Long-term readers will be aware that I have an unsightly emotional weakness for all things relating to one Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB, DSO (16 August 1888 — 19 May 1935).
Having revisited the infamous/famous/Oscar-winning/definitive (if factually wildly inaccurate) David Lean movie of 1962 while on holiday recently, I was already awash with renewed fervour for depictions of the man’s life, and when the same woman who led me back into my Lean/O’Toole/Sharif/Guinness rewatch informed me that she’d found another film: this one relating to his exploits in the diplomatic kerfuffle after the war … I scrambled over myself to find a copy to watch.
The content of that period is a surprisingly painful watch or read in any case. Knowing, as the participants could not at the time, just how much deceit was taking place, and what continued trouble would arise as a result of France and Britain dividing up the Arabian Peninsula willy-nilly as if they had any business to do so, it can lead to melodramatic book-hurling or film-pausing if there’s no pressure to keep going. I was fortunate this time to have someone to watch with me and not let me stalk off muttering angrily about the idiocy of history and slide into a funk about how little anything has truly changed
A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia was released in 1990, as a sort of sequel to the re-release of the 1962 film, and while it is in part based on false information (Col. Meinertzhagen’s diaries), it could be argued that it takes a stronger basis in factual events than the more fanciful David Lean epic. However, as has been noted by a friend (G. Ragovin) writing on the mythology of Oscar Wilde, the purpose of biopics is not necessarily to render documentary truth but, as the original films of Lowell Thomas which brought Lawrence to the public imagination initially (and whose screening Lawrence attends in this film,both bookending the events and providing a flashback for the audience), to sell a legend. What people take from depictions of established cultural heroes is not the actuality of events nor the truth of the man or woman themselves but a sense of greatness and aspiration/inspiration: in the case of Lawrence (and indeed Wilde) this greatness is tempered and highlighted by tragedy and hubris. The element of the tragic hero provides Lawrence the status of Queer Icon regardless of his own sexuality, in the same way that at the time his exploits in the desert provided him with the status of “Hero of the Empire” regardless of his own allegiance.
In this particular depiction of a difficult chapter of Lawrence’s life, the man himself is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Prior to watching this I would never have picked Fiennes as a candidate for the role, but there is no question that he carries it off masterfully. He incorporates, as the film incorporates, elements both of the Lean epic (and O’Toole’s performance) and of historical footage of Lawrence, bringing about the soft-spoken, upright, erratic, and incredibly driven Col. Lawrence in a touching and very believable fashion. Over the course of the negotiations in Paris – and the codicil to this diplomatic failure – he demonstrates the oft-discussed facets of Lawrence’s personality: not only the showmanship of spontaneous translation (and the accompanying spontaneous round of applause), the effete-seeming self-containment, the nervous explosions of laughter, but also his impish schoolboy humour, and the depth of affection for Prince Faisal (فيصل بن حسين بن علي الهاشمي – I’m not getting satisfactory answers on the Romanisation of his name). Considering that this performance is required to weave through potentially tedious political manoeuvring, moments of high stress (a probably-invented attempted seduction by Polly Walker’s Madam Dumont and several frustrated altercations with Faisal, for example), considerable sadness (“I arrived too late to see my father alive and left too early to see him buried. What more could I do for you?”), and bittersweet reconciliation between dear friends, with lashings of emotional instability, strength, and frailty throughout, it is of infinite credit to Fiennes that it is hard to imagine anyone else handling it as well.
During the negotiations, Faisal’s growing irritation with the stalling, deceit, and racist colonial attitudes of the countries which were supposedly his allies during the war had to be plausibly performed about from a position of initial optimism. His anger with the distracting accolades and media circus surrounding Lawrence and the damage this unwanted intrusion did to their friendship also had to be shaped from an opening in which the two men trusted each other so intimately that Faisal allowed Lawrence to speak for him and Lawrence allowed Faisal to repeatedly stab a knife between the spread fingers of his hand. Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi, credited as Saddig El-Fadil and known better to most as Alexander Siddig (or to me as “Dr Bashir from DS9” because I am a nerd), expertly guides the relationship between the two men through its nadir and out to the seemingly positive conclusion, in the aftermath of all the betrayals, of “They are watching us.” In this single line, perhaps, the film moves from historical fiction/documentary fiction into meta-commentary: after all, we are watching Lawrence and Faisal, and will doubtless continue to do so.
A dramatic narrative needs a solid antagonist, and while in Lean’s epic of the war the antagonists presented to Lawrence were rather faceless, in Lawrence and Faisal’s post-war fight the multitude of obstacles (Gen. Harry Chauvel, Clémenceau, Gertrude Bell with her favouring of Ibn Sa’ud, Valence) are memorably headed by Lord Dyson. Nicholas Jones does exceptional work in providing a singularly unlikeable Dyson, and steeps potentially dragging scenes of debate and negotiation with such animosity towards his character that it’s impossible to stop shouting “YOU UTTER SHIT” at the screen for long enough to be even the slightest bit bored.
The structure of the film bears a number of superficial similarities to – or homages to, if you prefer – the Lean epic. Like the Lean film, it begins at the end, with Lawrence watching the Lowell Thomas illustrated lectures which are mentioned throughout. He is clearly unwell, and from my estimation this is meant to take place during his post-Paris breakdown wherein he shut himself in an attic, lived on chocolate, and drafted and redrafted Seven Pillars of Wisdom while trying to hide from the press. The structure is a classic in media res, as with the Lean epic: in A Dangerous Man, it is clear when a full circle has been reached and the coda arrived at by the return of the Lowell Thomas lecture and the shabby, exhausted iteration of Lawrence spawned by his furious writing.
In the coda, reconciliation and the conclusion of Lawrence’s oft referred-to book are reached, in a touching scene between Faisal and Lawrence (the former of whom left in anger, the latter in disgrace). Of particular note is the dishevelled appearance of Lawrence, matched by Faisal’s lack of finery: throughout the film Faisal has donned the suits of the European delegates “Because if he dresses like them, he might be treated like them”, and Lawrence the garb of his friend’s delegation (because it is distracting to his enemies, comforting to him, and ensures that he will be underestimated). They have traded finery, Lawrence has worn uniform in varying degrees of identification with “his” country, but in the conclusion Faisal is dressed for prayer and Lawrence for writing. They are humbled, and acknowledge each other’s gifts as a hollow but emotionally sound gesture. Faisal, recognising the futility of the campaign to retain Syria, wryly calls them both “uncrowned kings of Arabia” (the press’s wince-inducing epithet for Lawrence), and Lawrence – in what is both a heartbreaking lie that they both understand is a lie, and a statement of their friendship – says, It’s not over.
At which point, the film ends.
In any depiction of the events of Lawrence’s life, the narrative shape is already set: triumph, hubris, despair, cautious optimism, with the eye of history wreathed in tears at the understanding that no matter how visionary the dreams of the dreamers in the day, their attempts to change the world for the better met with nothing but obstacles, and a state of murderous conflict that continues nearly a hundred years later.