News of the San Gabriel Valley since 1966.

Two Movies, Middle East History

By Sean Telles


By Sean Telles

Last week, awarding-winning movie “Lawrence of Arabia” celebrated its 50th anniversary by releasing a digitally remastered version of the film to theaters followed by a Blu-ray DVD. This week, after much film festival acclaim, Ben Affleck’s Iran-hostage-based pic “Argo” was released. Both movies offer insight into the history of Western involvement in the Middle East, as well as context for our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is often hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time – and not just by dusty old film professors. Both Scorsese and Spielberg cite this movie is a reason they make movies. In addition, more current movies – like Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” – make reference to it.  The man the movie is based on is equally influential. Winston Churchill called T. E. Lawrence “one of the greatest beings of our time. Whatever our need, we shall never see his like again.”

The movie takes place during WWI, in what is now Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. As a British solider, Lawrence travels and battles the Ottoman Empire. No one seems to understand his motives as his allegiance leans towards uniting highly divided Arab interests. Through its lengthy 4 hours and 20 minutes, this movie shows, in 70mm film, the context and influence of British colonialism in the Middle East. The combination of highly divided regional sects of people and culturally indiscriminate border mapping by an outside government continues to plague countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where infrastructure rebuilding efforts have been undone at times due to warring groups of people within the same country.

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” takes places in 1979 at a time of heightened tensions between the Unites States and Iran.  The movie begins with an introduction of Iranian history, including Western influence on the country’s political landscape, and focuses on American State Department workers forced into hiding after an Embassy break-in. The similarities to our modern-day times are hard to ignore, as the recent Libyan consulate attack and Iranian nuclear capabilities are daily news stories.

Although romantic and fictionalized, these movies are based on history, and taken together offer a unique perspective on the recent and fairly recent history of the Middle East and offer a visual guide to two pieces of a foundation on which current international relations are built. On top of that, they are worth watching as movies because they are entertaining and interesting. Most importantly, these movies remind us that our servicemen abroad, like Lawrence and Affleck’s character Tony Mendez, are complex human beings working in complicated situations who deserve our full attention – a topic often overlooked in a 24-hour news cycle.

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