02 December 2012

Going Native: the British Colonial Hero on Film

The British colonial machine has always provided an environment conducive to hero making.  A love of the exotic, a passion for exploration and an insatiable desire to convert (not necessarily religiously, but certainly socially) found many British men and women toiling in foreign lands among foreign peoples.  By their own merits and with the explosive growth of journalism, many became household names back home in the British Isles.  Some, like David Livingstone and Thomas Edward Lawrence, also had the opportunity to become heroes to the native populations of those foreign lands the British government was trying to civilize… or annex.  To what extent these two men seized that opportunity (and subsequently fumbled it) is difficult to assess, but the films, Stanley and Livingstone and Lawrence of Arabia, provide a glimpse for the modern viewer of both the merits and weaknesses of the hero in the British Colonial Empire.  Both films exemplify the tensions inherent in the hero between self-interest and service and between allegiance to one’s nation and responsibility to the community in which one has been transplanted.

Spencer Tracy portrays the real journalist, Henry Stanley.

Stanley and Livingstone (1939), dirs. Otto Brower and Henry King

It is difficult to extricate the story of Dr. David Livingstone from that of Henry Morton Stanley.  In fact, this film depicts a symbiotic relationship between the two, in which one is completely necessary for the establishment of the other as a hero.  Without Stanley’s meeting up with Livingstone and returning to England with his maps and journals, Livingstone would have remained “lost” in the jungles of Africa.  However, without Livingstone’s Christian influence, Stanley would have remained a self-interested rogue, jumping on to his next big story in hopes of perpetuating his reputation.  He says as much to Eve when, upon his return from Africa, she comments upon how much like Dr. Livingstone he has become:  “No, I haven’t changed.  I am still a reporter waiting for his next assignment.”

These words belie the conversion that has taken place within Stanley as a result of the influence of the good doctor.  This conversion is simply a transmission and continuation of a kind of conversion that has already taken place within Livingstone.  While his success at the Christianizing of the native peoples is made evident in the film through shots of the tribe singing a few verses of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," complete with harmony and native embellishments, the tribe, too, has exerted a moral influence upon him.  To some small extent, he has “gone native.”

Livingstone’s long stay with the indigenous people of Africa and his long absence from England have given him the privileged position of “outsider” to his own culture.  As such he has been able to examine his own behaviors and those of his fellow Westerners, and bolstered by Christian righteousness, he points out the injustices caused by him and his compatriots. Stanley is not exempt from this cultural didacticism.  When Stanley strikes Bongo for stealing a mirror from his pack, Livingstone admonishes him: “They know enough of brutality without white men teaching them more.”

Later in the film, he expands on the interaction between Westerners and Africans:  “White men have only seen Africa through the eyes of ignorance.”   Through his exploration and missionary work, Livingstone hopes to lift the fog of ignorance that has clouded the West’s dealings in Africa.  Unfortunately, however well-intentioned the film depicts him, Livingstone is blind to the possible consequences of his own exploration and missionary work.  To “discover” Africa and fill in the blank spaces on an English map with Anglicized names is to “own” Africa.  Whether acting in self-interest to make a name for himself, as the historical figure may have done, or acting out of Christian calling in missionary service to the African peoples, as the film suggests, Livingstone was in truth serving British imperial interests.

When he says, “It is possible to serve God faithfully without losing entirely one’s humanity,” he is speaking of an English concept of civilization and identity.  Therefore, for him, there is a limit to the extent to which he will “go native” and abandon his Western conception of humanity for fear of losing that humanity.  While he refuses to return to Britain with Stanley, he is not refusing his "Britishness."  The film, therefore, reconciles the tension between self-interest and service by presenting Livingstone as driven by his missionary work, however the tension created between his allegiance to the British Empire and his responsibility to the African people he supposedly serves remains largely unresolved.

Peter O'Toole portrays the real British Army Officer, T. E. Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean

By beginning at the end of T. E. Lawrence’s life, this film spotlights the ambiguous nature of the hero and of celebrity.  On the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter moves among the crowd, trying to get some clue as to the nature of the man who has just been interred there:  “Did you know him well?”  “I knew him.”  “But, did he really deserve a place… in here?”  The responses are inconclusive, befitting a character whose very life is depicted as inconclusive in the film.  It is also befitting that a journalist should ask these questions, seeking to uncover the man in death, as a parallel to the character of Bentley, who, later in the main flashback portion of the film, attempts to mold him into a hero in life for the American news-reading public.

Lawrence’s unresolved nature is first evident in his motivations for action, which appear to shift wildly in the film.  He is moved to take the position of observer of the Bedouin battling the Turks seemingly out of boredom.  Presented as clumsy, impulsive and foppish, the mapmaker accepts the offer to get out of the command post and into the desert with the words: “I am the man for the job.  What is the job, by the way?”  After learning of the position, he repeatedly insists, “it’s going to be fun.”

At first, the “fun” is in adjusting to the alien landscape and its strange peoples.  In giving away his British military-issued gun to his Arab guide, he establishes a rapport and begins the process of giving up his British identity.  When he describes his homeland of Oxfordshire as “a fat country – fat people,” his guide remarks, “You are not fat?”  His reply, “No, I’m different,” reveals that he already thinks of himself in the privileged “outsider” position Livingstone found himself in.  As such, he, too, is spurred by a kind of righteousness in his behavior and continues to evolve an image of himself as one of the Bedouin he serves; he progressively “goes native.”

This process is facilitated in many ways by the Arab people, themselves.  When he takes on two Bedouin outcast boys as his servants, he is almost self-consciously exhibiting a British idea of charity and compassion.  However, the boys reward him by referring to him as, “El Aurens,” moving him further away from his native identity.  Another such instance occurs when Lawrence leads a caravan to the Turkish-held post of Aqaba and, dazed by the heat, one of the Bedoiun, Gassim, drifts away into the desert.  Lawrence turns back to find him and, upon returning with the man, is presented with the garb of a Bedouin sherif by the astonished Arabs.  Later, when Lawrence has to execute Gassim for stealing in order to establish peace between tribes, it shows how much his concerns have shifted from compassion for individuals towards concern only for his goals.  It shows, too, a shift in his identification with British justice towards Arab vengeance and bloodlust.

His affectation of letting a match burn down to his fingers is an effective trope for Lawrence’s developing idea of violence as “fun.” Increasingly throughout the film, Lawrence gives in to the brutality and violence he envisions as embodied in the Arabs and Turks around him.  Each time, he is disgusted at what he has become and returns to the safety zone of the military headquarters in Cairo, to its hotels with clean sheets and to lemonade at the British officers’ club.  Finally, the hubris he exhibits when he thinks he has become so like the Bedouin that he can pass unnoticed in Deraa catches up with him.  He is picked out, tortured mercilessly by the Turkish Bey and, upon release, seems a changed man; putting aside his Arab identity, he first asks Sherif Ali to let him go:  “I think I see a way of being just ordinarily happy…. Trust your own people and let me go back to mine.”  When he does return to the British, he asks his superior for permission to return to England.  These words, like Stanley’s confession to Eve in the other film, belie his true conversion.

The temptation to lead the Bedouin to Damascus and take it is far too great.  His words indicate another shift in motivation:  “We’ll take Damascus and we’ll keep it.”  Though the “we” here is likely assumed to be the British by the officer and the politician to whom he is speaking, it becomes clear that he intends to act on behalf of the Arab peoples.  He has worked all along to create a unified people out of the disparate tribes with whom he has come in contact and he intends Damascus to be the seat of a governing council to lead that unified people.  When he and the Bedouin succeed, the British have only to sit and wait for the separate tribes to obliterate the possibility of effective self-rule by quarreling amongst themselves.

This final failure, and the realization that he has been serving the British imperial machine even though he had convinced himself that he was helping the Arab people, is too much to bear.  Lawrence puts his Arab identity to rest for good and returns to England.  This satisfies both the British military and government, who benefited from his actions even though they repeatedly set the Bedouin up for failure by denying them artillery, and satisfies Prince Feisal, who also benefited from him, but was just as happy to be rid of him and his plastic allegiances.  (An ironic bit of casting has Englishman Alec Guiness portraying Prince Feisal, underscoring the theme of the liquidity of identity presented in the film.)


Dr. David Livingstone and T. E. Lawrence are examples of men who, in becoming heroes, crossed both geographic borders and barriers of ethnic identity.  Both are complicated characters, with ambiguous motivations and allegiances, but who died as distinctly British heroes, having served to further the reach of the Empire, whether intentionally or not.  The films in which both characters figure can be viewed as extensions of the medium through which their celebrity was nurtured and perpetuated, journalism.  The newspaper articles (by Stanley and Bentley, respectively) that both recorded and shaped the exploits of both men for their homeland and international audiences have evolved into films, which even today mold the perceptions of these men by modern audiences.  In the case of Stanley and Livingstone and Lawrence of Arabia, this medium is a particularly ripe vehicle for the exploration of questions of colonialism, heroism, and the tensions inherent to the hero’s psyche.

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