December 29, 2007

My review of "Lawrence of Arabia"

Because no good movies get released in late August, I took the opportunity to review a classic DVD:

When your television dies, a trip to the home entertainment showroom, with its massed ranks of the latest monitors all displaying the same glorious nature documentary for convenient comparison shopping, will quickly convince you that your initial plan of buying a modestly larger replacement tube for $299 was a naïve delusion. How could you ever be satisfied with a pathetic 32" CRT, when the gazelles gamboling on the Serengeti are so luminous on a plasma set, so detailed on an HDTV, and so humongous on a 56" screen?

But when you bring your technological breakthrough home, you notice that you seldom actually watch nature documentaries. You mostly just watch people talking, and the thousands of dollars you spent isn't making David Letterman's interview of Richard Simmons any less depressing.

To postpone disillusionment, TV buyers should also pick up a grand movie on DVD. And what better than the two-disk version of "Lawrence of Arabia?" Unlike just about every other film you might buy rather than rent, you could watch "Lawrence" a second time.

Approaching its 45th anniversary, "Lawrence's" place in the pantheon is secure. Director David Lean, cinematographer Freddie Young, and composer Maurice Jarre complement a tremendous cast, especially Alec Guinness as astute Prince Feisal, the future king of Iraq, and Anthony Quinn as choleric Auda, the prototypical Big Man.

Often extolled as the film that must be seen in the theatre, "Lawrence" is actually better from your couch, because you can then pause it to look up whether Medina is north of Mecca or vice versa. (Inexplicably, there are no maps in the 217-minute war movie).

Moreover, but don't mention this to your cinephile friends, you can fast-forward through the second dozen times Peter O'Toole, as WWI archaeologist-warrior T.E. Lawrence, gallops his camel through the stark desert scenery he found so much more "clean" than damp and overgrown England. (Perhaps the British were better at empire than Americans have proven so far because it gave some of their best men the chance for fun in the sun that our West furnishes domestically?)

Movie critics today are obsessed with sniffing out the political implications of the latest releases, such as the suspicion that the sex comedy "Knocked Up" was insufficiently pro-abortion or that the Xbox mannerist Spartans of "300" were ancient Republicans.

Few attempt, however, to draw lessons from the handful of classic films that would reward serious analysis. Among its numerous virtues, "Lawrence" provides insight into America's quandary in Iraq by offering a vivid primer on what William S. Lind calls "asymmetrical" war.

In "Lawrence," regular warfare, with its drilling and decisive battles, is exemplified by the stolid Turkish infantry, while irregular warfare, with its interminable raids and retreats, is embodied in the mercurial Arab camel cavalry.

In the famous screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, the British high command wants Lawrence to trick the Bedouin Arabs into enlisting as cannon fodder in the grinding British attack on the Ottomans at Gaza. Lawrence insubordinately devises a more culturally appropriate strategy for the nomads: "'The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped' and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please." They will harass the Turkish railway to Medina with hit-and-run attacks, avoiding the pitched battles, for which the tribesmen, no fools, wouldn't even show up.

In 1917, in the first two-thirds of the movie, Lawrence's insight works wonderfully. In the 1918 conclusion, however, though the British and Arabs win, the failures of irregularity become clearer. The victorious but still fractious clans can't competently manage the hospitals and waterworks of Damascus. Even before then, there are hints that irregular desert warfare is doomed by the new age of mechanized mobility. When the Turks can get their hands on enough German armored cars and airplanes, they negate the traditional Bedouin advantage in mobility and elusiveness.

Subsequently, it turned out that cultures that were good at regular warfare, like the Israelis and Americans, were also better at building and maintaining the tanks and planes that gave regular militaries the mobility of irregular warriors.

But history never ends; losers adapt. As Lawrence tells Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali, "Nothing is written." Now, after two easy victories in open country over Iraq's derisible regular army, America has bogged down in Iraq's urban jungles fighting countless irregular units that disappear into the alleys as Lawrence's mounted warriors vanished into the dunes.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

9 comments:

manindarkhat said...

I'm inspired to see it again, but Seven Pillars of Wisdom is also a powerful work of art. Trivia: O'Toole's startlingly blue eyes are supposed to have inspired the blue eyes of the Fremen in Frank Herbert's Dune.

William said...

How could you ever be satisfied with a pathetic 32" CRT[?]

Simple - move the couch closer to the set.

That story mama told you about your esesight was an old wives' tale. If it wasn't you've got more to worry about than your TV - like that monitor on your desk.

Mark Seecof said...

If you purchase a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia be sure to buy the "Superbit Edition" (in the silver package). The film transfer to video has much better color and is much more clear. (The original DVD came in a nifty collectible khaki box but had a horrible transfer with screwed up color and ugly halos around things.)

David Davenport said...

Now, after two easy victories in open country over Iraq's derisible regular army, America has bogged down in Iraq's urban jungles fighting countless irregular units that disappear into the alleys as Lawrence's mounted warriors vanished into the dunes...

iSteve the Democrat.

Evil Neocon said...

Steve -- I think you are both right (particularly about tribalism having an "equalizer" in technology) and wrong (on the particulars).

What does NOT appear in the movie is the fabled battle of Megiddo

It was that defeat, so extraordinary and decisive, that convinced Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) that Westernization was the only real course open to Turkey (as opposed the decayed Ottoman empire).

Moreover Iraq is hardly a "defeat" in modern terms. Compared to most modern occupations or civil wars (Algeria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.) it has cost less men and money. Compared to nearly zero casualty (but ineffective) air or mostly air campaigns such as Kosovo or Desert Storm Iraq looks bad. But unlike merely bombing to kick the can down the road, Iraq settled the Saddam problem.

And is a decent victory for US forces: eventual increase in Iraqi oil production reduces Iranian, Venezuelan, and Russian leverage over world oil prices (America and it's allies win with cheap oil, lose with expensive oil). One less country as a potential nuclear proliferator (Bhutto's lies to Clinton in 96-97 that Pakistan had no intention of making nuke weapons shows the downside of trusting anyone). Bases and intel around a dangerous enemy (Iran) and leverage therefore on an enemy we don't want controlling the Gulf.

Moreover the untold story of Iraq is how quickly the US military adapted, both technologically and culturally. Splitting of tribes threatened by AQ. Playing off Sunni and Shia. Playing off those threatened by Iranian influence. Delivering as the distant patron instead of the near-threat of either Iran or Saudi. And getting a visible win where it's possible.

Afghanistan is ... essentially lost. Both Yon and other milbloggers who embedded in both Iraq and Afghanistan have said the same thing. Iraq can be supplied by the sea directly or through tiny and US dependent Kuwait. Afghanistan can ONLY be supplied through Pakistan, and Pakistan NOW can only permit so many forces transiting it's country, domestically. Look at a map. To the West Iran surrounds Afghanistan. To the South and East, Pakistan surrounds it. The rickety air-bridge through the North depends on Russia's forbearance (they control Uzbekistan) and they set strict limits on what can go through there. At any rate air alone cannot supply an army in the field. A change in the Pakistani regime could cut off US forces there and force a Chosin-reservoir fighting retreat to China in a humiliating defeat.

It's an uneasy time because technology *DOES* equalize things (you are right there Steve) but not in the manner you describe. Nuclear ICBMs or even shipping container nukes give weak, tribally oriented peoples the ability to knock out US cities (or Russian or Chinese for that matter). They won't be able to hit carrier battle groups or ICBMS or "boomers" aka ballistic missile submarines. Which they tend to forget about or ignore.

The danger is that tribal peoples don't understand the true power of industrialized countries and what happens when they go into survival mode. PC gets dumped real fast. And say 1939 Britain, which refused to bomb "private property" in the Black Forest can go to firebombing Hanover by 1943. A raiding mentality, the usual Western-PC-Multiculti groveling approach to non-Western peoples, ignorant tribalism can lead to tragic miscalculations.

In the end, Lawrence was a romantic idiot who did not see the endemic weakness of tribalism against industrialized nations, while Ataturk was a man who could at least recognize the future when he saw it with his own eyes.

At Megiddo.

Proofreader said...

Evil Neocon:

Don't fail to recognize the future with your own eyes. Conventional armies are powerless in the face of guerilla warfare, or Third Generation warfare. Why can't you admit that Irak is a failure?
The USA is pulling its troops out soon and what exactly have you accomplished? Iraq is a mess and so is the rest of the ME.

RKU said...

I must say that our endlessly long-winded friend "Evil Neocon" seems to lack any self-awareness.

Perhaps he should consider what will be done to him, "Evil Neocon" together with all of his friends, when America does indeed decide that it should put itself into "survival mode"...

William said...

At any rate air alone cannot supply an army in the field. A change in the Pakistani regime could cut off US forces there and force a Chosin-reservoir fighting retreat to China in a humiliating defeat. - evil neocon

At which point we resupply from Iraq by overflying Iran. Any objections? Ask me if I care.

Conventional armies are powerless in the face of guerilla warfare, or Third Generation warfare. - proofreader

Conventional armies still have blunt force at their disposal which they seldom use. Bomb a city or two into submission and the rats will flee to their holes. That was the mistake made entering Iraq: prove that you're for real, and your clean-up problems are minimal. Germany and Japan didn't require too much clean-up because we'd proven what we were capable of.

anony-mouse said...

If 'losers adapt' couldn't the same thing be said of US forces in Iraq? Petreaus is the Grant of the Iraq war, leading a losing army to victory by leveraging the opponents weakness against him after previous generals didn't.

If the coalition in Afghanistan stopped fighting the heroin growers and allied with them the war there could turn around too.