The Female in “Lawrence of Arabia”
With the exception of a few long-distance glimpses of tribal Arab wives and mothers ululating in valediction as their husbands and sons ride off to war (and a quick peek or two at be-jeweled feminine hands extending from beneath side-curtains in camel-borne covered conveyances), there are no female characters in Lawrence of Arabia.
Or are there?
I would make the case that the female in Lawrence is the desert. As we wrote in an earlier “Female Carries the Mystery” post:
The desert is remote and mysterious. It is timeless, eternal. In the world of the Bedouin the desert is the source of all life. The desert vistas in “Lawrence” are gorgeous, mesmerizing, awe-inspiring. Clearly Lawrence himself falls utterly in love with these vast, enigmatic, ultimately unknowable expanses.
It’s the desert herself that “carries the mystery” in Lawrence of Arabia.
Remember our second axiom concerning the “female” and the “mystery”:
The male seeks to uncover the mystery.
Lawrence is the “male” in Lawrence of Arabia. The desert has bewitched him from before he has even ventured into it.
DRYDEN (CLAUDE RAINS)
Only two types of creatures get fun in the desert—Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me, for most men it’s a burning, fiery furnace.
LAWRENCE (PETER O’TOOLE)
No, Dryden, it’s going to be fun.
Upon first encountering Lawrence and hearing him defy his superior officer, Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) to take a stand favoring the Arabs over the British, the keen and discerning Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) peers deeply into Lawrence’s eyes, seeking to understand this young officer’s motivation.
I think you are one of these desert-loving English … Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. No one needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with, because [quoting something Lawrence himself spoke earlier, in anger, to another Arab prince] we are ‘a little people, a silly people … greedy, barbarous, and cruel’?
The critical distinction made by Feisal in this passage is that between how her own people, the Bedouin Arabs, perceive the desert and how a European foreigner might perceive it.
Lawrence sees the desert as the ground of the mystery.
But what exactly is this mystery? What is the desert to Lawrence?
For one thing, it is an arena for his boundless ambition.
My lord, I think your book [the Koran] is right. ‘The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped.’ And on this ocean, the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedu have always fought. You’re famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now!
And are you loyal, then, to England?
To England. And to other things.
What other things? Justice? Freedom? The chance to free an entire people? To act with power upon a stage worthy of the great warriors of earlier eras—Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon?
Even after multiple seasons of bitter, bloody fighting, Lawrence remains smitten by this female. In one interlude of peace, Chicago journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy, based upon the real-life Lowell Thomas) questions our protagonist.
What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?
[Bentley chuckles and shakes his head.]
Well, now, that’s a very illuminating answer.
But the desert, Lawrence finds over the course of yet more brutal campaigns, cannot be manipulated or overcome or used for petty human purposes. It remains mute, pitiless, unconquerable, and unknowable.
AUDA ABU TAYI (ANTHONY QUINN)
The desert has dried up more blood than you can think of.
In the end, when the Arab armies led by Lawrence have captured the enemy stronghold of Damascus (and in essence have defeated the Axis foe, Turkey, in the Middle East theater of WWI), the victory proves hollow as the generals and politicians snatch it from the hands of the warriors who have won it.
I pray that I may never see the desert again. Hear me, God.
[But Lawrence’s friend Auda knows him better than he knows himself.]
AUDA ABU TAYI
For you there is only the desert.
Lawrence’s death on a speeding motorcycle—the opening sequence of the movie—comes seventeen years later in England, leaving us in the audience to suspect (as the filmmakers have of course led us to) that, in the deepest sense, our protagonist has willed his own end (or certainly has done nothing to resist it) out of the loss of, and ultimate estrangement from, the one great love of his life.
The desert carries the mystery in Lawrence of Arabia.