To be honest, I was surprised how much attention Peter O’Toole’s recent passing received. We all knew he was famous, but we also learned this week how deeply he was loved. Many people loved him because he had that one thing that is so hard to find in the entertainment industry today: charisma. But anthropologists loved him for something else: Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia is central to anthropology, and ought to be more even more central than it is. It is about fieldwork, intimacy, impersonation, and colonialism. It puts on display the complexity, ambivalence, and often ugliness that comes with anthropological fieldwork.
Lawrence of Arabia (LoA, henceforth) does this because it is a great film. It is huge in every sense of the word, telling a long story that stretches across vast amounts of space without losing the audience. It is also startlingly beautiful, even when viewed on a television screen (as most people see it these days). I had a chance to attend a screening once in the original format and aspect ration — larger than a normal movie, iirc — and it is even more amazing in that form. Its sounds silly, but I walked out of the theater thinking: “you could really see the camels.” The film is monumental.
But beyond the quality of the production itself, the movie works because it draws on a deep orientalist strain in the culture that produced it. LoA is just one in a long time of products ranging From Burton’s Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night to The Desert Song that white people have used as fantasy material. Indeed, LoA is about the many people who have attempted to perform those fantasies by ‘becoming one’ with The Arab. At times the relations between fiction and reality become vertiginous: Omar Sharif plays the noble Sharif Ali in LoA, whereas 15 years earlier he was the Head Boy at Victoria College, where his abuse of Edward Said no doubt played its part in the life experiences that would cause Said to write Orientalism.
A well-executed production with deep cultural roots, LoA also refused to tell the story about Lawrence that Lawrence himself tried so hard to live. In the film, Lawrence’s ability to immerse himself in Arab culture seems premised on his own deep alienation from those around him. He dreams of intimacy with his newfound hosts, and also of the power to shape their destiny. At first, they are willing to indulge him, and perhaps even grow a bit credulous. But in the end, Lawrence ends up being a pawn on a chessboard controlled by much larger imperial players (I give props to David Lean for making Prince Feisal one of them, but then immediately withdraw props for having him portrayed by in brownface, even by someone as excellent in the role as Alec Guinness).
It’s not a typical fieldwork story (I mean, its typical for my fieldwork but that’s just me). Not all anthropologists are white people from the center who study brown people in the periphery. But a lot of them are, and even the ones who aren’t constantly fight a disciplinary narrative which tells them that all anthropology is a version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or ought to be. The genius of LoA is the way it shows the messy political and emotional dynamics that come with the process of fieldwork. Every anthropologist should see this movie and imagine themselves as Lawrence. Because in some ways, they already are.
That’s all for now. Tune in next week, when I discuss the lessons “The Lion in Winter” can teach faculty about choosing a new department chair.