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Great Scenes, Part 1: Lawrence of Arabia

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageGreat movies create great images, iconic moments that burn a hole into your consciousness, scenes that everyone remembers, instantly recognizable to millions of moviegoers the world over.

This article isn’t about those moments.

This compendium piece is about the quieter moments, the ones that set up those iconic moments, that I contend are great in themselves: seething with mystery, adding contradictions and complexities to the characters and themes of the movie. When I want a quick fix from one of these movies, these are the scenes I go back to. Most of these scenes are just people in a room somewhere talking, which the writer, director, cinematographer, sound mixer, and actors somehow manage to suffuse with the sublime. Behold! The first article in the Great Scenes series: Lawrence of Arabia.

Great Scene #1

Lawrence of Arabia – Nipple-Twist Capture Scene

Was T.E. Lawrence gay? Did living in a time when gay and straight weren’t so rigidly defined mean you experienced sexuality differently? Are these even interesting questions?

Most people looking for homoerotic subtexts in Lawrence of Arabia and T.E. Lawrence’s life in general (which people are wont to do) point to his extremely close relationship to his boy-servants. They’d most likely point to a scene where one of the boys dies in quicksand and Lawrence tears at his hair and shakes his fist at God in grief completely out of all proportion to the boy’s importance in the scheme of his life. He’s a soldier, after all, and sees death on a daily basis, and kind of creepily worships and even courts it: the basic tragedy Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt use to explain Lawrence’s life is that he wanted a glorious battlefield death above all things to cap his heroic self-image, yet died in the most inglorious manner possible; a very avoidable, pedestrian motorcycle accident where the low-speed crash takes place off-screen. The death of a servant boy should mean nothing to him…unless they were romantically attached.

But Lawrence’s over-reaction was pretty much the only homoerotic undertone Lean painted on Lawrence’s relationship with the boys–which is kind of surprising and a tiny disappointment, one chink in the armor of one of the greatest, most intelligent movies ever made. Lean made subtle epics–he’s probably the only director who could be described that way, as most epic specialists specialize in, well, the epic. Lean’s movies are writ large on gigantic, world-changing canvasses, but are filled with long, quiet character moments, exploring the contradictions of very complicated characters’ very complicated choices with the precision of an expert novelist, only without the use of voice-over. This is incredibly difficult, by the way, and basically the reason why there aren’t any directors who even remotely resemble Sir David. Movies aren’t so good at exploring contradictory, complicated, Hamlet-like behavior. Keep in mind that Hamlet’s Hamlet because he has pages and pages of monologues where he tells you explicitly exactly what he’s thinking. Novels get to do the same thing; whether it’s in Third of First Person, it’s still relatively easy to slide into the grooves of a character’s consciousness and lay out the dilemmas they’re biting their fist over. Voice Over is often called a Crutch for screenwriters, as it pretty much guarantees you’ll fall into the trap of Telling instead of Showing (unless you’re Paul Schrader or Martin Scorsese). Lean (and Bolt, who wrote most of Lean’s big movies) allow themselves none of these crutches, yet somehow, miraculously give you the feeling that you’re watching the mind of T.E. Lawrence in cross-section on-screen. Epics usually don’t allow you that kind of intimacy with their subjects–they’re too busy showing you world-historical events. That’s why Lawrence of Arabia pretty much stands alone.

So what does that have to do with Great Scenes and the Lawence Homoerotic subtext?

There is a scene of steamy S&M-tinged homoerotic undertones in Lawrence of Arabia. It happens about 2/3rds through the movie, when Lawrence, who’s basically this bipolar guy who one moment thinks he’s almost the second coming of Christ and the next feels like the lowest worm on earth who’s betrayed everyone and everything, goes off on one of his patented Test to See if He’s Immortal/ Secretly Hoping to be Punished mad capades. He tries to walk in disguise through a town controlled by the enemy Turks. Lawrence is almost guaranteed to be spotted on the street and taken in for questioning because he’s the only blond-haired, blue-eyed person within a thousand miles, and Omar Sharif nervously apprises him of this. Lawrence (rather limp-wristedly: subtext!) waves him off and proceeds to prance through town until, sure enough, a mouth-breathing, unshaven Turkish soldier sees his pale skin and brings him in.


Rollie Fingers was featured in a key deleted scene from Lawrence of Arabia that the studio wanted to insert against David Lean’s wishes to ensure his Sadean homoerotic subtext would be understood by American audiences.

Now keep in mind this was made in 1962, many years before Stonewall and Gay Liberation. Walking down streets in the rough part of town in disguise looking for an encounter was basically your only option for homosexual contact in the provinces. The illicitness and sweet danger of this sort of cruising has been fetishized and is still sought out by certain gay subcultures in a set of homoerotic scripts centering around the phrase “Rough Trade.” Now keep in mind how coded and unnameable this practice was in 1962–particularly in mainstream, big-budget Hollywood cinema–and how Lean basically took the vocabulary of that outlawed experience and used it to create what is undoubtedly the weirdest, most inexplicable sequence in the movie.

Here’s the scene:

Lawrence is taken in and brought before the Commander of the garrison. The Commander is unnamed (and therefore I can’t quite determine the actor who played him), but let’s just say that in Central Casting’s list of Decaying, Decadent European Aristocrats, this guy is at the top. He’s tubercular. He’s venal yet dandy. He openly disdains the stupidity, ugliness, and Philistinism of those around him, including his own half-witted soldiers. He has his soldiers round up boyish-looking white men wandering the streets of his town, has them brought in by force, and then…inspects them.

The Commander walks down a line of men, staring in their eyes and at their flesh, and dismisses them until he gets to Lawrence. He sees Peter O’Toole’s burning blue eyes and simply points: “You” (even disguised as a sheepherder, Lawrence–who alternately exults and wrings his hands about being extraordinary–stands out). He asks Lawrence a few basic questions about himself; Lawrence pretends he’s an ignorant local. The Commander then rips Lawrence’s shirt open, stares at the white flesh, and twists it with his hand. Lean finally breaks the master shot with three quick shots:

Extreme Close-Up: Lawrence’s blue eyes burning.

Extreme Close-Up: The Commander’s wet lips.

Medium Shot: Lawrence…convulsing? Trying to strike the commander? It’s not quite clear. All you can tell is that Lawrence lunges forward, the spell is broken, and the Commander orders Lawrence whipped. The Commander walks out of the room, yet very deliberately leaves the door to his office half-opened.

Lawrence is then strapped to a bench, spread-eagled, by three mouth-breathing, unshaven soldiers. The most unshaven one takes a switch, inspects it, and then whips Lawrence’s pasty white back while Lawrence stares unscreaming into the eyes of the grinning (and presumably erect) soldier who holds his arm. Confusion comes over the dumb soldier’s face: Lawrence…enjoys this punishment from behind? The scene is interrupted by the tubercular cough of the venal Commander. Lawrence looks over and sees him watching voyeuristically from behind the half-closed door. The whipping re-commences.

Okay, so basically every subconscious bell that can be rung in the belltower of forbidden sexual pleasures is rung loud and proud in that scene. Folks, the first time I saw this–a heterosexual 19 year-old boy from the sticks–I had no idea whatsoever what the fuck was going on here. Fed on an unbroken diet of movies with scenes who’s only function was to move the plot forward, I had no compass to lead me through this tangle of deeply disturbing images. I loved the movie, yet asked myself and those around what the fuck was going on in this scene.

Ten years later and a little more worldy (bookwise, anyway), it’s clear Lean was packing a graduate seminar’s worth of coded homoeroticism into this scene. S&M, self-flagellating guilt over one’s uncontrollable sexual desires, rough trade, the fetishization of white skin, voyeurism–it’s really not even all that subtle. It’s more like a fever dream, everything normally ostracized from decent thoughts left deliciously unlabelled and unjudged. The entire scene is long and mostly dialogue-less and gives you no cues or roadmaps on how to read what’s going on. The subtext of the movie becomes the text for this one sequence. If Lean made Lawrence of Arabia today (which seems like an absurd impossibility; Lawrence was made for basically the 1962 equivalent of Superman Returns’ budget, only with a hundred times the intelligence and artistry. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore (Then again, they didn’t really make ‘em like this back then, either)), I wonder if he would’ve amped up the subtext between Lawrence and the boy servants anywhere close to the level between Lawrence and the Commander, two European aristocrats stranded in a desert-ful of brutish heterosexuals, touching each other sexually in the only way their twisted, repressed homosexual natures allow. Man-boy love is obviously still completely taboo, but taboo subtext–like the Rough Trade stuff was in 1962–only works when it’s verboten–that’s where it’s power comes from. In the Internet age, would a daring artist like Lean have staged a similarly coded scene like this between Lawrence and one of the servant boys? It wouldn’t necessarily mean Lean would condone man-boy love: it’s unclear whether he condones Lawrence and the Commander’s adult male-male sexuality; after all, the Commander is portrayed as decadent, evil, malevolent, and Lawrence suffers incredible pain for giving in to temptation. Yet Lean might have been tempted to just put it up there, coded yet not subtled, a nonjudgmental, frank portrayal of a very complicated man’s neuroses.

This scene–more than any other in the movie, I’d almost argue–was Lean (and Bolt)’s absolute artistic zenith. He was running on all cylinders, absolute crystal-clear intelligence totally in control of the medium and his actors. The scene is so rich, suggests so much about its subject’s Byzantinely complicated psychology with nary a word. (Of course, taken for granted in all this was how absolutely perfect Peter O’Toole was for Lean and Bolt’s version of T.E. Lawrence. Lean cast an unknown O’Toole in the part, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him). What’s so mind-boggling is that a scene this ambiguous and subversive stood smack-dab in the middle of one of the largest, most expensive productions of all-time.