls.

(Village Voice, December 20, 1962)