Male and Female in “Lawrence of Arabia”


The movie Lawrence of Arabia, like The Wild Bunch or Seven Samurai or Moby Dick, is a story without any primary female characters. How, then, can it follow the principle we’ve been exploring in the past three posts:

The female carries the mystery.

The answer, I think, is that Lawrence himself (Peter O’Toole) is the female element.

Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia”

Lawrence is the female element and the male element.

The primary issue posed by David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (or at least one of several primary issues) is, to my mind,

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he still remains human, fallible, and mortal?

To me, Lawrence was two people. The male element lay in Lawrence’s insuperable will to pre-eminence. The film emphasizes this young British officer’s superhuman ability to overcome adversity, his capacity to outlast, out-endure, out-survive on their own turf even the most brilliant and redoubtable Arab leaders.

And Lawrence achieved this pre-eminence in the archetypal “male” way—through assertive and aggressive action and initiative. He was the thunder from heaven; he was the rain that made fertile the plain. But Lawrence’s power came from the union of this male aggression with the female element—his genius and his charisma.

This was the mystery. It was the unexplainable, unknowable element that Lawrence brought that no one else—not the greatest and most illustrious commanders and politicians of the British or the Arab camps—could duplicate or explain.

It was Lawrence’s vision and creativity (in other words, the mystery carried by his female half) as much as any “leadership skills” that changed history—Lawrence’s idea to cross the uncrossable Nefud desert, to attack the Turkish stronghold at Aqaba from the landward side, and much, much more.


Truly for some men nothing is written unless they write it themselves.

The turning point in Lawrence of Arabia comes when Lawrence is captured by the Turks and tortured. Before this, his self-conception had been entirely “male,” that is cerebral, mental, “of reason.” But in that long night of beatings, Lawrence’s flesh gave way and his mind followed.

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he still remains human, fallible, and mortal?

Another way of phrasing this might be

What becomes of the female half of us, which carries the mystery/power/creativity, when the male principle has lost faith in its own capacity?

T.E. Lawrence was as much a mystery to himself as he was to others. His saga, on the deepest level, was about his attempt to understand himself, that is, to reconcile the fact of his greatness with the simultaneous reality of his human frailty and mortality.

In a detective story like Chinatown or The Maltese Falcon, the male-female dynamic plays out between the Private Eye and the Femme Fatale. The male is attempting to solve the mystery presented by and carried by the female.

This was Lawrence’s internal story too. His quest was to find, to know, and to understand the unfathomable source of his own genius. He was simultaneously the detective and the woman of mystery.

The second half of Lawrence of Arabia is about Lawrence reconstituting that force and that charisma—but now out of despair instead of hope … and out of the foreknowledge of ultimate defeat even in the actuality of victory.

To me that is what made the historical Lawrence truly great. And also what made his story a tragedy.

The movie of Lawrence of Arabia begins, in a flash-forward, with Lawrence’s essential suicide in a motorcycle crash. This is really the movie’s end.

The movie answers its own question,

How can an individual reconcile his own authentic greatness with the fact that he remains ultimately human, fallible, and mortal?

And the answer is, “You can’t.” Or at least Lawrence, the historical Lawrence, couldn’t.

What insight do I take from this? One, at least, is the realization that we as storytellers don’t need a literally female character to remain true to the principle that

the female carries the mystery.

The male can carry this too.

We all, as has been said many times, contain both principles—male and female. Part of our internal saga must thus be the attempt to identify, to understand, and to learn to work with these opposing poles that constitute the source of our genius and our capacity for creativity.