Steven C. Caton,
Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology.
Berkeley:University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999.
ISBN 05202100832 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)
Uploaded 30 June 2000
Time rather than history (or even anthropology) is central to Steven Caton’s “dialectical critique”of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The 1989 re-release of Lean’s controversial anti-epic co-incided with the televised Gulf War and the media embrace of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf as the new Lawrence of Arabia. The release of the reconstructed film also enabled Caton to fulfil his adolescent ambition to take his mother to see the film that had gripped his imagination as a 13 year old boy and which he now credits with sowing the seeds of his future career as an anthropologist in the Middle East. It was this career that eventually gave rise to the idea for the book and to the decade of teaching, writing and conference papers which sought to clarify the complex terms of Caton’s life-long fascination with an ideologically and aesthetically suspect film.
This constellation of historical and autobiographical events generates two time-frames for Caton’s multiple readings of the film. The first is the period of Lawrence’s production as an “international” film in the post-studio era of location shooting, widescreen epics and reflexive forms of spectatorship. This time-frame enables Caton to analyse the film as an independent production involving a Jewish-American producer from Poland, a British director schooled in 1950s internationalism, an Egyptian star on the verge of an international career and a Muslim Arab host state caught between rising Arab nationalism and western influence. The 1950s time-frame also generates a close analysis of Lean’s widescreen staging, framing and location-shooting which, in Caton’s view, invites an embodied, critical form of spectatorship (made redundant by television and video versions of the film). Caton’s final analysis of the international context of the film’s production is devoted to the conflict over the weight given to the political and the psychological in the screenplays of Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. These three chapters look to the material conditions of the film’s production, keeping questions of reception and spectatorship in the foreground. From his intelligent synthesis of existing historical sources and close analysis of the film’s narrative structure Caton concludes that the invitation from Lean and Bolt to international audiences to “coauthor” the film has not yet been taken up.
In the second time-frame, indebted to current critiques of anthropology, orientalism and masculinity, Caton’s three readings of the 1989 version of Lawrence constitute his response to the invitation to become a critical, reflexive spectator. As an American anthropologist, Caton implicates himself in his three readings of the film – as an allegory of anthropology, as an anti-imperialist deployment of orientalism, and as a treatise on masculinity in its feminine, homosexual and “Iron John” incarnations. In each of these chapters Caton poses the question of whether standard anthropological, orientalist or neo-colonialist critiques of Lawrence have done justice to the film’s ideological and aesthetic complexity. Taking the film’s representation of cross-cultural encounters as his central concern, Caton’s explicit aim is to produce a dialectical rather than an ideological critique of the film. He does this by drawing on close analyses of key scenes from the film together with reflections on his experience of the “adventure” of travel, the ironies of fieldwork, the dangers of “going native” and the difficulty of returning home. The major achievement of the book is Caton’s sustained commitment to a dialectical critique which questions the received wisdom on Lawrence of Arabia as a fascinating but embarrassing film exemplifying a genre notorious for its inauthentic and self-serving representations of the Other.
Caton opens up the closed case against Lawrence by drawing on postcolonial discourse – a discourse indebted to the critique of imperialism, orientalism and neo-colonialism. It is precisely because Lawrence openly invites trenchant criticism on these grounds that Caton’s dialectical approach reaps new insights into the film. However, the integrity of Caton’s critique prohibits applying the familiar tenets of postcolonial discourse to the film. Instead, in an eloquent introduction, Caton takes pains to explain what he means by a “dialectical” as opposed to an “ideological” critique. He goes back to the Frankfurt School by way of Homi Bhabha and Sara Suleri in order to open up a dialogue with the one-sided critique of orientalism proposed by Edward Said. By drawing on figures of alterity, ambivalence, irony, the outsider, the double and the uncanny, Caton discovers something akin to Benjamin’s “optical unconscious” in controversial scenes from Lawrence. In Caton’s view Lawrence displays what is unconscious in colonial texts – that the psychic trauma of imperialism cuts both ways. The chapters on anthropology, orientalism and masculinity provide ample evidence for the argument that Lawrence is a fascinating figure precisely because he tried to have it both ways – to act as a British agent and to “go native”. In Caton’s view the film is a richly nuanced deconstruction of Lawrence as a media-manufactured war hero who embodies the psychic trauma visited upon ambivalent agents of imperialism. Viewed dialectically, Lawrence disturbs the spectator’s complacent identification with the epic hero, unsettling both the genre and the audience’s relation to imperial spectacle.
In an epilogue, Caton tests his dialectical critique of the film by staging encounters between Lawrence and junior high school students as well as a class of college undergraduates. Running the gauntlet of student skepticism, Caton allows his argument to be tested against the entrenched attitudes of a student body divided by gender, class, race and ethnic differences. By bringing his work back to the classroom Caton returns to his opening question about the potency of a political critique willing to encompass ambivalence. His dialogues with students provide a fitting epilogue to a book whose ideas have been keenly honed by a decade of teaching and research. Caton’s loyalty to his own youthful encounter with Lawrence of Arabia has produced a richly ambivalent and self-reflexive critique which is as responsive to Lean’s epic as it is to currents in film criticism and cultural studies.