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.
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.