Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lawrence of Arabia


David Lean's 1962 production of Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most geographic-oriented films ever made. The physical setting of northern Arabia to Syria is a constant through the film. The human condition of the area and the impact of outsiders on life is the essence of the film.lawrence1

The film deals with one of the two major causes of the current crisis between the peoples of the Middle East and Western society: the takeover of the Middle East by Britain during World War I. The other cause is the conflict between the values imposed by modernized society upon more traditional bundled societies. This problem is a result of the first. Hence in Lawrence of Arabia one views the development of the root cause of Islamic anger.

T. E. Lawrence is a British officer assigned as a liaison between the main British forces in Egypt and the Arabs of the area around Mecca and North headed by Prince Feisal. Those Arabs are fighting against the Turks who have controlled the region for centuries. The Turks joined the German side in World War I. They are an enemy of the British. The larger issue for the British is that the Turks appear defeatable. If the strained British Army could push the Turks back to Turkey, the potential oil deposits of eastern Arabia could become theirs.

While the British leadership thinks little of the Arabs as fighters, Lawrence rallys the Arabs in a grand guerilla battle against the retreating Turks. At the same time Lawrence adopts the dress and mental constructs of the Arabs he leads. In the end the Arabs, and Lawrence, expect a nation of their own in the area. The reality is that the British and French have agreed to divide the area. This is finalized in the Sykes-Picot Treaty. As the Arab force seizes Damascus, the goal, the betrayal scenes are icons setting the stage for the current problems.

The film was shot on location. The physical and human dimensions are fantastic. In the film the desert is second only to Peter O'Toole, playing Lawrence. Especially when seen on the big screen of a theater, the massive scope of the sands, and their emptiness, is what the word spectacular was created to describe. The scene where Lawrence and tribesmen cross the Nefud Desert into Aqaba gives the viewer the clearest sense of what the desert is like short of walking across itself yourself. The film sticks to the dry sections where plant life is not seen. It is painful to watch. The sense of burning heat is stifling. The harsh life and death reality of desert travel is chilling. This is followed by a lesser trip west to the Suez Canal.

The human side, beyond the political and social issues of the conflict, is perhaps best seen when his hosts challenge Lawrence's acceptance of the desert. It is pointed out that Lawrence loves the desert and its brutalness. The Arab actually prefers the oasis where his feet can cool in the rare desert waters.

Problems? The film presents some problems for less informed viewers. First among them is the image gained from the harsh tribal Arabs of the early 1900s. Many flocking to Lawrence's side are poor desert dwellers hardened by their lives in one of the World’s most brutal environments. Some might confuse the images in the film with those of current peoples in the Middle East. Of great significance would be the image of hostility shown as the group approaches Damascus, and the lack of cooperation in Damascus. Neither yields a positive sense of these people. Second, is the fact that the film develops a positive sympathy toward the Arabs. After September 11 this should be a major teaching goal for many, but the difficulty should be obvious. One must accept and view the film with the fact that here is the cause of why they are angry with us. The British took their country. Later, the creation of Israel would result because Britain would be in a position to establish it. The British possessed the land. The United States and France would agree. The betrayal continues, only the United States joins the British team.

Lawrence of Arabia is a classic film filled with significant geographic, political, and social content. If you have not seen it, rent it soon. If you have seen it, watch it again.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Lawrence of Arabia. Dakota Alliance XI (5): December 2001-January 2002: 7.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The King and I


Rogers and Hammerstein were masters at taking stories and turning them into musical memories. The King and I was their saga exploring Anna Leonowens's 19th century adventures in educating the King of Siam on the ways of the modern world.

It is a geographic gem on two levels. First it deals with historic Siam, now Thailand. The musical makes Siam a mystical place. Second, it deals with issues important to understanding the role of colonialism in world society..

Its plot In short: Anna is employed as a teacher at the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s. She has been brought in from England to modernize the educational processes at the palace so that the British can be impressed that the Siamese are not barbarians. She and the King spar over the issues involved, including the rebellion of two lovers at court. The musical is filled with engaging and memorable songs like: "Hello Young Lovers", "Shall We Dance", and "Getting to Know You".

For the younger viewer, the simple geographic lessons are those of a different culture and a warm physical environment. Siam [Thailand] is a warm place. Just the dress of the King speaks to this. The dress of the remaining non-western cast and the social rules and customs explored in the musical will strike the younger viewer. That the British are a threat to a character they should generally come to like--the King--, should create a moment of wonderment for these viewers because the British are viewed as so friendly.

At a deeper level, The King and I is a lesson in colonial relationships. Siam curiously was one of the few non-European places to avoid direct colonial control. While seizure was avoided, domination by the colonial powers was not. The show is testimony to the pressures placed upon the King by the British.

Through the story we can see how the powerful industrial countries imposed values and cultural change while supposedly just pursuing economic and political goals. This is a lesson our own society, and our students, are presented with every day in terms of American life. The King felt compelled to change. His self-concept was damaged and the door to change opened. The young prince was more influenced by the West than the King. He embraced the concepts because his teacher favored them. Anna educates him to change, while it kills the King. The young prince has less personal investment in his sense of kingship then his father does.

American myths are imposed upon Siam. Helping Lincoln is a positive idea for the King. He can send an elephant to help Lincoln fight the Civil War. He can assist the outsiders. Only the audience and Anna appreciate the foolish look of his gift. The use of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a vehicle to change Siam and its palace culture illustrates the power of media. It is used to illuminate the internal tensions of Siam. The young lovers are not in tune with the traditional ways and power relationships. Love demands change so that true love can triumph. Love can be seen as a theatrical ploy or cover for a larger statement on the desire for freedom in Third World peoples. Love comes first in a movie, but then I what respect and the right to vote.

Turning to the physical geography, the musical has its weaknesses. The focus is upon indoor settings. For an vivid outdoor setting, Jodee Foster's Anna and the King presents a slight revision of the story, but moves beyond the stage to the river and rainforest. The views are spectacular, particularly near the end of the film. No songs, but more scenery.

The musical and the newer film have both been banned in Thailand. The Thai government has been concerned about the historical inaccuracies of the film. These seem to center around the non-existence of the love affair between Anna and the King, and the general image of their beloved King in those stories. In the end, Anna is a true figure, and the modernization of Thailand began during this time.

The King and I is a wonderful tale. It has songs that have thrilled millions. Underneath, there is a dark side that is clear in the film if you are looking for it.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2001. Geography in Media: The King and I. Dakota Alliance XI (4): September-October 2001: 7.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Endless Summer


Endless Summer sounds like a student's dream, but it is a classic film from 1966 that follows the trek of two surfers trying to surf around the world in an attempt to have an endless summer. Bruce Brown produced not just a classic film of early surfing, but a historical statement of the geography of surfing. He also produced a wonderful look at the beauty of surfing. For all of us children of the sixties raised on images of surfing, this film is a record of that dream. endless_summer_poster_large

The film reflects the geography of surfing in two main ways. (1) The nature of the surf at particular places around the world results from the physical geography of coastal structure and weather. Surfable surf is not universal. The nature of the coast determines whether waves will break in surfable ways. There is also a seasonal component to that surf. While the film attempts to create an endless summer, surf is often better in the winter in some places. (2) Local culture is important. Surfing is widespread, but not all cultures engage in it. Especially back in time, local culture had impact upon any activity in spite of its global nature. Surfing was historic in some places, while only a few odd souls engaged in it in other places. Then, there are variances in local customs such as clothing and gender involvement.

Hawaii. The film keeps harking back to Hawaii, the hearth of surfing. The warm waters of Hawaii promote surfing to the point of crowding and accidents. Its beaches vary in their surfable nature. Waikiki Beach seems very popular with surfers possessing a variety of skills. The Pipeline has significant surf, but is shallow and the underwater surface consists of sharp coral. The film even points out that only a few ride the Pipeline. "Some are sportsmen, some are nuts." Then there is Waimea Bay. At certain points the surf is massive. Some may recall the film Ride the Wild Surf which followed the contest that develops to be the last one to ride the surf here. Of course, Jan and Dean sang the theme song to that great film noting the waves were some 30 feet high. The surfers look like they are surfing down the slope of a multistory building. Only the best surf here when the surf is up.

California. The traditional place for surfing in the 60s was Malibu in California. The beach films were focused here, as well as other beaches. What Americans see as surf and surf culture is Californian in nature. Sub-Saharan Africa. African beaches had no reputation at the time of the film, yet very desirable surf conditions were found. In Dakar, Senegal; Accra, Ghana; and Lagos, Nigeria; the surf was wonderful. The film does take an out-of-date view of African culture and peoples. There are no local surfers except one group that seems to know how to surf with their boat.

South Africa. Surfing is just arriving in South Africa in 1966. The spread of culture had a slower pace then. At Cape Town, Durban, and Cape St. Francis, the film appreciates the surfable beaches. The surrounding environment gets a good viewing, including Table Top Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, and animal life [giraffes, sharks, monkeys, and zebras]. That the American landscape looks similar does not escape note.

Australia. They surf both western [Perth] and eastern [Melbourne, Sydney] beaches. Surfing culture is better developed than in South Africa, and women fully participate. The only problem is that the surf seems poor. They explore the principle that the surf was always better yesterday. Winter, it seems, is prime surf time.

New Zealand. The short, simple scenes of the landscape set off New Zealand eminently well. They combine mountains with a quick stop at the areas of "bubbly mud," --or mud pots in Yellowstone terms. Surfing is underdeveloped. The varying nature of the surf is emphasized as they find a place were a ride can go on much of the day.

Tahiti. The barrier reef restricts surf potential here. They are told that the place has nothing for them, but they find it any way. Unusual is that one beach has two-way surf. The surf rolls in, but then the beach creates a wave back into the ocean.

They end up in Hawaii, again. It was heavy on their minds throughout the film. Then the sun goes down on the endless summer.

I watched it on AMC [American Movie Classics]. They followed it with a clip of the Beach Boys live singing "Dance, Dance, Dance." A perfect choice.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: Endless Summer. Dakota Alliance XII(3): Summer 2002: 7.