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Film Highlight: Lawrence of Arabia

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif star in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In the early 1960s, Norman Mailer's essay "The White Negro" hit an American cultural phenomenon square on the nose: the alienated white hipster's feeling of envy for dispossessed black people. Since then, White Negroes have filled the landscape, from Patti Smith to Quentin Tarantino to Eminem. But how strange it is to see, nearly 50 years later, the one White Negro who became an icon in the square world: David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. First seen as a lazy aesthete daubing at watercolors, plucked out of obscurity to become the leader of a pan-Arab revolt against Turkey, Peter O'Toole's Lawrence has an aesthetic attraction to the dispossessed. Whether Lawrence is frolicking in his white-on-white Bedouin-chief getup or quivering when his lust for the Other takes him too far (into a Turkish general's torture chamber, that is), one thing is clear: This pillar of military history was a dandyish homosexual whose penchant for rough trade just so happened to change world history. Lean's epic doesn't treat Lawrence's queerness "unconsciously" or "subversively" but straightforwardly—which makes this perhaps the unlikeliest epic ever made in Hollywood.


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