Friday, September 12, 2014

The Lawrence of Arabia Poster: Playing with the Question of Identity

I recently hung up my Lawrence of Arabia poster in my dorm room again. It's one of my favorite posters because, as you'll probably remember from an earlier post, since the first time I watched it with my dad, Lawrence is one of my all-time favorite films. In fact, at this very moment, I'm listening to Maurice Jarre's magnificent soundtrack just because it puts me in a properly majestic mood. But very lately, I got to thinking about the poster and why I like the poster so much. Or at least, why I like besides just being a visual ad for the movie itself. And once I started reflecting upon Lawrence (as one does), it hit me. Very subtly, the Lawrence poster literally illustrates the major thematic element of the film: identity.
In my Lawrence post from last year, you'll probably remember how I deeply analyzed the bust that appears in St. Paul's because it suggests that the film will attempt to discover who Lawrence was and if he was actually a heroic figure. But identity is more than a sweeping theme of the film. Lawrence himself is deeply concerned with his own identity throughout the story.
I feel that its fair to say that Lawrence is grappling with who he and the implications with that identity the whole time. On one level, Lawrence must decide where his loyalty ultimately lies with: the British or the Arabs. This is perhaps the most obvious conflict of identity in the film. But it grows deeper. I feel that not only is Lawrence conflicted by his loyalties, he is conflicted by who he is. Is Lawrence a Brit in Arab's clothing? Or is he an Arab than finally dropped the British uniform? Politically, this has an easy answer: Lawrence is obviously British. But, in a film that spends so time attempted to explain the Arab psyche and... I'll call it spirituality (not in a religious sense at all), is Lawrence spiritually British?
Consider Lawrence's back story. Very early on, it is clear that Lawrence is a bastard child, with no real claims in Britain. He is viewed with either disregard or an odd fascination by his fellow troops. He dislike mundane military life. In real life, Lawrence was a poet- an artistic mind. This image is not compatible with early 20th century British society- colonial, capitalistic, brisk. Remember, Fiesal distinguishes Lawrence from those "Englishmen who love desolate places." Perhaps, this is why Lawrence's loyalties ultimately lie with the Arabs. Think to early on in the film, when Dryden reminds Lawrence that "only two kinds of creatures enjoy the desert: Bedouins and gods." Dryden suggests that Lawrence is neither, but instead has a funny sense of fun. But, the more I think of it, the more I think that the film is suggesting grand things about Lawrence's identity. The beginning at St. Paul's. The constant questioning of the funeral attendees. And now suggesting that Lawrence- who of course did find (certain) enjoyment, or at least realization, in the desert, is either a Bedouin or a god.
The film clearly portrays Lawrence's many flaws and his ultimate (in my interpretation) decline. I feel that the inevitability of the desert ultimately defeats Lawrence (again, my viewing). But, at the same time, I don't think his 'defeat' makes him British. On an emotional level, he can sympathize more with the Bedouin, than with the British imperialist. And let's recall, it's not Lawrence of London or Kent or whathaveyou. It is Lawrence of Arabia, i.e. Lawrence the Arab. But, it's Lawrence the Arab who ultimately abandons the Arabs. It's clear by the end of the film why the characters can't figure out what to make of Lawrence: we, the audience, who has seen the story from "every" angle, can't either.
So, let's get back to the poster. What's most striking is that figure. Or really, the bust (coincidence... I think not). Unlike in St. Paul's, this is a bust of a man in Arab's clothing. His dark skin is pleasantly contrasted by the white robes. Visually, it pleasing. Look at the face... but you can't. Because it is abstracted, obscured, darkened. The identity of the figure, of assuredly Lawrence is unknown. The visual reflects the thematic. Just as Vertigo's swirling designs reflected the confused mind, Lawrence's obscured face represent's his identity crisis.
Back to the bust:
Does he deserve to be here?
Think of this visual choice by the graphic designer. Peter O'Toole was an extremely handsome man at the time of Lawrence's release. Almost everyone has heard the famous biting criticism of O'Toole as the too pretty"Florence of Arabia." His handsomeness is surely a selling factor that you would think the studio would play on. But instead, the face isn't even visible. For God's sake, it's not even white. Is the darkness indicative of a Bedouin or simply a confused man? Or both?

So, I guess a better question than "who is Lawrence?" could be, "Does the poster answer the question?" Is the poster the tell to the great thematic element of the film? Or, am I just crazy?
In Memoriam
Peter O'Toole (1932-2013)

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