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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Lawrence of Arabia

Playing in the background: Suzanne Ciani, "Neverland"
Meters swum today: 2200 (WOW!!)

So I was looking at yesterday's post and I thought, "Ya know, if I wrote a synopsis about something I'm not emotionally caught up with, ie, not the creator of, I might be able to figure out how, or at least come up with a template to follow." Star Wars wasn't really a good choice, so I decided to attempt my second favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Here's what I came up with. Warning, serious major spoilers ahead.

The story begins with the state funeral of English Great War hero Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who recently died in a motorcycle accident. After the funeral, American journalist Jackson Bentley, who once knew the colonel, is asked by another reporter what he thought of the man and describes him in glowing terms. When the reporter leaves, Bentley says to his companion, "He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey." Overhearing this, an English officer takes exception, saying, "It was my honor to shake his hand at Damascus." The officer admits he didn't actually know Lawrence, however, and Bentley says, "I wonder if anyone really did."

In a flashback, Lieutenant Lawrence appears as an indifferent and sometimes insubordinate soldier at an English post in Cairo. Partly to get rid of him, the post commander sends Lawrence to check on Prince Faisal's "Bedouin revolt" against the Turks in what is now Saudi Arabia. When Lawrence arrives in the desert, he befriends his guide, and gains the man’s respect by learning to ride a camel
and tossing out his army rations in favor of Bedouin food. They stop for water at a well owned by the Harith, a rival tribe, where the guide is shot and killed by Sherif Ali, a minor prince and leader of the Harith. Ali offers to take Lawrence to Prince Faisal but Lawrence, horrified and grief-stricken by the murder, tells Ali that "so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe they will continue to be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel." He then sets out to find the prince by himself.

Lawrence manages to find Prince Faisal's camp before he dies of exposure. He is surprised and upset to also find Sherif Ali, sitting at the prince's right hand. Some other English officers are also traveling with Faisal. One is urging the Prince to attack the distant city of Aqaba, thereby seizing a critical Turkish port. The other thinks the Prince can't do this without returning to Yenbo to pick up English
reinforcements and artillery. The Prince is curious about Lawrence and asks him what he thinks. Lawrence tells the Prince that if he takes on English reinforcements, he will also put himself under English rule. The Prince asks if all Englishmen think that the Arabs are "a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel." Embarrassed, Lawrence says he believes that the Arabs are and should be a free people. During the night, Lawrence comes up with a plan to take a small force to Aqaba and attack on the landward side. This will avert the need for artillery by taking the Turks' seawall guns out of the picture.

Sherif Ali denounces Lawrence's plan as "madness" but when it becomes obvious Lawrence means to try it anyway, he takes some of his Harith men and goes with him. Two orphan boys, Daud and Tafas, are fascinated by Lawrence and demand that Lawrence hire them as his "servants." The trek across the great Nefud Desert, called the "Sun's Anvil" by the Bedouin, is long and arduous. One of Ali's men, Gassim, falls asleep and slides from his camel during the night. When the lone camel is found the following morning, Ali gives Gassim up for dead, saying he will die within hours once the sun comes up; "so it is written." Lawrence says that "nothing is written" and goes back to find Gassim. As the sun gets higher in the sky, Daud, Tafas and Ali wait on the edge of the Anvil, each certain that Lawrence will never return. Just before noon, he finally appears, exhausted and depleted
but, miraculously, with Gassim, who is near death. Lawrence refuses water from everyone except Sherif Ali, who tells him, "Truly, for some men, nothing is written."

The next morning Lawrence finds that the men have burned his English officer's uniform and replaced it with Bedouin robes. They also give him a new name, El Aurens. Another tribal leader, Auda Abu-Tayeh of the Howitat, joins Lawrence's attack on Aqaba after Lawrence tells him there is much gold in the city. The next night a fight breaks out between two of the tribesmen, and a Howitat man is killed. "This is the end of Aqaba," Ali tells Lawrence as the two tribes prepare to go to war. To
save the mission, Lawrence steps between the tribes and says that he will execute the killer himself "because I have no tribe, and no one will be offended." Lawrence then discovers to his horror that the killer he must execute is Gassim, the man he rescued from the desert. After killing Gassim Lawrence throws the gun away and sinks into a deep depression, refusing to speak for days.

The attack on Aqaba is a triumphant success. The city is looted and burned, but Auda is angry because no gold is found. Lawrence writes Auda a promissory note "signed, in His Majesty's absence, by me" and sets off across the Sinai Peninsula to inform the Cairo command of the victory. During the journey Tafas falls into quicksand and drowns. Grief-stricken, Lawrence continues on with Daud, but seems to be losing his grip on reality; he talks about seeing a "pillar of fire" even
though Daud tells him "It is only dust, Aurens."

Back in Cairo, Lawrence realizes he no longer fits in with the culture of the British officers and their condescending attitude toward non-Englishmen in general and Arabs in particular. He tells his commander that he killed two men, and "there was something about it I didn't like. I enjoyed it." The new commander, General Allenby, sends Lawrence back to Arabia with instructions to disrupt Turkish railways and supply lines. During this mission Lawrence meets journalist Jack Bentley, who tells him that the Americans need "inspiration" to join the war effort. Bentley follows Lawrence on his exploits, painting Lawrence as a mythical hero, "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence, while obviously reveling in the attention, starts to believe his own myth; he tells Ali "They can only kill me with a golden bullet" and "I am invisible."
Lawrence's ideas of his own godhood are shattered when he is captured near the town of Derra and tortured by the Turkish commander. He escapes, but the experience makes him even more unstable and he announces to Ali that he's going back to Cairo. "I am just any man, and I'm going to ask for a job that any man can do."

In Cairo, however, the war in North Africa is winding down and the political situation is very different. Britain is concentrating on the war in Europe and France is now expressing an interest in the Arab territories. Lawrence learns about a secret pact to divide Arabia between France and England as soon as the city of Damascus is retaken from the Turks. Infuriated, Lawrence returns to Arabia again, this time to lead the Arab tribes to Damascus first and ensure their liberty.

The campaign is a military success but devastating for Lawrence personally. Daud is wounded in an explosives accident and cannot ride. “Salute Tafas for me,” says Lawrence, and kills Daud rather than leave him for the Turks. Later a retreating Turkish army crosses Lawrence's path, and Lawrence orders an attack instead of going around them. Lawrence goes on a rampage during this battle, killing men with their hands held up in surrender and finally collapsing next to a wagon, a knife in his hand and blood all over his clothes. Jackson Bentley finds him here and takes the famous picture of a world-weary Lawrence that causes a sensation in
the West.

The Arab army reaches Damascus several days before the British, but tribal infighting makes it impossible for them to hold the city. After days of trying to hold the feuding tribes together, Lawrence visits the military hospital where he finds thousands of wounded and dying Turkish soldiers without water, food or medicine. With no choice but to call in the Army doctors, Lawrence watches the British take over Damascus. Most of the Bedouin drift away from the city. Ali stays "to learn politics" and says of Lawrence, "If I fear him who love him, how must he fear him, who hates himself?"

Back in Cairo, Prince Faisal enters into delicate negotiations with the French and the British. Although the cause of Arab independence is lost, Lawrence can see that Faisal will be able to secure favorable terms for the Bedouin; "Someday," he says to Lawrence, "I must be a king." General Allenby promotes Lawrence to Colonel and gives him an honorable discharge. A jeep takes him to a ship bound for England. Rather than look forward to the ship, Lawrence turns around as they pass a tribe of Bedouin and looks after them. He has lived in two worlds, but he doesn't have a home in either one.

Pretty melodramatic, right? But it's readable. So let me give Mindbender another shot. I'm not procrastinating. Honest.