Friday, August 16, 2013

Memorial Bust of T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962): A Question of Belonging

Today, August 16th, marks the 125th birthday of one of the most extraordinary figures in global history: T.E. Lawrence, or as he is more popularly known "Lawrence of Arabia." As it is his birthday, and incidentally, my own, I felt it would be apropos to focus on a certain aspect of the film that features him as its central, enigmatic figure: David Lean's bold masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), starring Peter O'Toole (as Lawrence), Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, and Jack Hawkins among others.
The opening of the funeral scene begins with a close-up of this memorial bust.
While the bust itself does sit in St. Paul's, this particular copy existed only in Lean's studio. 
Today Lawrence of Arabia's epic length scares some viewers away, but then again, if mere length repelled them most likely they would not appreciate the intricate complexities of Lawrence that the film explores. For me, Lawrence of Arabia is the quintessential epic: a dramatic setting, larger-than life characters, a bold and timeless score (by Maurice Jarre), a fair share of historical liberties and most importantly a probing and intriguing storyline: namely: "Who is this man?"
Lawrence of Arabia does have its faults, I'll grant you that. Lean took generous liberties with the historical characters, defaming some and even introducing false aspects into Lawrence's own character that some modern viewers find the film a shameless abuse of history. But to watch Lawrence of Arabia for a history lesson (or any film for a history lesson), is foolish to say the least.  Lean's masterpiece serves its purpose in drawing audiences into the fascinating life of T.E. Lawrence and challenging them to question who he, or really, any historical figure really is.
O'Toole as Lawrence
"Did he deserve a place here?"

Lawrence of Arabia begins dramatically, first with the score blaring across a blank screen, setting the stage, audibly, for the epic that follows. Lean that shows Lawrence's death on a motorcycle, killing the main character before the story really even begins. Now we get to the important part: the memorial service that follows the death. It is here that Lean introduces the central question of his film and that viewers are drawn in to the life of the man who they watched die.
"The most extraordinary man I ever knew."

The memorial service scene begins with a close-up of a memorial bust of T.E. Lawrence. To this, I'll devote my post, but first, I'll finish setting the scene. The bust is surrounded by two British flags, befitting a hero. The camera than focuses on Col. Brighton (a man who hasn't been officially introduced yet) and a cleric. Brighton looks up at the bust and remarks that Lawrence was "the most extraordinary man he ever knew." The cleric questions if Brighton knew Lawrence well. Brighton pauses and states that "I knew him," a misleading understatement considering the events that will follow. The priest then poses a question to Brighton and more importantly to the audience. He remarks, "Well, nil nisi bonum [a Latin phrase that basically means not to speak ill of the deceased]. But did he really deserve a place here?" The camera then reveals that service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral, the magnificent Anglican place of worship and the site of memorials to some of Britain's greatest heroes.
Allenby's misleading response still manages to lead viewers to wonder:
Does anyone know who Lawrence really was?
The scene continues on with a reporter asking various characters about their feelings on Lawrence and they proceed to give a variety of different answers, already revealing to the audience that Lawrence was not a man easily understood. But for my purpose, that's unimportant. Let's return to the question. "Did he deserve a place here?" In context, "here" refers both to St. Paul's (no easy task) and more importantly a place in British history. By questioning his belonging, the cleric begins the film by stating that Lawrence was not accepted by everyone, was not an easy man to understand, and was not even universally considered a hero. Even if the audience does not have a knowledge of who Lawrence was, they immediately are forced to question whether the events that follow, that portray Lawrence's magnificent rise to power, constitute heroism. Or more accurately, do they constitute a permanent place in history? By the end of the film, Lean challenges the audience to answer this question, or at least appreciate why the question is so relevant.
St. Paul's Cathedral in London
A remarkable piece of architecture itself, designed by Sir Christopher Wren
In actuality, a bust of Lawrence does sit in St. Paul's Cathedral across from the effigy of Nelson, no less. He sits, now basically undisputed, among the giant figures of British military history. It's important to note though that the bust that appears on screen is not the real thing, or not completely. You can tell by the base, that the bust that Lean films is not the one that sits in St. Paul's. While Lean did film outside of St. Paul's, he did not film inside the Cathedral, recreating the memorial in a studio using, in fact, a copy of the real memorial bust. This in itself, is relatively unimportant, but worth noting, because the bust itself is the same as the actual memorial.
The actual memorial bust of Lawrence
as it appears in St. Paul's

Lawrence's memorial bust itself it not incredibly remarkable. While it does portray a accurate likeness of the real man, more importantly the presence of a memorial bust signifies something much more important. It signifies the place in history that is being questioned. It signifies importance and a need to celebrate a life and mourn the death of an important figure. The bust shows that Lawrence will be considered a historical giant, albeit a disputed one (ala the cleric's all-important question).
A sketch of Lawrence by Kennington, perhaps as a
study for the above-mentioned bust
Back to the bust. The bust was sculpted by Eric Kennington, a noted war artist who worked in both World Wars. In 1922, T.E. Lawrence published The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Kennington was commissioned to complete the illustrations. Pardon my lack of knowledge, but I am not sure whether Kennington and Lawrence became introduced this way or were introduced during the war but either way, they eventually became friends. In 1926, Kennington completed this bust of Lawrence (titled originally Head of T.E. Lawrence) and presented it to the man himself. Lawrence was immensely pleased by it and considered it a great likeness of himself calling it "Magnificent."
Kennington's effigy of Lawrence which sits in a small church in Dorset

After Lawrence's death, this bust would be used for the St. Paul's memorial, in portrait galleries, and in 1962, for the funeral scene in Lawrence of Arabia. It's also worth noting that Kennington also created a full-body memorial effigy for Lawrence which currently sits in St. Martin's Church Dorset.
If he's not just anybody- who is he? And why does he belong in the pantheon (literally) of British heroes?

The bust is an important piece of historical art. As a piece of film art, it is more remarkable for what it signifies rather than what it actually is. The historical implications already discussed make it a symbol for historical fame. In the film, Lawrence himself exclaims "Do you think I'm just anybody?!" From the moment Lean shows us that bust, we are forced to consider both the cleric's and Lawrence's own question. Is he just anybody? And if he's not, something that presence of the memorial bust tells us, then who is he?

Source Material

Lawrence of Arabia, Part III:  "The Funeral: Nil Nais Ibonam" 4/11/2011

1 comment:

  1. You say that David Lean used a copy of the real memorial bust. Two points: (1) do you know were he got his copy from? (2) it isn't really correct to say "the real memorial bust" - the bronze cast in St Paul's is one of several casts that Eric Kennington had made in various materials (plaster, brass and bronze according to Jonathan Black's "The Sculpture of Eric Kennington").


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...