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.

Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence 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.

PRINCE FEISAL

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.

Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal

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.

LAWRENCE

(to Feisal)

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!

FEISAL

And are you loyal, then, to England?

LAWRENCE

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.

JACKSON BENTLEY

What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?

LAWRENCE

It’s clean.

[Bentley chuckles and shakes his head.]

LAWRENCE

Clean.

BENTLEY

Well, now, that’s a very illuminating answer.

Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi

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.

LAWRENCE

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Charles on May 13, 2020 at 7:06 am

    This song from 1972 original name is the desert song
    is inspired on Dali and Escher arts

    After nine days, I let the horse run free,
    ‘Cause the desert had turned to sea.
    There were plants and birds, and rocks and things,
    There was sand and hills and rings.
    The ocean is a desert, with its life underground,
    And a perfect disguise above.

    • Charles on May 13, 2020 at 7:16 am

      when the desert is a mysterious female
      the oasis are the revelations

      • Brian Nelson on May 13, 2020 at 8:42 am

        Charles,
        I had to read it twice to remember the rhythm–then I sang it to myself–with a complete new understanding of this song. Thank you! It is odd that I can listen to music, sing along to the lyrics for so many years–and never get it.

        We have this new kitten in our home. He’s about 7 months old, and is an absolute terror. My wife calls him the ‘Holy Diver’, because–well, it just seems to fit–but he’s contstantly jumping up on everything we ‘hold sacred’–like mantels that have Polish Pottery on them.

        I asked Kelly–Holy Diver? Isn’t that Ronny James Dio? Shouldn’t we call him the “Holy Terror”? Kelly says, ‘Holy Diver’ is Christ. I looked it up…

        WTF?!?!?! My entire life I thought Ronny James Dio would have had satanic verses ‘back masked’ onto a vinyl record. I loved his music as a high schooler–but I always thought I was being naughty by listening to him. He was singing about Jesus?!?!

        Boy, do I have a lot to learn.
        Thank you for this insight.
        bsn

        • Charles on May 15, 2020 at 5:27 am

          you are welcome
          happy

  2. Joe Jansen on May 13, 2020 at 7:08 am

    In a Writing Wednesdays post from August 2019 (“Male and Female in Lawrence of Arabia”), Steve makes the case that “Lawrence is both the female element *and* the male element.” Take that case one step further and marry up “Lawrence contains the female element” (Aug 2019) and “the desert is the female element” (today’s post).

    These two things reconcile in Lawrence’s internal story of “his quest to understand himself.” Lawrence is first asked the question “Who are you” when he enters the officer’s club (Cairo?). He answers, “Lieutenant Lawrence, sir.”

    That theme of “understanding himself” expresses itself later in the scene where Lawrence (and I thing Daud) come out of the desert and are on the banks of the Suez. The motorcyclist stops and yells across the water (twice): “Who ARE you?” The camera cuts to Lawrence and you can see that his face is completely coated with desert dust, and this time he doesn’t answer. I’m taking this to mean that “he has *become* the desert — he and the desert are one, and perhaps moving toward that reconciliation of masculine and feminine.

    “Who ARE you?” — https://youtu.be/p9Uwau7rB8Q?t=65

    “Lawrence of Arabia” gives so many great examples of what superb storytelling looks like. Thanks for this one, SP.

    • Brian Nelson on May 13, 2020 at 8:23 am

      Damn Joe! If always feel like I have had a dilettante’s or novice’s understanding of something after I read your posts! I’ll be thinking about this, and Steven’s thoughts for the rest of the day. Thank you.
      bsn

      • Joe on May 13, 2020 at 8:43 am

        I just like poking around under the hood, Brian. 😉

    • Regina Holt on May 13, 2020 at 5:42 pm

      This is where I thought he was gonna go this morning when I first started reading. today’s post but on that earlier post, I was all about the questioning of how the desert could be the female. Why does it seem ok for me to call the Ocean female but the desert is a stretch? It has to be explained. I love the thoughts that came up with this one!

  3. James McCabe on May 13, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Dear Steven, Beautifully noticed and written. TE Lawrence told WB Yeats he was an Irish nobody who became somebody and went back to being a nobody again. Both Irishmen would have been keenly aware of their ambiguous identity within an imperial framework. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is a film about self-identity, about a man without a country. When that motorcyclist on the other side of the canal shouts across to him “Who are you?”, that is the epic’s theme nailed.

  4. Brian Nelson on May 13, 2020 at 8:32 am

    Dear Steve,
    I love this analogy–and I learned a new word today: “Ululate”. I don’t know why I remember this word from school, “onomatopoeia” but ululate seems to fall into that definition. It sounds like its meaning.

    I’ve read and listened to most of Jordan Peterson’s work–and he defines the feminine as chaos, and I can see Jordan nodding his head in agreement with your analysis of Lawerence of Arabia.

    Maybe, instead of trying to find a decent new show on to watch (we finished Homeland season 8 a few nights ago–and are frustrated trying to find something that epic. So much pablum.) that we should go back to the classics. Now if I can only convince Household 6…

    Thanks again for your wisdom-not only in storytelling–but life telling. This is why I look forward to Wednesdays so much.
    bsn

    • Joe on May 13, 2020 at 9:07 am

      “Ululate” is a good word, yeah. Feels like there’s something primal about the sound of the sound, and the sound of the word.

    • Linda Logan Andrews on May 13, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      Not that it can top Homeland, but if you haven’t already done so, give “Bosch,” a try. 6 seasons. Moves fast and we’ve been binging, doing a season in two nights!

      • Brian Nelson on May 13, 2020 at 1:25 pm

        Linda! Thank you. I’ll push it up to the decision-maker in Chief and see what she has to say! A season in two nights!! That must be great! A few years back, we adopted a ‘1 show a night’ diet, only allowed to watch more than an hour on the weekends. COVID19 hasn’t even upset this pattern. I so much prefer the anticipation of waiting for one good show these days.

        Wasn’t Homeland the most epic, best ending to one of the most epic best told stories of all time!?!??!?!? I nearly screamed when we Sal returns to the bookstore–and the pieces fell together. BRILLIANT!!!!! What cracks me up is a few minutes later Kelly asks, “Why can’t all shows be that good?”

        I think — now that I write this–that maybe that is the big question we should all ask ourselves when we return to life. Wouldn’t life be better with few TV choices–but each the choices were between “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” and maybe one or two others. Wouldn’t it be better if I had one TV that cost $4000 that lasted for 20 years, but it was made in Sumner Washington, and the woman building it made $40/hour? Wouldn’t it be better to make your own sandwich–and eat out once a month? Wouldn’t it be better if we were just better?
        bsn

  5. patricia on May 13, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Shame on you for removing that woman’s (very salient) comment.

  6. Sharron May on May 14, 2020 at 6:03 am

    How beautiful to think of the desert as the female. How interesting that mystics, saints, hermits, Jesus – all went to the desert to connect to the Mystery. Wisdom is often portrayed as feminine. Another angle to consider…

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