Friday, December 16, 2005

T.E., or Celluloid as History

David Lean directed two well-remembered historical films, one right after the other.
Bridge on the River Kwai [1957] and Lawrence of Arabia [1962] are both frequently held up as high cinematic art and about as frequently disparaged for their anti-war themes. Both had an uncredited Michael Wilson for a writer. So far everything's equal between them, right? So, why do I have such vastly different feelings about the two of them?

Well, I do. River Kwai is one of my favorite films. Not on my top ten list, probably (if I were to ever make out an official top ten), but a marvelously good watch. Lean’s version of Lawrence, however… I dono’ like so much. Oh, it is a magnificently made production…

First off, Kwai has almost nothing to do with the true story upon which it is based. (Information about the bridge at Kwai was smuggled out and bomber aircraft blew it away.) But it doesn’t really claim to be factual, that I can tell. It’s obvious that these characters are fictitious. And who actually thinks the Japanese placed people in command positions who were that, erm… helpless? River Kwai is simply a beautifully produced bit of historical fiction that endeavors to spark thought.

Lawrence of Arabia, on the other hand… This film is frequently interpreted as fact. Perhaps it is that Kwai feels close-up, while Lawrence feels more distant and epic. Most people I have spoken to about T. E. Lawrence view the film as a genuine biography—and most disgusting of all is that many biographers have themselves been deeply influenced by the film’s warped lens.

The film is, however, only consistent with reality in a certain framework of large events. Lawrence was assigned to Arabia where he rallied tribes together and led them against the Turks;, and then was left watch as the tribes' lands were given to other governments. Hardly any truth is left in about any of the events that caused the ones just mentioned, and Lawrence’s actual experiences and true person are almost entirely absent.

For instance, Lawrence did not gain respect among the Arabs for fighting Turks while possessed with a god-complex. Lawrence never even advanced toward the door of insanity. He was respected instead by the Arabs because, at first, he was a genuinely valiant man with guts and shrewd, unconventional thinking. That respect grew later due to a certain self-destructive recklessness, yes, but not for the reasons of the movie. Rather, he risked himself heroically in battle because he was covering up the British betrayal (something the film claims he didn’t even know about) and hoped to some extent to be killed in honorable battle, rather than live with a guilty conscience. This, while in itself disturbing, is a far more interesting motivation to study than the fictionalized one.

David Lean’s portrayal of Lawrence pretty well qualifies as character assassination, actually. The god-complex, the sadism, etc.
And in the end, when the fictitious version of Lawrence learns that the British promise of Arab self-government has been snatched away, T.E. stands mute. He seems somehow either used-up or unwilling to fight any longer.
But this portrayal, in which T.E. learns what he had not and is disowned by Prince Feisal as a disloyal Britisher is a direct reversal of the truth. Lawrence, having actually long known of the betrayal, was harsh toward himself while Feisal continued to trust the man. Why? Because the real T. E. Lawrence was, as I have said, a man of true valor.

He stood by Feisal as a trusted adviser in Western political waters. He fought for Feisal in places Feisal either could not or would not go. He finally allowed his heroics to be widely publicized, specifically so as to give more weight to his figure and thus grant himself more political influence on Feisal’s behalf.

I'm kind of upset with myself for having written this in such a disjointed and rambling manner. But then, it's a big issue and I'm glad I've managed to touch upon the parts I have. Maybe, I should write my own biography of T.E.L. Hmm...

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