One of the most overlooked aspects of Prometheus is its deep connection to the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia. Sure, Peter Weyland name drops T.E. Lawrence in his cornerstone TED talk. Lines like “big things have small beginnings” and “there is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing” are direct quotes from the film. And David is seen watching the film while the rest of the crew sleep away the journey in cryo-sleep but really this only just scratches the surface.
Weyland himself identifies heavily with T.E. Lawrence implicitly and explicitly labeling himself as “superior” in both his first and last appearances in the film. He is a man set on changing the world in spite of the “rules, restrictions, laws, [and] ethical guidelines” of the existing rulers. Lawrence himself was wont to buck authority, conventional wisdom, direct orders, and even what was commonly understood to be physically possible. Weyland declares “we are the gods now” with the same fervor and commitment as when Lawrence, after bringing Gasim out of the dessert, looks Ali in the eye and says, “Nothing is written.” They are men who understand that it is up to humans to change humanity and if you indulge them they are willing to change the world.
Of course, however, the main parallel with Lawrence of Arabia comes to us through the lens of David. The android played so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender has almost religiously patterned his person and appearance after Peter O’Toole in the epic film. We see him watching Lawrence of Arabia while bleaching and parting his hair to reach as close to Peter O’Toole’s infamous visage as he can. David has developed not only his image but also his mannerisms and speaking patterns around the character of T.E. Lawrence. While he works he sits and recites to himself Lawrence’s famous line about how he handles the pain of extinguishing a match between his fingers: “The trick, Willam Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” This is where the connections begin to burrow even deeper.
One of Lawrence’s defining characteristics in the film is his ability to endure inhuman amounts of physical discomfort, social humiliation, and even bodily torture. His refusal of water and rest until the Bedu are willing to take them for themselves leads his initial companion to ask “Are you certain you are not Bedu?” He is a stranger in a strange land but he suffers his indignities and powers on with his agenda.
David is very much the same. He is an outsider in a world of flesh and blood humans. He suffers the indignity of being treated as a servant or an appliance despite his contributions to the missions – contributions which he no doubt views as superior to those provided by others. Many people would attribute his general lack of affect to his nature and limitations as an android but I truly believe that this is a conscious choice by David. He views himself as special: a purpose built creation much like Lawrence was a man with a destiny. He speaks with Holloway about how disappointed Holloway would be if humanity’s creators had the same justification humans had for creating him: “Because we can.” This scene (which is visually analogous to a scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence discusses his purpose in the Army while bouncing billiard balls around a pool table) gives us an insight into David’s actual psyche. To me this scene makes it clear that David DOES feel on some level and is merely being the good soldier, forging on to his objectives all the while not minding that it hurts.
David’s relationship to Lawrence of Arabia is even more personal than all this however. Both David and Lawrence are essentially bastard children of famous fathers. They are seeking approval and validation for an existence that is proving to be less than their promise. David is seeking the love and praise of Weyland as much or more than Lawrence is for that of the Arabian people as well as his surrogate father figure Mr. Dryden. While Lawrence is somewhat betrayed by Mr. Dryden claiming there have always been plans to take Arabia from the Arabs, David is betrayed by Weyland as he is reduced to a mere demonstration of human ability to the Engineers. David so deeply wants to be praised and appreciated for his achievement that as the Engineer reaches down and caresses his face we can see the moment of pure ecstasy proving once and for all that David does in fact feel. Of course this is immediately followed by the Engineer ripping his head from his body and using it to kill Weyland. This is an echo of the moment when Lawrence takes Damascus in a great victory for the Arabs only to have their rule disintegrate to infighting and luddism.
David and Lawrence both sought greatness only to be reduced to ruin. They both endured inhumanities and displayed great strength. These bastard sons of greater men did amazing things only to let their hubris and pride turn their victories to ashes in their mouths. David’s deliberate replication of the lifestyle and living image of Lawrence of Arabia is truly a powerful and sadly ironic statement. Perhaps both David and his father should have paid closer attention to the end of the film to see what really happens to great mean with limitless ambition.