What are the elements of orientalism in the film Lawrence of Arabia directed by David Lean?  

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Examples of orientalism in David Lean's 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia can be said to exist, but an argument can be made that the film goes some distance in presenting the Arab population in question in a reasonable light, especially if one is a serious student of the Middle East. Inspired by T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and embellished considerably with respect to Lawrence's role relative to other "Westerners," Lean's film is nevertheless a highly sympathetic portrait of the indigenous tribes that populated the Arabian Peninsula during the early-20th Century.

Lawrence of Arabia can be said to reflect the Western perspective of Arabia by virtue of its Western production. The screenplay was written by a Westerner and the film was directed by a Westerner. A Mexican-born actor named Anthony Quinn, fitted with a preposterous prosthetic nose to appear more Semitic, portrayed a key Arab figure in the film, Auda abu Tayib. Most significantly, the film reflects the condescending perspective of non-Westerners towards "Third World" populations that is a key characteristic of orientalism. Western ways are modern and, consequently, better. The Arabs are portrayed as simple, backwards people in need of Western guidance. One of the film's most important characters, Sherif Ali, is a cold-blooded killer, but evolves into one of the film's most noble figures. This nobility is reflected in his desire to study Western -- read: superior -- political systems. At one point, the American journalist Jackson Bentley, noticing that Sherif Ali is carrying a Western-published children's book on politics, inquires as to the Arab figure's aspirations. When Ali's answer proves murky, he innocently asks the wise journalist whether he, Ali, answered well, prompting Bentley's reply, "You answered without saying anything. That's politics."

Lawrence himself, highly sympathetic of Arabs and suspicious of his own government's intentions towards Arabia, displays an arrogance toward Arabs that exposes his own jaundiced view of these people: "So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people -- greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are." Throughout Lawrence of Arabia, Arabs are portrayed as weak and riven with divisions that allow them to be prey to stronger, European powers. Lawrence of Arabia can be considered to be "orientalist," but, it can in some ways be viewed as a film that respects its subjects, especially given its criticism of British policies and ambitions in the Middle East.

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