At long last, Othello
IT finishes with a strong bite

The Tragedy of Lawrence of Arabia

Aristotle says that a tragic destiny is precipitated by the hero’s tragic fault, his 'error or frailty' (hamartia), but Aristotle also calls this turn of events a change of “fortune."

Aristotle fits with Lawrence of Arabia perfectly. In the epic film that won Best Picture in 1962, T.E. Lawrence steps into the role of the classical hero who strives to do "the right thing" for the Arab people by uniting them together. At least as portrayed in the film, his confidence is actually arrogance, his belief that he knows better than the Arab people he leads what is best for them.

His arrogance leads Lawrence to a low point in the movie, in which he has to lead his men into an attack against the Turks that becomes a total rout. All the Turks are killed, including the ones that are trying to surrender, which contradicts Lawrence's earlier philosophy against unnecessary violence. Lawrence's ego succumbed to the "white savior complex" and he became a cold-blooded killer with no mercy. 

Scott Anderson of the Smithsonian Magazine delves into this, describing Lawrence as "a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to."

At one point, Lawrence sees his reflection on his blood-stained dagger. Seeing himself through the blood, he realizes that he has become worse than the enemy, betraying his own core beliefs in order to "win."

There have been many criticisms of this undoubtedly classic film, specifically regarding its depiction of Lawrence, who was described by some as far more humble and less egotistical than his depiction in the classic film. Is it possible that the filmmakers accentuated Lawrence's ego to make a point of their own about colonialism and Eurocentric attitudes? His sexuality also has been a topic of historical speculation, largely ignored by the film - but that is unsurprising, given the far more restrictive cinematic environment of 1962.

It is a film that begins with tragedy: at the very beginning, Lawrence dies in a senseless motorcycle accident. It is the ultimate irony, after going through all that he endured in the desert, his death proves that life can be senseless and wasted in a moment’s notice.  


This is part of an ongoing series involving philosophical approaches to classic films, as studied by our resident philosophy student, Jim D. Gillentine. Jim is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s, and is the biggest Godzilla fan in the western hemisphere. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree in English literature and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


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