On ‘Theeb,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ and the Tragedy of the Arab Revolt

The Arab Revolt, a campaign spearheaded by Arab nationalists and their Allied backers against the Ottoman Empire during the height of World War I, is generally known to Western audiences through the lens of Peter O’Toole’s brilliant turn as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

The film is a masterpiece but, in the end, the film stumbles in magnifying the tragedy of Lawrence to such a degree that he displaces the historical tragedy that unfolds around him. This is where I find Theeb (2015), a Jordanian film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, to be the best depiction yet of the Arab Revolt. At its heart, Theeb is a coming-of-age story for the titular character with a third act that excellently delves into the tragedy of the Arab Revolt.

Indeed, the Arab Revolt is what drives the plot of the film as Theeb and his brother Hussein help Edward — a British intelligence officer — and his guide Marji in assisting revolutionaries against the Ottoman-controlled Hejaz railway. Edward’s profession makes him practically interchangeable with Lawrence (perhaps intentionally, Edward is the middle name of T.E. Lawrence), although Jack Fox’s portrayal of Edward is decidedly more gruff than O’Toole’s take on Lawrence.

The inclusion of a Lawrence-like character in a Jordanian film is especially notable, since Lawrence historically played a role in early Jordanian history as he advised Abdullah I, Jordan’s first king, both during and after the Arab Revolt. But Edward is the first character to die in the film. His death, quickly lost in the chaos of the ensuing clash, serves as a quiet metaphor for how frequently Western ambitions in the Middle East collapse and lead to only more bloodshed.

The bandits that kill Edward also eliminate Hussein and Marji, leaving Theeb alone with Hassan — a wounded bandit whom Theeb nurses back to health. Hassan is a subtly intriguing character whose jaded nature and dialogue almost presages the betrayal of the Arab Revolt when the victorious Allied powers will divide up the Middle East for themselves after the end of World War I. Indeed, following a scene where Theeb and Hassan encounter revolutionaries along the railway, Hassan laments in the subsequent scene over a campfire how the new railway made his former profession as a pilgrim guide obsolete, thus disrupting his entire means of living “and so brother killed brother.”

In the ensuing scene, Theeb and Hassan encounter the revolutionaries, dead and strewn across the sand from their failed assault on the Ottoman railway. Hassan bemoans the futility of their attack, saying “You can’t stop a spear with your hand.” In referencing communal conflict and the fruitlessness of the revolutionaries’ actions, Hassan’s world-weary commentary in this trio of scenes foreshadows a century of regional turmoil that will unfold once the Allies carve up the Middle East.

While Theeb frames the fall of Arab Revolt against the trajectory of its characters, Lawrence seems to emphasize that Lawrence’s failure in Damascus is the factor that dooms the Arab Revolt. Indeed, I think the finale of the film in Damascus might be the weakest part of Lawrence’s arc (one that undoubtedly climaxes in Lawrence’s decision to slaughter a column of retreating Turkish soldiers). I would argue that Sherif Ali, in the final moments of the film, offers a more compelling figure as he defiantly says that he will remain in Damascus and learn to govern. But then Ali disappears into the shadows.

‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (Columbia Pictures)

The symbolism of Ali and his revolutionary fervor fading from view foreshadow the historical failure to secure an independent Arab state at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and the subsequent inability of the revolutionaries to resist the overwhelming firepower of the colonizing French military at the Battle of Maysalun the next year.

While Lawrence is certainly a more overt film than Theeb, the latter’s subtlety is refreshing. It’s also a smart turn for Director Naji Abu Nowar in his feature length debut. His breathtaking, sweeping shots of Wadi Rum in Jordan draw in the viewer, but the skill with which the film handles the topic of the Arab Revolt is what leaves a real lasting impression.

Check out the Movie Musing podcast for more analysis. Edited by Mark Febrizio.

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