Stealing the Wrong Parts of Lawrence of Arabia
4 min read

Stealing the Wrong Parts of Lawrence of Arabia

Prometheus (2012) was my introduction to both Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the Alien universe, which when you think about it is remarkable. I saw it in the theater with my ex-husband, who reasonably assumed I had seen an Alien film before; this turned out to be erroneous. I can't say it contributed to our divorce, but I can't say it helped either.

Prometheus' only memorable aspect is Michael Fassbender's android character, who patterns himself after Peter O'Toole's reedy, highstrung, etiolated performance in Lawrence of Arabia. It looks like this (0:19):

(For those, like me, who were born averse to watching embedded video: David watches an early scene from Lawrence of Arabia, in which Lawrence snuffs out a match with his fingers. When another soldier tries the trick and complaints that it hurts, Lawrence superciliously tells him, "The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." In the mirror, David imitates Lawrence's cadences.)

I'm not sure why this happened. Granted, I haven't seen Prometheus since 2012, and with love in my heart I must inform you that I'll never watch it again, but I did my due diligence (wikipedia), and there is zero resonance so far as I can tell. I wondered if the point is "David, like Lawrence, is a construct," but David is shown to be particularly hung up on the beginning of the film, when Lawrence hasn't constructed a damn thing yet. On the contrary, this Lawrence is as real as the fallen eyelash that sticks in your eye – so pale and blond that he looks like a cinematographic oddity, with a feyness that he's pounded into something brittle and very sharp. No one takes Lawrence seriously at the start, not because he lacks prowess or expertise, but because he's obviously gay. Ultimately, I do suspect that that's what's going on in Prometheus – if you want to queer-code a robot, you could do worse than having him obsessively rewatch Lawrence of Arabia while bleaching his hair. But why? Why do you want to queer-code this robot?

That's my question about science fiction and Lawrence of Arabia: why doesn't anyone ever steal the heart of the thing? Dune goes all-in on the idea of a desert savior who assimilates with a group of proud nomads, without bothering to play on Lawrence's complex hero: his narcissism, his trauma, his troubled mental health, his homosexuality, or above all his usefulness to the colonial forces he thinks he's trying to fight. The creators of Star Wars have absolutely seen this film too. They imitate it to the point of casting Alec Guinness, but their attempt at complicating saviorhood is limited to making the savior a little bitch. I say that with pleasure – Mark Hamill's performance as a little bitch is relatable and funny, almost self-deprecating, and I think Star Wars is always best when it keeps its characters too small for its themes. Still, like Dune and Prometheus, it scavenges Lawrence's story, and to no particular purpose.

Of course, the reason people like to riff on Lawrence without engaging with its sloppy, dangerous harmonies is that they're making their own damn movies, not this one. But I do get frustrated with genre people who think it's enough just to make a story genre – to do a whole-plot rip of something, put it in an SFF setting, and call it good. I've seen this done with and without attribution. The former is hacky, and the latter – I'm trying to avoid hyberbole – is distasteful, although once in a while someone executes it so brilliantly that you can forgive anything (cf. Gene Wolfe's spit-take on the Queequeg marriage scene from Moby-Dick in Book of the New Sun). It's all so patronizing to the audience, seeming to assume either that we don't watch or read much, or else that we'll be happy just to recognize a reference.

In bitching, Skywalker-like, about the practice of stealing from Lawrence of Arabia, I don't want to say it's perfect. The Lion in Winter is perfect, if we're talking about '60s O'Toole. Lawrence doesn't break down its plot as well as it sets it up; it's chaotic in the second half, and loses thematic cohesion; it tries to equally critique both a colonizing and a colonized nation.

Most of all, it loses its emotional heart when Lawrence's relationship with Omar Sharif's Ali falls apart. This is not because of the breakup, but because the film cannot openly say that Lawrence and Ali are in love. It's easy to imply that characters are falling in love, but much harder to imply that their romance is disintegrating under the strain of complex political pressures, mental illness, and a cultural gap that turns out to be more like those French trenches thousands of miles to the west: easy to make a dramatic leap in the beginning, but when you're tired and lost, it's hard even to take a step. Lawrence of Arabia still implies this magnificently, and in Ali's voice it even comes pretty close to saying it, but it's 1962, and it can't. What's left is a great love that can't be a love story.

This is the part where the essay winds down, with a "still" and a "but" and an "even so," to a hearty recommendation and a clap on the back. I don't like essays that end that way, but the fact remains (even so – still!) that Lawrence of Arabia is a get-on-your knees epic. It is anchored, or rather pinned, by the sheer luxury of O'Toole's performance. He is given all the room he needs to run, and he gives us a man who is constantly trying to recapture yesterday's glory, and who keeps forming disastrous new glories by fucking up in the attempt. In this film he is regal, filigreed; he is an animated skeleton with gilded bones; he is a thin nervous smile and jittery fingers; he is asking, God damn you, for a lemonade. Sharif is always beside him, majestic rather than regal, focused rather than jittery, and he doesn't need lemonade, only the chill of his own regard. These men are in love, and they're going to make a revolution. One of them will suffer the doom of an aesthete, and the other will lose the most beautiful thing he's ever known. That's what you ought to steal.