Male and Female in “Lawrence of Arabia”

 

The movie Lawrence of Arabia, like The Wild Bunch or Seven Samurai or Moby Dick, is a story without any primary female characters. How, then, can it follow the principle we’ve been exploring in the past three posts:

The female carries the mystery.

The answer, I think, is that Lawrence himself (Peter O’Toole) is the female element.

Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia”

Lawrence is the female element and the male element.

The primary issue posed by David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (or at least one of several primary issues) is, to my mind,

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he still remains human, fallible, and mortal?

To me, Lawrence was two people. The male element lay in Lawrence’s insuperable will to pre-eminence. The film emphasizes this young British officer’s superhuman ability to overcome adversity, his capacity to outlast, out-endure, out-survive on their own turf even the most brilliant and redoubtable Arab leaders.

And Lawrence achieved this pre-eminence in the archetypal “male” way—through assertive and aggressive action and initiative. He was the thunder from heaven; he was the rain that made fertile the plain. But Lawrence’s power came from the union of this male aggression with the female element—his genius and his charisma.

This was the mystery. It was the unexplainable, unknowable element that Lawrence brought that no one else—not the greatest and most illustrious commanders and politicians of the British or the Arab camps—could duplicate or explain.

It was Lawrence’s vision and creativity (in other words, the mystery carried by his female half) as much as any “leadership skills” that changed history—Lawrence’s idea to cross the uncrossable Nefud desert, to attack the Turkish stronghold at Aqaba from the landward side, and much, much more.

SHERIF ALI (OMAR SHARIF)

Truly for some men nothing is written unless they write it themselves.

The turning point in Lawrence of Arabia comes when Lawrence is captured by the Turks and tortured. Before this, his self-conception had been entirely “male,” that is cerebral, mental, “of reason.” But in that long night of beatings, Lawrence’s flesh gave way and his mind followed.

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he still remains human, fallible, and mortal?

Another way of phrasing this might be

What becomes of the female half of us, which carries the mystery/power/creativity, when the male principle has lost faith in its own capacity?

T.E. Lawrence was as much a mystery to himself as he was to others. His saga, on the deepest level, was about his attempt to understand himself, that is, to reconcile the fact of his greatness with the simultaneous reality of his human frailty and mortality.

In a detective story like Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon, the male-female dynamic plays out between the Private Eye and the Femme Fatale. The male is attempting to solve the mystery presented by and carried by the female.

This was Lawrence’s internal story too. His quest was to find, to know, and to understand the unfathomable source of his own genius. He was simultaneously the detective and the woman of mystery.

The second half of Lawrence of Arabia is about Lawrence reconstituting that force and that charisma—but now out of despair instead of hope … and out of the foreknowledge of ultimate defeat even in the actuality of victory.

To me that is what made the historical Lawrence truly great. And also what made his story a tragedy.

The movie of Lawrence of Arabia begins, in a flash-forward, with Lawrence’s essential suicide in a motorcycle crash. This is really the movie’s end.

The movie answers its own question,

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he remains ultimately human, fallible, and mortal?

And the answer is, “You can’t.” Or at least Lawrence, the historical Lawrence, couldn’t.

What insight do I take from this? One, at least, is the realization that we as storytellers don’t need a literally female character to remain true to the principle that

the female carries the mystery.

The male can carry this too.

We all, as has been said many times, contain both principles—male and female. Part of our internal saga must thus be the attempt to identify, to understand, and to learn to work with these opposing poles that constitute the source of our genius and our capacity for creativity.

 

 

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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10 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on August 28, 2019 at 6:42 am

    I admit I’m having to work to fit “drive” and “creativity” into the corrals of male and female. It’s a little easier to visual the “yin-yang” symbol to represent the complementarity, connectedness, and even the illusion of separateness.

    To your point: “His saga, on the deepest level, was about his attempt to understand himself.” I don’t know if I saw you make the observation here in this column, or if I saw it elsewhere. But the moment in the film that best encapsulates this theme of “his search for self-understanding” was when he came out of the desert (was it after crossing the Nefud?). He’s robed and covered in desert dust. From across the Suez,a motorcyclist sees him, stops, and calls out, “Who ARE you?” On his face, you can see he’s thinking the same thing. Who am I?

    One other thing: a local independent theater was screening “Seven Samurai” last weekend, and I coaxed my wife into going along. On exiting, she kept repeating to herself, “That was three and a half hours long. That was three and a half hours long.” I think she was traumatized.

    I said, “Hey Siri. How long is ‘Lawrence of Arabia?'” I thought I was funny, but she didn’t so much.

    • Bill on August 28, 2019 at 9:31 am

      Well said.

  2. James Pier on August 28, 2019 at 8:37 am

    The question of how to reconcile one’s authentic greatness with his own mortality is one of those eternal themes. When I read the opening of this post, what came to mind immediately was the paradox at the core of Becker’s great work on Western psychology, “The Denial of Death.” He expresses it concisely: we are “the god who sh*ts.” Speaking of sh*t, Lawrence makes an appearance in your fabulous “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.” I feel I’m even more obligated than before to put the movie on. Soon.

  3. Bill on August 28, 2019 at 9:39 am

    Heady stuff, gives me something to try and put together.

  4. Adam Abramowitz on August 28, 2019 at 9:45 am

    Wow this is crazy that we’re talking about Lawrence being the female archeytype. I literally just published an episode of “Movie Show” podcast where I describe Lawrence as metrosexual to my brother.

    Wild.

    I was trying to explain to how Lawrence presented as feminine in the movie but couldn’t quite get there. This essay knocks it out of the park.

    Great stuff!!

    https://insidethemindseye.com/2019/08/28/free-solo-ep-3-movie-show/

  5. Peter Brockwell on August 28, 2019 at 10:21 am

    Surely, part of the answer to this question of reconciliation is that this only becomes revealed in retrospect, as the real-life person acquires a mythological status?

  6. Pauline Brin on August 28, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    Great read. I read it several times. Historical Lawrence is one of my personal favorites.

    Yes, he was both male and female. He lived life beyond the existence of the ordinary. Who else would say, “I wrote my will across the sky, in stars”.

  7. Anne Brierley on August 29, 2019 at 3:31 am

    I am not a writer, just an interested observer, but I am trying (struggling) to make the leap from the abstraction of female or feminine here. The assignment of feminine or masculine contains too much corporeal identification to then move it to another, different , seemingly arbitrary and highly subjective subSet of meanings. The female carries the mystery ? Really? Personally as a female, I don’t want to be assigned to carry anything thankyou very much. A worn out romanticised trope where woman becomes the Embodiment of whatever particular projection that society (men) don’t want to carry – liberty /war/exoticism/mens conscience/ the angel of the house blah blah. I think that you’re going to have to come up with other terms rather than masculine and feminine when talking about nebulous and abstracted ideals. As a reader as a viewer as a consumer I was already way past my plimpsol line in the 80’s for stories with only one /no woman in them. And deciding that a male character does in fact carry the female role would be almost funny if you weren’t in fact dealing with ideas which then coalesce into words into a story into people’s consciousness and into the collective understanding. So I’m asking you as storytellers to be aware of charging ‘the feminine’ with a role, you are simultaneously charging women with that responsibility too. And if anyone tells me that is not the intention- unfortunately that’s the result. So find some different way of describing it We are all both male and female but such reductive reasoning surely belongs to another century.

  8. Tobie on August 29, 2019 at 7:03 am

    I think this is spot on! If one remembers that humans are comprised of a mixture of both feminine and masculine energies. This is not about women vs men but the masculine and feminine energies within all of us.

  9. Larry Pass on August 30, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    Hi Steve
    I’ve bee reading up on the lamed-vavniks in anticipation of your book, and I see that the 36 righteous have a special connection to the Shekhina — the feminine presence of God. What’s your take on how/whether the Shekhina carries and protects the mystery?

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