In my last entry in this series, I talked about the “uh-oh” moment: the point when someone observing a situation is clued-in to the mayhem that is to come. Today’s entry is something of a bookend to that sensation…the aftermath…the moment the soul at the centre of the “uh-oh” understands why those around them were furrowing their brows.
Call it the “What have I done?” moment. It occurs toward the end of David Lean’s classic epic, so if you’ve never seen the film, consider yourself warned for spoilers.
Throughout the film’s mammoth runtime, T.E. Lawrence has taken up arms with the Arab tribes he has met in the desert, believing they have as much right to the cities that dot the landscape as any colonialist who may currently be occupying them. He has bound the tribes together, got them to follow strategies that seem mad on paper, and willingly caused great bloodshed. He has adopted the Arab ways, and become something of a warrior poet in their eyes. In the end, he is able to do something nobody thought he could do: he delivers the city of Damascus to them, for them to govern as they see fit.
And that’s when things go south.
As the Arabs return to their petty differences, allowing tribal squabbles to stand in the way of forward-momentum, Lawrence slowly sees the flaw in his plan. What then?
Have you ever backed the wrong person in an argument? Have you ever vouched for someone who’d go on to drop the ball? It’s a special sort of mistake – a deeper lapse in judgement. What causes the feelings of misgivings, the internal “What have I done?” soul-searching is something out of one’s control, and yet specifically caused by something one set in motion themselves. That this is the hangover from positive-thinking makes the frustration that much harder to endure. We’re told to believe in people – to stand for something – and yet, when we do, we get rewarded like this.
Time and again throughout the film, Lawrence has stood like a mythic prophet. His silhouette has etched itself into the memories of his followers and his enemies, and he has done things few felt possible. And yet here he is, trying to gracefully put the finishing brushstrokes in a failed work. A room once full-to-the-hilt with would-be governors now sits empty and littered. Lawrence’s face is part shock, part shame, part regret. He has no doubt that his fight was ultimately a losing effort, but cannot understand where he went wrong.
In the background, standing over his shoulder is Ali – someone who even seconds earlier still felt like there was something to be gained by watching Lawrence’s actions in this time of great defeat. He was “learning politics” as he puts it, trying to be a light in the dark desert that Lawrence can cling to – but Lawrence knows better. He sees the great miscalculation he has made, even if Ali wants to check the math again.
This gross error in judgement has happened many times in history, and it will happen many more. On a grand scale and on a personal scale, people and powers bet on the wrong horse. Sometimes the tea leaves could have been read better, other times there was nothing more that could be done.
It doesn’t matter though. Neither the knowledge of inevitability, or the reflection of what could have been will make a person feel better when faced with the consequences of what they have put into motion.
Here’s three more from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far