Lawrence, Me and the Sheep

Tony Dowmunt
Department of Media and Communications
Goldsmiths College
University of London
New Cross, London SE14 6NW
UK


This presentation is about the parallels between two films that were produced within a couple of years of each other, in the early 1960s: the 2.5 hour Cinemascope epic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE SHEEP, an 8mm, 8 minute-long home movie I made with a school teacher when I was 13 years old. The contrasts between them – in scale, budget, audiences, world fame – seemed too great (not to say ridiculous) to put them together when I first worked the idea. However, spurred on by the memory of LAWRENCE being my favourite film at the time we were making THE SHEEP, it soon became more than a joke (although I haven’t completely lost sight of the absurdity of the comparison).

I became interested in the ways in which these two films – despite their vast and obvious differences – address similar themes, very personal to me, centring on the construction of, and conflicts within, white, male, middle-class English identity in the ‘post-imperial’ 20th Century. I’ll try to address some of these similarities in what follows. My aim is to explore the central parallels in the two films as they deal with the issues of identity and ‘imperial service’ (Lawrence in the desert, me – somewhat more prosaically – in the Boy Scouts in rural Sussex) and our relationship to each of our ‘others’: Lawrence’s Arabs and my sheep.

I sought out the 8mm film of THE SHEEP again during the research I am doing on autobiographical documentary and video diaries, as part of an Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts, funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK. The Fellowship is housed at Goldsmiths College where I teach an MA in Screen Documentary. A large part of the work is practical, involving me in my own filmmaking projects, and I thought it was important that I look into my own filmic background as part of my autobiographical research – to get an idea of how I have portrayed myself, and have been portrayed, in still and moving photographic images over the years.

I made THE SHEEP in collaboration with Sid Templer, my English teacher from the age of 10-13, who introduced me to filmmaking. This was at a private boarding school – an English Preparatory school in the Sussex countryside. The film was very much a collaboration between myself and Sid. He was the first adult I encountered in my childhood whom I felt really understood who I was (rather than who they thought I ought to be). Sid was in his very early 20s when he started teaching us. He was from an army family – his father had been a General – but was to some extent rebelling against his background. He was in the first generation after the Second World War of young men who didn’t have to do National Service in the forces – the generation that spearheaded the various social and cultural revolutions in the UK in the early 1960s, and produced, for instance, the satire movement and Beyond the Fringe.

In THE SHEEP film I play a disaffected, disreputable boy scout on a camping trip, isolated from the rest of his ‘troop’, who befriends a sheep. He takes the sheep for a walk, and ends up taking a nap by a railway line while the sheep grazes on the tracks, and is run down by a train. The boy hauls the sheep’s corpse back to the camp and buries it, but is ridiculed by the other scouts who jump up and down on the grave.
 

 

 


This (Fig 2) is a photograph Sid took of me in my boiler suit which I wore (when out of school or Scouting uniform) during the same time period in which we made THE SHEEP: an ‘outsider’ figure in the comfortable, loosefitting and, in the UK context, defiantly working class garment. The photograph reminds me of the shot towards the end of THE SHEEP (Fig 1) when I turn my back on the other boys who have just desecrated the grave by jumping up and down on it.

Sid befriended myself and a number of the other boys at my Sussex Prep School, who were out of sympathy with the conformist, sports-oriented, and class-bound norms of private schooling in the early 1960s. THE SHEEP’s first title was THE NINETY AND NINE, a Biblical reference, Luke chapter 15:

And he spoke this parable unto them, saying:
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and
neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me: for I have found my sheep which was lost.

The film reflected me and who I was at the time - a kind of lost sheep, uncomfortable with his class background and the identity it sought to impose on me.

So now I’ll make the apparently abrupt transition to the sands of Arabia. Watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA when it was first released made me want to become a filmmaker. I’m still not sure why it had this power over me, but I loved watching the lone figure of Lawrence in the widescreen, desert landscapes (a more grandiose version, in a way, of me in my boiler suit), accompanied by the epic Maurice Jarre melody. I think I also became interested at a more unconscious level in Lawrence as the ‘tortured hero’ figure. Jonathan Rutherford describes Lawrence as: a man who was grappling with contradictory emotions, loyalties and identities .. His identification with the Arabs and their culture displaced the centred position of his identity as a white man1 (1990: 9). Rutherford has a similar childhood background in the upper middle classes to mine, and an adult commitment to Left wing politics, again similar to mine. He suggests this is part of Lawrence’s appeal:

Perhaps this explains my fascination with the Lawrence myth and why it works for me as a metaphor of uncertainty. For those of us positioned within the privileged discourses and structures of power, who have crossed those demarcation zones through friendship, love affairs and marriages, or in our political activities and solidarities, that often intimate, unsettling and disruptive relation between the centre and the margin displaces us. (1990: 12)


It’s this unsettling and disruptive relation, this displacement (Rutherford’s and my own sense of being of, or from a class, but out of sympathy with it) that is at the heart of what I want to say about my feelings about LAWRENCE and THE SHEEP.

At one point in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA Lawrence has just crossed the Sinai desert – an act of arrogance to show Sharif Ali (the character played by Omar Sharif) that he could perform this feat – losing one of his two Arab servant boys on the way in a quicksand. He and the survivor, Faraj, arrive back in the British-controlled world of the Suez canal. A British army motorcyclist pulls up on the opposite bank of the canal and shouts at them ‘Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?'



I was interested to see, on re-viewing the film recently, that Lawrence – in agonised close-up – has no answer to the question (Fig 3). His long stay in the desert has more than (in Rutherford’s words) displaced the centred position of his identity as a white man (1990: 9), it has literally made him forget who he is. Lawrence and Faraj then get a lift to the British Army Headquarters in Cairo, where Lawrence, still in Arab costume, insists on taking Faraj into the Officers’ mess for a drink, much to the horror and consternation of his fellow soldiers and officers (both because of his costume, and because Faraj, as an Arab, is not allowed in the mess). They are eventually rescued by Harry, a senior officer who is impressed by Lawrence’s story about how they have just taken Akaba, and agrees to take him to see General Allenby. As he escorts him out of the mess, Harry remarks: ‘You better get into some trousers too’, earning him a withering look from Lawrence. I’ll return to the issue of dress later. For now I want to stress how this scene underlines Lawrence’s displacement by quoting Lawrence’s words from the SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM 2:

‘… the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me … I had dropped one form and not taken on the other .. with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do ..’ (Lawrence, 30)

This ‘intense loneliness’ feels to me to be quite close to the position my character adopts in THE SHEEP. Both Lawrence and the character I play are – in some ways reluctant - soldiers in British Imperial Armies: Lawrence obviously, my character because he is in the Boy Scouts. Graham Dawson has characterised Baden Powell’s Scouting movement as a place

‘where we see the transference of the masculine skills and virtues identified with the imperial frontier to the English countryside .. and their enlistment in national defence that is both imaginative and literal. Here, the link between the heroic fantasies of boyhood and political mobilization of the nation achieved a new and institutional form’ (Dawson, 151).

Without being able to articulate it fully in the early 1960s, I remember both sensing and resenting how Scouting was intended to mobilise us into some kind of nationalistic, post-imperial project. The uniforms, the strange ritualistic chanting, and the hierarchical and quasi-militaristic ranking all made me uncomfortable and (passive-aggressively) rebellious – a lonely and contemptuous stance towards the Scouting conventions in which I was caught up.

Dawson says of SEVEN PILLARS: ‘its imagining of the divided self is shaped … in the encounter with the otherness of Arabia’(204). At the risk of sounding absurd, I’m tempted to say that in THE SHEEP ‘its imagining of (my) divided self is shaped … in the encounter with the otherness’ of the sheep. There is a way in which, in the film, I adopt and look after the sheep in the face of the indifference of, and finally rejection by, my fellow Boy Scouts that reminds me of Lawrence’s championing of Faraj in the mess in the face of the racism of his fellow officers in the sequence I described above.

THE SHEEP is full of ironic little montages that point up the alienation of my character from the norms of Scouting that the others follow: I tend to the sheep while they get on with useful activities like map reading. I wipe the sheep’s eyes with a corner of the Union Jack flag that had been hanging on the tent (Fig 4). Towards the end of the film I make a cross for the sheep’s grave while they practice knot tying on their staves (Fig 5) (from what I remember knot-tying was the main activity in the Scouts), and they


 

 

strike camp and pull the tent pegs out of the ground while I pick daisies again for the grave. And finally, back towards the start of the film, they stride off purposely and fully, properly dressed with their maps, while I meander off with the sheep, non-regulation shirt sleeves hanging out and without my hat - which brings me back to the issue of dress.

At the start pf the sequence depicting Lawrence’s interview with General Allenby, Allenby is reading out his file, which describes Lawrence as ‘undisciplined, unpunctual, untidy’, but includes a long list of his intellectual accomplishments, leading Allenby to conclude that he is an ‘interesting man, no doubt about it’. This was very much how I would have liked to be described at school – a sort of tousled, non-conformist, apprentice intellectual.

Later in the same scene comes Lawrence’s confession to Allenby that he enjoys killing – an occasion of emotional openness that Allenby tries to close down by getting up abruptly from his desk. With his sharp question ‘What do you mean by coming here dressed like that?’ Allenby uses the issue of dress and uniform to regain control of the conversation, by ridiculing Lawrence’s Arab clothes. There’s an extra irony here, because although the robes are dirty from the journey through Sinai, they were given to him – in a key scene earlier - in recognition of his spectacular rescue of a Bedouin in the desert earlier in the film, when the Arabs salute him as ‘He-for-whom-nothing-is-written’. However when Allenby asks ‘What do you think I would look like in this Harry?’ (Fig 6), he gets the response ‘Damned ridiculous sir!’ and hands back the headgear to Lawrence, the gulf between the blond Bedouin’s divided selves is clear 3.


 

Even so, the interview ends well for Lawrence. He returns in triumph to the Officers’ mess to have a drink with Allenby – to the accompaniment of martial music on the soundtrack, his identity crisis temporarily suspended as he is welcomed back into the imperialist fold. However, we are made aware in the very next scene that Allenby will betray the Arabs Lawrence is fighting with by going back on his offer of artillery to them. The whole sequence is a good illustration of what Dawson calls ‘the inescapability of colonial relations, and the necessity of finding some place to occupy within them’ (224). I can empathise, from my own history, with Lawrence’s compromised and contradictory attitudes to class and race – belonging, not belonging, not wanting to belong but still at some level craving, and seeking, acceptance.

So we can see more clearly now why Harry got his withering look for suggesting: ‘You better get into some trousers too’, as well as the significance of the Cairo HQ Guard’s remark, under his breath, as Lawrence and Faraj walked towards the Officers mess, before the confrontation: ‘What do you think you look like?’ The film reflected how the ‘real’ Lawrence was described in contemporary sources, for instance by his biographer Lowell Thomas:

I have seen him in the streets of Cairo without belt, and with unpolished boots – negligence next to high treason in the British Army. To my knowledge he was the only British officer in the war who so completely disregarded all the little precisions and military formalities for which the British are famous. Lawrence rarely saluted, and (when he did it was simply with a wave of the hand, as though he was saying, ‘Halloa, old man’ to a pal) I have never seen him stand to attention. (Dawson: 175)

There are plenty of instances in the Sheep where I exhibit the same rebellious informality: staying in my pyjamas – that were too big, the sleeves flapping about – while the other boys were already dressed; wearing my uniform untucked, the check shirt with cuffs undone underneath it, no hat; and finally the melodramatic act right at the end of the film, after the desecration of the sheep’s grave by my fellow Scouts, when I tear off my scarf and throw it away: my childish rejection of the sartorial norms of Scouting.

I’m going to end here by talking briefly about gender. One of the salient features of this paper so far has been the absence of women - from both the films, and what I have been saying about them. This reflects how both Graham Dawson and Jonathan Rutherford talk about the function of gender relations in the imperial project. Dawson describes how ‘SEVEN PILLARS reproduces the structural absence of women, especially Western women, from the world of the legend..’ and he characterises Lawrence’s adventure as ‘quite literally ‘a flight from domesticity’’ (207). Rutherford asserts that ‘a central dynamic in the creation of (this) imperial manliness was men’s childhood relationships with their mothers.’ He also talks about

the effect on men of growing up in a patriarchal family institution in which love and relationships are a scarce resource controlled by mothers and in which fathers are either absent or – emotionally speaking – ineffectual and marginal figures. (1997: 7)

Growing up a man in this kind of environment (which I recognise from aspects of my own childhood) obviously produces insecurity and ambivalence, which the empire and its various institutions offered a partial escape from – at a price. These flights from domesticity - from women and our mothers – are a defining feature of the various masculinities that the imperial project attempted to create, both in adulthood in service in the armed forces and in Imperial service abroad, and in childhood, in the practice of sending boys away to boarding school. In fact I now think it is possible to read THE SHEEP as a whole as my sublimated cry of protest at being sent away to school.

Success in the imperial adventure as a man necessitated a break from our mothers – and the love and comfort that the world of women promised (if not actually, at least ideally). In these two films Lawrence tries to re-capture this world or at least find a substitute for it in the desert with his Arabs, and I attempt a return to the body of an ideal mother through the – admittedly slightly bizarre - intermediary of the warm, woolly sheep. In neither case do these attempts end well. Lawrence returns to England feeling he has betrayed the Arabs and their cause, and is now alienated from them and it. And my sheep dies: I demonstrate my ambivalence towards the attempted return – or my sense of it’s impossibility - by allowing it, through my negligence, to be killed on the railway line.

In one of the final scenes of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Lawrence is being driven away from Damascus past Arabs on camel-back. ‘Well sir, going home?’ asks his driver – but as Graham Dawson points out ‘…’home’ no longer exists for Lawrence’ (225) – nor for me at on a much smaller, more childish scale when I’ve buried the sheep and throw away my scout’s scarf. In Bob Dylan’s resonant phrase (Dylan 1965), there was ‘no direction home’ for either of us.

Bibliography

Graham Dawson (1994) Soldier Heroes: British adventure, empire and the imagining of masculinities (London and New York: Routledge)

Bob Dylan (1965) Like A Rolling Stone (http://bobdylan.com/songs/rolling.html- 2005-09-07) 

T.E. Lawrence (1962) Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

Jonathan Rutherford (1990) A Place Called Home: Identity and the Cultural Politics of Difference in Jonathan Rutherford (ed) (1990) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence & Wishart)

Jonathan Rutherford (1997) Forever England: Reflections on Masculinity and Empire (London: Lawrence & Wishart)

1. ... and, I would add, as a member of the imperial officer class.

2. These were, of course, written by the ‘real’ Lawrence, not the Peter O’Toole character! However, Robert Bolt used SEVEN PILLARS as a primary source for his script for the film.

3. The ‘blond Bedouin’ is Lawrence's biographer Lowell Thomas’s phrase characterising his subject (Dawson 1994: 168-9)