Drew Cordes

Lawrence of Arabia as Transgender Allegory [Part 1]

Filed By Drew Cordes | September 19, 2012 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: film review, gender, identity, Lawrence of Arabia, transgender, transgender allegory

Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite film. I love it as much as one can love a piece of art that wasn't created by one's own child. The glassy-eyed way a mother magnets her 6-year-old's vaguely heart-shaped Crayola scribble to the fridge? That's how much I love this film. I've seen it so many times I can play it forward and backward in my mind. What follows will not be an unbiased evaluation. Openpic.jpg(Also, there will be "spoilers;" that is if it's possible to spoil a movie that's been kicking around for 50 years now.)

You can imagine my sobering anticipation when a movie-geek friend informed me a few months ago that Sir David Lean's 1962 Oscar-binging masterpiece would be re-released in theaters to celebrate a new original-negative-remastered Blu-Ray. If there was ever a film that was made to be seen on an absurdly large screen in a dark, cavernous room with hundreds of strangers, it is this one. This film could actually make Scott Pilgrim vs. The World's snarky tagline "An epic of epic epicness" seem unironically accurate.

From the sweeping desert vistas of the Middle East (that is not California or the American West up there) to the agonizing close-ups of a frequently lost, distraught and disturbed Peter O'Toole and his unsettlingly blue baby-blues, it demands grandeur. Needless to say, I checked my local listings and bought a ticket a month in advance of its one-day-only Oct. 4 showing; then I promptly clacked out an email to dozens of friends gently encouraging (OK, the actual tone was somewhere between gushing and barking) that they do the same.

What is so endearing to me - transgender white-collared American queer woman - in this 227-minute bladder-burster, infamous for its lack of even a single female-uttered line (ululation notwithstanding), about a British soldier during World War I? I could go on for pages about the film's various aspects and expertly explored themes - the deceptive messianic highs and hauntingly gruesome lows of war, the psychology of humans in pain and distress, the just-stunning cinematography, the colonial imperialism and Middle East politics, the high-water-mark orchestral score, the investigation of personal ethics, the poetic screenplay, the contrast of cultures, Peter O'Toole's deft high-wire act of flamboyance and fearlessness (he was relatively unknown at the time).

What keeps me coming back, though, what burrows down through my flesh and ribs for some serious cardioid cuddling is that more than anything else (in my opinion) this is a film about identity. As someone whose diagnosed ailment, until very recently, was termed an "identity disorder," you likely don't need me to articulate the more-than-evident personal resonance of this topic. T.E. Lawrence is a man who's struggling very much with who he is, where he belongs and what he can do to write his own fate in the face of great challenges and opposition. Sometimes he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. Sometimes he fails miserably. This should sound familiar to just about all trans people.

The Trick Is ...

Lawrence begins the film imprisoned, limited and prevented from reaching his potential. His first lines in the film address his compatriot and already show his frustration: "Michael George Hartley, this is a nasty, dark little room... We are not happy in it."

Much like the trans person's self is betrayed by its corporeal cage, Lawrence is sequestered in a basement office in Cairo, far from the open desert where he yearns to push the boundaries of self. However, not all the parallels to gender dysphoria are so couched in metaphor.

As a soldier, Lawrence is perceived by his comrades and superiors as effeminate and flamboyant - "a clown," "barmy," clumsy, "insubordinate," "half-witted," "undisciplined, unpunctual, untidy," and a host of other characteristics unbecoming of a British officer.

When diplomat Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) manages to secure Lawrence a field assignment to act as the eyes and ears for his Arab Bureau, the skeptical general can't see what purpose such a dandy failure could serve. He eventually relents and grants Lawrence permission, but not before adding a low blow, "Who knows? You might even make a man of him."

Sometimes, you have to dig a bit and deconstruct the symbolism to find the allegorical meaning for the transgender viewer; other times, like here, the fruit hangs ripe and low.

Despite the unanimous opinion of his peers, however, Lawrence thinks highly of himself, and again much as trans people often are, he is frustrated that how he is perceived differs so greatly from the person he knows himself to be. The film elegantly foreshadows this hidden potential when Lawrence performs a trick for his countrymen - igniting a match and placidly allowing the flame burn down to his fingers, extinguishing itself. Another soldier tries to duplicate the feat, yelping in pain and shaking his hand.

"It damn well hurts!" he exclaims in genuine surprise.

"Certainly it hurts," replies Lawrence.

"Well, what's the trick then?" he asks. matchtrick.jpg

Lawrence's answer is revelatory: "The 'trick' ... is not minding that it hurts."

Later, when chatting with Dryden about his upcoming assignment, a close-up trains on Lawrence, who looks about to repeat the feat. Now that his journey is imminent, however, his willpower can no longer be wasted on parlor tricks. Before it reaches his fingers he smiles and blows out the flame as David Lean famously cuts to the burning desert sunrise. From now on, inner potential must become outward reality.

This level of willpower is desired and practiced at some point by everyone who transitions. Hour after hour after hour of follicle-burning electrolysis, breast binding, crippling surgical pain, insensitive conversations, legal and medical discrimination, fucked-up pronouns, name confusion, discomforting stares, alienation from family and friends - there's no shortage of sources for pain for the gender-nonconforming. But we cannot be discouraged.

There will be pain - that is certain - but we must not mind that it hurts if we want to be ourselves, if we want inner feelings to match outward reality.

An Army Without a Name

In the field, Lawrence continues to stress his otherness. Unlike among his fellow Brits, though, the Arabs he encounters appreciate it. During his first foray into the desert, his guide, a Bedouin of the Hazimi tribe, is quickly impressed by Lawrence's familiarity with Arab culture, his ability to go without water, ride a camel well, and keep up a good pace without complaint or fatigue. (Fun Fact: O'Toole used foam rubber to make riding more comfortable, and he is known among Bedouins, who quickly co-opted the practice, as Ab al-Isfanjah -- Father of the Sponge.)

Lawrence may be in the Arab's world, but he is finally, to borrow a cliche from the American army, being all he can be, and climbing the Y axis of selfhood. As they prepare to sleep, the guide is befuddled. He asks, "Truly now, you are a British officer? From Cairo?"

"Yes," says Lawrence.

"And before that, from Britain?" the guide asks.

Lawrence: "Yes. From Oxfordshire."

Guide: "Is that a desert country?"

Lawrence: "No. Fat country. Fat people."

Guide: "You are not fat?"

Lawrence: "No. I'm different."

desertalone.jpgAfter meeting with Arab leader Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness; and, again, a fun fact, the first king of Iraq. Feisal that is, not Obi Wan). and participating in a roundtable (more of a round-tent, really) on military strategy, Lawrence again boasts of his uniqueness and the fortitude that comes with it. Near defeat in its current state, Feisal fears for the future of his army and confides to Lawrence, "It seems that we need the English, or ... what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence. We need a miracle."

Upon hearing this, Lawrence has the first of many "What would Jesus do?" moments and sets off alone in the desert to ponder the problem all night long. His solution is to take 50 of Feisal's men and attack the Turkish stronghold and port city of Aqaba from the landward side. This prompts Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif, also unknown at the time) to call him mad, since this could only be accomplished by crossing the Nefud Desert, which he insists "cannot be crossed."

Lawrence smugly pushes back: "I'll cross it if you will."

Ali returns fire: "It takes more than a compass, English. The Nefud is the worst place God created." (Note that Ali's derisive sobriquet for Lawrence also focuses on difference and identity, and attempts to place Lawrence back in the basement office, in the world where he didn't belong.)

Lawrence answers, confident in himself as the exception: "I can't answer for the place. Only for myself."

What I find particularly moving about these scenes on Lawrence's otherness is that it quickly moves from being portrayed as weakness to strength. Much like his origins as the outsider at British headquarters, trans people often start out cursing or bemoaning the bad luck that left them thusly afflicted (at least I know I did). In time though, many of us grow to see our difference as strength (at least I have).

Much like what must be Lawrence's internal monologue, the refrain of the trans person's conscience, during the difficult parts of transition or even the trials of daily life, must be: "I can do this. I must do this. I'm different."

Soon, however, Lawrence's self-considered difference and uniqueness expand from liberation to reveal a flip side of disordered identity. About to depart for Aqaba during the night, Feisal catches him. "Where are you going, lieutenant, with 50 of my men?"

Lawrence smirks, "To work your miracle."

He may be coming into his own, but Feisal cautions him against such overconfidence with a snap-worthy comeback: "Blasphemy is a bad beginning for such a voyage."

He then asks Feisal if they can claim to ride in his name, to which Feisal again cleverly retorts, "Yes, lieutenant, you may claim it. But in whose name do you ride?"

Lawrence is now leading his own army, but it is an army without a name. Just as it does for trans people, the issue of names and naming will pop up repeatedly.

Nothing Is Written

I previously opined that this movie is about the successes and failures of forging one's own identity. As far as successes go, the journey to and siege of Aqaba is Lawrence's transcendent episode. After the convoy finally crosses a particularly fatal stretch of the Nefud, colloquially dubbed "the sun's anvil" by the Arabs, it is discovered that one of the soldiers, Gassim, fell off his camel some miles back and was accidentally left behind. Lawrence insists they must turn back to rescue him, but the Arabs refuse, claiming it would be too dangerous, and that his fall was the will of Allah. They insist: "Gassim's time has come. It is written."

As you can imagine, this predeterminism doesn't sit well with Lawrence, who snaps "Nothing is written!" and 180s his camel back to the sun's anvil. His seemingly insane act incenses Sherif Ali, who tells him, "In God's name, we cannot go back!"

Lawrence again places himself as different, and therefore strong, "I can."

Ali's anger grows and he hurls "other"-stressing insults: "What did you bring us here for anyway? English blasphemer!" He again shouts his epithetical sobriquet at Lawrence as he recedes, "English! English!"

Minus Lawrence, the nameless army reaches the relative safety of the wells, and by sundown they begin to think the two men have been lost to the Nefud. Eventually, though, a camel plods out from behind the rocks at the edge of camp carrying an exhausted Lawrence and half-dead Gassim barely hanging onto his back.

The army erupts, running over to attend to the two men and cheering Lawrence's bravery. nothingiswrittenpic.jpgHe refuses to acknowledge the men, and locks eyes only with Sherif Ali as he approaches.

As the camel stops and lowers itself, Ali steps forward with a You-Magnificent-Bastard smile and offers his water, in a show of fellowship as much as aid. Lawrence takes the bag, still meeting Ali's gaze, and before drinking hoarsely croaks the words again, "Nothing is written."

As Lawrence passionately asserts, people do not have a script. There is no fate.

Everyone authors their own story, always in progress and open to edits, revisions, additions and changes in course - notions so personally touching for yours truly that after I felt definitively triumphant over the assigned fate of my assigned birth sex (male) following my second surgery, my final act of convalescence was having this declaration tattooed across my back: "Nothing is written."

This is my body, now. My word made flesh. And I'm deciding what it means.

The transitions and gender expressions of all non-cis people are similar testimonials. We are born one way, and we are expected to live up to the pre-existing standards for behavior, identity, personal relationships, expression, etc. But we refuse. We will not and cannot be the self of expectations; we can only be the self that is. The work we must do to permit that self to surface, or in many cases to dig deep and find where it is buried, is that journey across the Nefud.


As you may know, Lawrence of Arabia contains an intermission. At 227 minutes you likely agree that's pretty much obligatory. And to cover all the relevant points of a 227-minute film (believe it or not I am actually leaving a lot of stuff out) this essay itself demands similar corpulence. Accordingly, this is the first of two intermissions for the essay. How "meta," right?

Click here for the second installment of "Lawrence of Arabia as Transgender Allegory."

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