~ The Lyrical Abstraction Of David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia(1962) by David Lean, a mastery of the British epic cinema, narrates the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonizing Africa motivated by a desire of pushing back the frontiers of ignorance, disease and tyranny through a warrior’s passion to unify Arab tribes.
The film evolves through a colonialist discourse in its representation of ‘the other’ over all non-western territories and cultures which are viewed from an imperialist and white supremacist ideology of a colonizer’s perspective. It under-girds the traditional colonial binarisms such as order/chaos, activity/passivity, devolves into idealized symbolic hierarchies that embrace class such as ‘lower class’, ‘high culture’, non-European worlds as less luminous, African people as belonging to a ‘dark continent’, rationality/light versus irrationality/darkness ‘Sight and vision are attributed to Europe, while ‘the Other’ is seen as living in ‘obscurity’, blind to moral knowledge’ (Shohat/Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism). The binary logic of imperialist establish relations of dominance (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, Post-Colonial Studies).
In the short scene of torture (2:51) are exemplified the underlying traditional imperialist narratives at work. Lawrence, who until the date lives naively facing the colonized Arab world as an unruly land in need of discipline, intends now to ‘pass as an Arab in the Arab town’ (2:50) of Deraa. After being halted by a Turkish brigade, he is beaten and released. This fact will dramatically affect the course of the narrative and the life of Lawrence.
During the exposition of the dramatic structure Lawrence is presented unchanged since the beginning of the film ‘locked in his whiteness’ leading his revolutionary Arab revolt with this ‘White civilization’s attitude’ (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks) of mastering the uncivilized. The raw floor, washed walls and highly geometric image composition of the interior of the Turkish headquarter anticipate abuse of power and coming discipline to the still too naïve Lawrence while he is lined up and scrutinized along marginal detainees.
A raising action is quickly triggered in stages by the emotional weight that the General’s asthmatic coughs add denoting internal conflict when addressing Lawrence after other criminals are dismissed. While the General Turk leisurely approaches him we are immersed into a deep religious significance through the image composition of naked walls, simple wooden furniture, brown tunics, cloth belts and oppression resembling of that of the European medieval monasteries where clergies were punished. Altogether bring a recollection of all of those moments where Lawrence has compared himself with the Biblical Moses throughout the film, such as wishing to offer ‘his people’ freedom through the war, be driven by heart and faith, asking ‘his people’ to walk through water with him (2:45) and asking them to do only-miraculously deeds and the like (like the legendary ‘Prince of Egypt’ he wears royal Arab garments). Here the first evident culture collision is made explicit by Dir. Lean by the following dialog descriptive of Lawrence’s complexion with the first purpose of meaning ‘you are different and vulnerable here’ and the second purpose of breaking his strength by forcing him to recognize it.
The dramatic tension rises at the pulse of the General’s coughs; the added detail of the General raising heals while undressing Lawrence has colonial overtones at differencing race levels; from an imperialist/Eurocentric point of view this fact implies that ‘the Turks are at a lower level than the British’ even in disadvantaged situations, signifying that the race blood does not mind physical appearances, since some ‘Black” people are lighter than some “White” people (Shohat/Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism). In fact, one of the Turks has also light eyes as Lawrence’s but still he’s being counted among ‘cattle’.
While Lawrence’s tunic is being torn, an unattractive weak and numb body uncovered then gleams such as the images of the desert sand; virgin, conquerable, feminine, luscious and desirable through the inspecting General’s eyes. The General’s tough breading resembles those same blind desires claimed by Mayotte Capecia in her book I am a Martinican Woman where she declares that all she wants is having ‘just a touch of whiteness in her life’ following the reasoning of ‘One is white, so one is rich, so one is handsome, so one is intelligent’ (Fanon).
The General is puzzled: Lawrence is an embodiment of contradictions, a confusing zone in which a culture of an imperial power clashes with that of its victims; his is not entirely British, nor entirely Arab; he is trapped between both the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’, he is ‘almost an Arab’ (3:05) therefore, reduced to a half man.
The pale and luminous spaces enhancing the brilliance of whites resembling spirituality as Lawrence’s complexion and garments signifying a ‘White man of God, of Good and of Virtue, a true man of choice and of moral’ as an ambassador of a puritan empire juxtaposed to the colonized that is placed in a situation which no longer allows him to choose, a ‘creature of evil’ (the general compares himself in being in the dark side of the moon, 2:53) make Dir. Lean’s cinema a representation of Lyrical Abstraction where the choice is not defined by what it’s being chosen but by the power that it possesses to be able to start afresh through scarifies; therefore, a spiritual determination (Deleuze, The Movement-Image).
This binary logic of imperialism of religion/sex, pure/impure, impotence/power, conqueror/captive, civilized/primitive, good/evil, teacher/pupil, refinement/brutality, superior/inferior is crystallized in the Deleuzian affection-image of the close-up of the militant’s lips glittering of admiration and desire making it a cut off from the lineal time-space bringing the narrative to a climax.
Then we realize that the General has started a revenge against colonialism in sexual terms such as Mustafa in Salih’s Season of Migrations to the North, where he appoints himself the mission to inflict suffering and pain to British women taking the war at a personal level using his intellectual power as a weapon to conquer white women both mentally and physically as a way to throw back colonialism to the colonizers becoming ‘a heartless machine’ (Salih, 25).
All of a sudden the naïve, innocent and wounded colonial Lawrence, from a prophet is raised to the category of that of a saint foreseen a religious leader who must suffer and be sacrificed for his people and cause by bestial ignorance, according to the imperialist discourse; he is being raped and wounded as the colonizers have being raped and wounded by the violent forces of the British empire.
Due to the greatest damage caused by this close encounter with the colonized has been done psychologically in a way that it can’t be restored, consequences will reverberate in the following decisions that Lawrence will take, causing his detachment from the war.
Lawrence is now a mature man aware that his unchangeable ‘epidermic color’ (Fanon) decides his destiny.
From the hero who thought that ‘a man can be whatever he wants’ because 'Nothing is written' and that was willing to make the war just for passion, he decides first to go home to become an ordinary man to do an ordinary job alleging ‘personal reasons’.
A culturally overdetermined geographical-symbolic polarity North/South, East/West axis when Lawrence decides to ‘go North’ as a going home and returning to his people, while South and East is metaphoric reduced to desert, dreariness and a return to barbarism, like Marlow goes South to conquer the ‘unknown’ in Conrad’s Hearth of Darkness, Mustafa in Season of Migrations to the North, who moves from Sudan to Cairo and London to ‘civilize’ himself and as in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River compares the people of Africa as boys that after ‘coming out of a bush’ came late into a ready-made world.
But as this task is impossible since Lawrence has never been an ordinary man, he decides to return to the desert as a greedy man full of revenge, (as a heartless machine) who will fight for money along gathered murders and mercenaries that know nothing of the Arab revolt and prophesies (2:23). Now his enemy has an identity; Turks.
Now, that he has received a dose of his own poison, he’ll return it back to the colonizers by satiating his thirst of revenge obliterating a column of wounded Turks that slaughtered an Arab village, that happened to be in their way to Damascus (3:22). The sensitive Lawrence that once felt guilt for the death of one, now feels pleasure spreading blood becoming as ‘barbarous and cruel’ as his colonized enemy.
The cinematic production of Lawrence of Arabia is representative of ‘Third World Cinema’ as well every time its narrative weights the recognition and exploration of the Arab world raising awareness of the anti-imperialist, or First World/Third World struggle for domination, although it was made by U.K., a First World nation.