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A Triumphant Elegy: The Film Music of "Lawrence of Arabia"

Bill Mohr

David Lean is not my favorite film director, Robert Bolt is hardly my favorite playwright-turned screenwriter, and Peter O’Toole, while often mesmerizing in his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence’s harrowing experiences in World War I as the instigator of guerrilla warfare, falls short of giving his best performance. In O’Toole’s defense, Lawrence was the historical figure in the twentieth century whose inner conflicts rival Hamlet’s as an insoluble enigma, and O’Toole probably did as good a job at rendering Lawrence’s uniqueness as could be hoped for by Lean and Bolt. The artist who most successfully captured a portion of Lawrence’s inner demons, and who redeemed his collaborators’ shortcomings, is the film’s music composer, Maurice Jarre. It is Jarre who makes Lawrence of Arabia one of the few films whose splendid, if flawed, accomplishment has not in the least deteriorated in my estimate since the first time I saw it screened in Imperial Beach, California in 1962.

 

Lawrence of Arabia 's score has the haunting, lilting rhythm of a triumphant elegy. It’s as powerful as Bolero without one tenth of the maniacal effort. In its full-length, uncut version, the film opens with an extended overture as compelling as any interlude from a classical symphony. The music suggests to the audience that what one is about to see must also be translated into an auditory argument, and that the visual narrative is only a metaphor for the self-betrayal of a hero who chose his fate, and regretted that choice for the remaining two decades of his life.

 

Jarre’s score is what I carried in my head as I went to the local library and asked for a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and it was Jarre’s assemblage of percussion, strings, wind instruments and odd, ethereal chimes that formed a chorus in my head to preface the opening sentence of Chapter 1: “Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances…” Lawrence’s choice of the first noun in his formal narrative is not an accident, and the music of the film argues, in a far more convincing manner than the visuals, that his valiant subservience to the freedom of another cost him more than simply the power to control his own destiny; he violated his own ideals, and consequently imposed a penance on himself far exceeding his culpability.

 

I am not trained in music, and perhaps if I had found myself at a dinner party with Virgil Thomson a quarter-century ago, I would have found myself admitting that I could bring nothing more to an appreciation of Jarre’s music than the same untutored response that I bring to the work of Debussy, Ravel, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. Whether Jarre’s composition can hold its own with other masterpieces of the classical music canon is not for me to say. I am willing to venture, however, that the music contains the unresolved mystery of Lawrence’s multitudinous ambiguities: a soldier who loathed war, a writer whose imagination veered between the literal and the abstract with too little attention to what comes between, and a man whose friendship and loyal companionship appears to have been capable of crossing enormous boundaries of class and education, yet who was profoundly lonely.

 

Other poets I know first encountered the confessional mode in literature when they picked up a copy of Ginsberg’s "Howl" or Plath’s Ariel. Lawrence was the first writer I admired and studied who freely admitted, in a calm and measured tone of voice, that he did not like himself.

 

The film dwells far too long on Lawrence’s masochism, and while it is an important component of his inability to maintain control over and delimit the self-debasement that idealism often inculcates, it is also worth noting that the parts of the film that address this aspect of his character are the ones in which the music is least prominent. In contrast, as one reads Seven Pillars, one continually finds moments that serve as incarnations of Jarre’s score. At one point, Lawrence records a brief conversation with an old Arab woman: “She questioned me about the women of the tribe of Christians and their way of life, marveling at my white skin, and the horrible blue eyes which looked, she said, like the sky shining through the eye-sockets of an empty skull.” It is this kind of image that Jarre’s music meditates on, a memento mori portrait within the context of self-denial.

 

In Human, All Too Human, in a section of that book titled “The Religious Life,” Nietzsche emphasizes that the heroic gesture of self-denial is not a moral act generated by the desire to accomplish a task for others, but rather an “opportunity” for the “highly-tensed heart to relieve itself.” Jarre’s music is called upon by the filmmakers to substitute for all that they cannot ponder about Lawrence’s highly-tensed motives, self-inflicted disguises, and above all, fascination with renunciation, marked most emphatically in the final sentence of Seven Pillars, where he consigns his epic success to the category of “an ordinary effort.”

 

In "The Things They Carried," Tim O’Brien argues that one can always tell a true war story by how much obscenity it contains. One of the basic problems of Lawrence of Arabia is that Bolt and Lean leave out too much of the obscenity that Lawrence includes in his own narrative. I don't know if this disparity is what triggered Pauline Kael’s complaint that the movie "fails to give an acceptable interpretation of Lawrence." I doubt, however, that Kael had in mind my objection. When the average movie-goer thinks of Lawrence, they usually conjure up the quivering face of O’Toole as he vacillates near the end of the film between vanquishing a retreating battalion of Turkish soldiers or going around them to get to Damascus. O’Toole finally proclaims, “No prisoners,” and Lawrence himself admits in Seven Pillars that he gave such an order. What the film does not show, however, is a detail that Lawrence noticed before he chose to order a massacre: a bayonet shoved into the belly of an obviously pregnant woman. The film would have been impossible to screen if this detail had appeared on screen, so the film makers omitted an image that would have helped establish a basis for Lawrence's future post-traumatic-stress syndrome. And, let it be said, whoever imagines the bayonet entered at the belly button is missing the obscenity that Lawrence had to confront.

 

As I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the memory of the film music reminded me of this: there will be no resolution for anything that torments a person. Even the great will power that Lawrence possessed could not surmount the sorrow of losing what he described as “the citadel of my integrity.”

 

When I returned to my high school classrooms the summer after I'd worked my way through Seven Pillars, I had no illusions about what the helicopter pilots at Ream Field were practicing as they perfected their touch-and-go landings at what was, at the time, the world’s largest helicopter base, or what the slight jolts from detonations at nearby SEAL training centers portended about a distant land called Vietnam.

 

I was 17, the oldest son in a family of six children. My father was a career enlisted man in the United States Navy who'd served both during World War II and the Korean War. Neither of my parents had gone beyond high school. Books were not a major presence in my home, and what reading I did as a child and young man leaned towards The Hardy Boys or The Guns of Navarone. I don't believe my parents ever attended a performance of classical music, or even owned a recording of classical music. I was poor, as are most children whose parents devote themselves to patriotic duty, and in high school my extremely bad acne together with my stunning lack of athletic skills furthered my isolation.

 

My Catholic family and the church held the saints up to me as models of spiritual power. Yet, despite years of service as an altar boy, none of the church doctrines, rituals, or sacraments seemed intelligible other than as a system of total control. By mid-adolescence, I felt myself slowly going insane with scrupulous self-rebukes. This was far worse than the constant displacement that any child in a military family experiences. Internally, I began to unravel; it was one thing to be so poor that I wore the same sweater all four years of high school, and my father bought my shoes at thrift stores—it was far more devastating to feel spiritually impoverished.

 

And so, for me, at age 17, Lawrence of Arabia, then Seven Pillars of Wisdom, began to break the duplicitous contradictions of Catholicism into smaller pieces of ideological complicity, so that I could begin to reassemble and then discard them. This new knowledge—that it was impossible to be a saint or a hero without stains or remorse—initiated me into modern doubt, and gave me a foothold to begin my own existential journey.

 

After many false starts, I assigned myself a task infinitely less arduous than Lawrence’s trek across the “worst place that God ever made”. From San Diego I moved to Los Angeles, and helped a community of poets achieve some measure of self-definition. As I did so, using my motorcycle to lug books that I had edited and published to and from bookstores and post offices, I often got discouraged. Not a week went by when I did not renew my vigorous commitment by humming some portion of the film score to Lawrence of Arabia. Its melodious, restless yearning still impels my poetics of haunted possibility.

 

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POSTSCRIPT OF RECOMMENDED SCREENINGS

 

My list of other films has to begin with a note about a conversation with Suzanne Lummis concerning this special issue of Speechless. As I discussed my interest in writing about Maurice Jarre’s music the conversation quickly turned to other film scores. I mentioned how much I savored the music of Baghdad Café, and Suzanne cited the film scores of Ennio Morricone, who recently received a life-time achievement Grammy. By the end of our conversation, Suzanne and I both agreed that someone should address the relationship  between film scores and the depiction of existential characters in huge swaths of empty space. Morricone also wrote the music for several other films that should be compulsory viewing in any course on film history, including The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Battle of Algiers, and Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion.

 

Most of my other favorite films, with the exception of Days of Heaven, don't have great film scores, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't mind seeing them again. My favorite films range from incredibly obscure, Mare’s Tail (directed by David Larcher) to the noteworthy: Don't look Twice, Man in the Moon, Sunrise (directed by Carl Dreyer), Resurrection, The Twelve Chairs, When a Stranger Calls (the 1978 version), Escape from Alcatraz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Thunderheart, Mississippi Massala, The Burmese Harp, The King of Masks, Salt of the Earth, Year of the Pig, The Usual Suspects, and Burn! Almost all of these titles will be familiar to people who are in any way interested in the history of film.


Bill Mohr spent most of his childhood moving back and forth between Navy bases in Norfolk, VA, and Imperial Beach, CA. His poems, criticism and reviews have appeared in scores of magazines. His most recent collection of poems is Bittersweet Kaleidoscope (If Publications, 2006).He has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California-San Diego, and is currently an assistant professor of English at California State University-Long Beach.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach