By David Lewis
Cinematic art came to life early in the twentieth century and soon flourished into maturity. Among cinema’s towering achievements, David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia stands out. It dramatizes the life of British officer T. E. Lawrence and his military exploits in the Middle East during World War I. The film is a marvel in every cinematic aspect, without a weak link and in many ways without parallel. It also comments profoundly on the context of its narrative epoch, as well as the foibles of human nature and the peril of political ambition.
Despite a sprawl of ruin that World War I brought upon Europe, and what it foretold of imperialism’s destiny, the war’s victors wasted no time drawing lines across the Middle East, claiming respective realms of influence and imposing an arbitrary collection of nation states upon the region. It was a hubristic exercise in irony, dismantling the Ottoman empire that had long held sway in the region, while setting the stage for a slew of future instabilities. It is now more than fifty years since the initial release of Lawrence of Arabia, nearly a century since the end of World War I, and we see a severe weakening of the political order once imposed upon the Middle East. The current, complex state of affairs has been gestating many decades, as detailed in the books Lawrence in Arabia and The Looming Tower by Scott Anderson and Lawrence Wright, respectively, and summarized in a recent op-ed by Stephen Kinzer.
While the United States is uniquely positioned to intervene militarily in the Middle East, with a man of Barack Obama’s political pedigree in the White House, the U.S. is disinclined to do so. Mr. Obama has sidelined America’s military, encouraging the nation states of the region to heighten their own militarily efforts in defense of their security interests; it seems that the nation Mr. Obama does not want to defend itself is America’s traditional ally, Israel. All the while, Iran consolidates its regional dominance, as though it had not only U.S. acquiescence, but approval. Of crucial concern is what may ensue should Iran be allowed to further develop its nuclear weapons capability; and what might be left, among the community of nations, after a nuclear arms race in the Middle East has played itself out, a sobering prospect indeed. It is enough to encourage solace in well-crafted dialogue, and the penultimate scene in Lawrence of Arabia bears a poignancy that hovers in timeless relevance.
By this point in the film, Turkish forces in Arabia are vanquished, and Lawrence’s sentimental embrace of Arabian desires for autonomy has proven him a thorn in the side of his superiors. So he is quietly dispatched back to England. As he departs a gathering of post-war power brokers to begin his journey home, he disappears through a billowing curtain, and one senses a ghost being left behind to wander the land of the Bedouin, haunting the peace that is about to be imposed upon them. An Arabian prince and a British general then proceed to haggle over the terms by which the city of Damascus will be managed. When they finish, the prince turns to a veteran British diplomat and asks, “What do you think?” The wise diplomat replies, “On the whole, I wish I’d stayed in Tunbridge Wells.”Follow @PolitiQuick