Note: This article is an expanded and revised version of several posts on my blog from fall of 2012, during the film’s 50th anniversary re-release. I will caution, as well, that it includes a discussion of sexual assault.
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is considered a cinematic masterpiece. Yet even critics who admire its photography, music and multifaceted portrait of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), the British liaison officer who assisted with the Arab Revolt against Turkey during World War I, have often questioned its historical accuracy. Drawing as it does on Lawrence’s memoirs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it takes an already contentious historical subject, whose reputation remains cloud by debate, and amplifies his exploits into myth.
Both Michael Wilson, who wrote early drafts of the script, and Robert Bolt, who delivered the final product, left a personal mark on Lawrence (arguably more than David Lean, who for all his photographic and directorial brilliance had little interest in the movie’s political contours). The two writers differed in their approach to the material: Wilson hoped for a broader political portrait of the Arab Revolt, while Bolt’s focus was Lawrence himself. Both harbored left-wing sentiments that influenced their view both of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt generally.
Wilson’s screenwriting career (producing classics like Salt of the Earth and Friendly Persuasion) was aborted in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His Communist affiliations led Wilson to be blacklisted in Hollywood through most of the ’50s. After co-writing Lean and Sam Spiegel’s Bridge on the River Kwai without credit, he was eager to receive recognition for a major film. Wilson, however, couldn’t accommodate Lean’s vision of Lawrence, and Robert Bolt received sole credit on the finished film. Not until 1995, after Spiegel, Lean and Bolt were all deceased, was Wilson’s credit to the movie restored.
Bolt was a school teacher-turned-playwright who’d just hit it big with his twin successes of The Tiger and the Horse and A Man for All Seasons – plays which examined historical and political issues through an individual lens. Spiegel initially planned for Bolt to “touch up” Wilson’s script, but Bolt ultimately spent over a year reshaping the screenplay. He was an active member of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, a political commitment which jeopardized the film: Bolt was arrested for joining an anti-nuclear demonstration while writing the script. A furious Spiegel bailed Bolt out, humiliating the socialist playwright.
The controversy of “who wrote Lawrence of Arabia” is definitively examined by Joel Hodson’s Cineaste article. Suffice it to say Wilson provided the script’s narrative outline while Bolt contributed the dialogue and interpretation of Lawrence. Both, however, viewed Lawrence as “a romantic fascist” (in Bolt’s phrase) who mixed personal motives with military duty and love for primitive Arab culture; the Revolt itself as a classic case of imperial perfidy, with the British encouraging nationalism to win a war only to crush it afterwards. In the midst of the Cold War, when the Middle East was again a battleground for great powers, and the aftermath of 1956’s Suez Crisis, where Abdel Nasser’s nationalist Egypt humiliated post-imperial Britain, Lawrence‘s message held deep contemporary resonance.
In his Apologia for the script, Bolt claims that Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom was his only major source for the film. This seems hard to credit, however. For one, it includes elements that could not have been gleaned from Seven Pillars, like Lawrence’s death and funeral (obviously) and, more substantially, the character of Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy). Bentley, a stand-in for American journalist Lowell Thomas, is used to interrogate Lawrence’s historical reputation; through sensationalist reporting and Lawrence’s own grandiloquence, he becomes an outsized hero, a chivalrous figure emerging from a very unchivalrous war.
Yet it’s impossible to ignore the context in which the movie’s Lawrence’s reputation has always been the subject of dispute, between wildly divergent interpretations of biographers, Lawrence’s family and friends (dubbed the “Lawrence Bureau”) jealously guarding his reputation, and Lawrence’s own debatable honesty. In 1962, at the time of the film’s release, it had recently received a major jolt that undoubtedly influence the movie.
In 1955, novelist Richard Aldington published Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry. Aldington brutally deconstructed the Lawrence legend, depicting his subject as every shade of cad: a liar, egomaniac, neurotic, homosexual and literal bastard. Aldington had a valid point that biographies up to then were uncritical and uniformly flattering. But his vitriolic tone, evident personal grudge against Lawrence (“the appropriate hero for his class and epoch”) and willingness to always believe the worst of his subject led to bitter denunciation and even the attempted suppression of the book by Lawrence’s brother, Arnold (A.W.). Nonetheless, his claims seeped into public consciousness, difficult to dislodge even today – and certainly bore heavily.
A more direct influence was Anthony Nutting. A former official in Anthony Eden’s Conservative government, he resigned in the wake of 1956’s Suez Crisis (“I could not defend the policy because I was not prepared to tell lies in the House of Commons and the UN,” he said). David Lean enlisted Nutting as a Middle Eastern adviser on the film, and he played a major rule in securing the cooperation of King Hussein’s government for filming in Jordan. However, Nutting found his historical advice mostly discarded by Lean and his screenwriters. Most specifically, Nutting objected strongly to Sherif Ali killing Lawrence’s guide at the well, feeling it a gross and insulting distortion of Bedouin culture.
Nutting published a slim volume called Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive shortly before the film’s release. It shows that while the filmmakers largely ignored Nutting’s Middle East expertise, they gleaned much from his interpretation of Lawrence. Nutting’s depiction of a Lawrence as a self-anointed “Kingmaker,” a grandiose neurotic and “rabid masochist” driven over the edge by Deraa matches Bolt and Wilson’s interpretation to a T. No doubt Nutting’s personal experiences as a disillusioned Arabist influenced his interpretation of Lawrence’s political dilemma of “serving two masters,” and feeling as if he betrayed both.
Wilson and Bolt appropriated many of Aldington and Nutting’s analyses of Lawrence into their work. Wilson’s surviving script notes indicated that he, at least, had read Aldington’s book before writing. Whether or not Bolt did, the broader assertions of the book about Lawrence’s character – the egomania, homosexual and supposed sadism – informed his account as well. More nuanced accounts of Lawrence (John Mack’s A Prince of Our Disorder, Lawrence James’ The Golden Warrior, Jeremy Wilson’s authorized biography and more recent books by Michael Korda and Scott Anderson) came closer to the truth than the polarized factions of the early ’60s; but, of course, Lean, Bolt and Wilson could not avail themselves of these.
Perhaps it’s best to consider Lawrence of Arabia, then, as a literary adaptation rather than strict history, with the usual alterations made for dramatic license and thematic resonance. Without a detailed, beat-for-beat dissection of the movie (for that, see here), we can use a few key scenes to illustrate the point.
1. Ali at the Well
Lawrence‘s most memorable scene is Sherif Ali’s (Omar Sharif) introduction at Matsurah Well: a black blob appearing on the horizon and slowly approaching, with Lawrence and his guide Tafas watching in trepidation. He shoots Tafas, member of the rival Beni Salem tribe; Ali is a Harith, blood enemy of Tafas’s people, instantly codifying the tribal discord that will complicate Lawrence’s effort. Ali takes Lawrence’s service pistol, previously gifted to Tafas. Lawrence then denounces Ali as a murderer and the Arabs as “greedy, barbarous and cruel,” before continuing his journey to Feisal alone.
This scene draws on an incident in Seven Pillars (81-83), but the two depictions couldn’t be more different. The real Sherif Ali traveled with a slave, and the two switched identities to fool Tafas. Lawrence treats the incident comically, far from the movie’s deadly encounter. Lawrence also shows that Bedouin allowed common use of desert wells, even among unfriendly tribes. Here, Lean readily jettisons reality for artistic effect.
Lean introduces several thematic strands here. It establishes Ali and his bipolar relationship with Lawrence. Lawrence starts as civilized man disgusted by the “savage” Ali; the two develop inversely throughout the film, reversing roles in the final act. The idea of Arabs torn “tribe against tribe,” and Lawrence’s efforts to unite them for a common cause, is dramatically established. The scene is both artistically impressive and dramatically important…though its historical accuracy and cultural sensitivity is markedly limited.
2. Feisal’s Tent
From his first meeting with Prince Feisal, Lawrence felt him “the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory” (92). As portrayed by Alec Guinness, Feisal embodies Arabia’s glorious past and dreams of independence, with a shade of worldly cynicism. From the beginning, he has no illusions about British war aims and ultimately accepts an unfavorable compromise. Although played by a Caucasian actor (and much older than the historical figure, who was only 31 when Lawrence met him), Feisal’s dignity and intelligence renders him an uncommonly sensitive portrait of Arab leadership.
In this scene, Lean and Bolt draw loosely on Seven Pillars; mostly, they use this encounter as a dramatic springboard for later developments. Lean introduces Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), a composite based on various British and French officers serving with Feisal, who thematically represents British military convention. Brighton emphasizes the importance of discipline, disputed by Ali (who wants modern weapons) and Feisal (who doubts its value). Lawrence immediately disagrees with Brighton and advocate a third way: guerrilla warfare. This piques Feisal’s interest, allowing him to confide his fears to Lawrence that the English “hunger for Arabia.”
In the subsequent “miracle” scene (drawing loosely on Lawrence’s interlude at Wadi Ais, where Lawrence claimed to have dreamed about campaign strategy while recovering from a fever), Lawrence realizes the Arabs must move north and seize Aqaba to regain the initiative. This is misleading. Contrary to Brighton’s claim that the Royal Navy has “better things to do,” they had already worked closely with the Arabs in seizing the port of Wejh (January 1917). After this, Lawrence says in Seven Pillars, “the Arab movement… had passed beyond danger of collapse” (169). Tactically and strategically, Aqaba was not then a desperate gambit but a logical next step for Feisal’s armies that would enable them to work more closely with the British.
Dramatically, this scene also places Arab and British war aims in opposition. The Arabs want complete independence; the British want to limit the uprising, in furtherance of imperial goals. Lawrence must choose one side or the other, or else be hopelessly conflicted. There’s much truth to this characterization, though oddly Lean makes Lawrence ignorant of the Sykes-Picot Agreement until much later in the narrative! This scene is dubious historically but provides a solid basis for further drama.
3. Gassim: Nothing is Written
Another remarkable scene depicts the rescue of Gassim, a member of Lawrence’s expedition lost on the road to Aqaba. This sequence, strikingly shot by Lean with a combination of long shots and close-ups on a harsh, unblinking sun, closely follows Seven Pillars‘ description (260-264). Shortly afterwards Lawrence eschews his uniform for white robes, the Arabs accepting him as “El Aurens” – the cornerstone of his legend. Here Lean deviates from Seven Pillars: the Howeitat chieftain Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), who in reality not only joined the Aqaba expedition at its onset but helped Feisal and Lawrence plan it, wonders why Lawrence risked his life for a man “not worth a camel’s price” (263). And Lawrence had, of course, worn Arab garb long before this point.
Dramatically, this scene serves two key purposes. First, as mentioned, it marks Lawrence’s acceptance by the Arabs, especially Ali, who soon becomes an inseparable friend. Second, it highlights Lawrence’s first triumph over Fate. Ignoring Arab fatalism, Lawrence proves he can overcome long odds through determination: “Nothing is written!” This minor triumph sets the stage for greater victories at Aqaba and Damascus.
Lean later provides an ironic coda when Lawrence executes Gassim for murdering a Howeitat (tellingly, with Tafas’s revolver). “It was written then,” intones Auda, reasserting Fate’s power over Choice. It also introduces a new theme – Lawrence’s enjoyment of killing. The real Lawrence executed another Arab named Hamed, for a similar crime earlier in Seven Pillars. Conflating the two events is acceptable dramatic license.
4. Meeting Allenby
Lawrence spends only a single page detailing his first encounter with General Edmund Allenby (Jack Hawkins), who assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force shortly before Lawrence returned from Aqaba. He enthuses about his new commander, “physically large and confident” (330) and more willing to help the Revolt than his predecessor General Murray (Donald Wolfit), portrayed (in both film and Lawrence’s book) as a fusty, unimaginative armchair general. Lawrence’s admiration for Allenby, both man and military commander, is clear throughout Seven Pillars, even describing him at one point as a father figure.
Lean transforms this “comic interview” into one of the film’s pivotal sequences. Lasting nearly 15 minutes, it serves a myriad of functions. Bolt elucidates Aqaba’s strategic importance, quoting Lawrence’s arguments in Seven Pillars about isolating Medina and coordinating with the British (cf. 281). The British officers who, just a scene before, inundated Lawrence with racial slurs now cheer him as a hero. Besides introducing Allenby and developing Brighton’s character (who gains genuine admiration for Lawrence), it probes Lawrence’s psyche at a key moment in the narrative.
Slumped in his chair in fray robes, splattered with blood and dust, Lawrence comes across as a broken, neurotic wreck. His pride in capturing Aqaba has dissipated, after losing his servant Daud to quicksand and his encounter with racist officers at the headquarters bar. Worse, Lawrence realizes his own blood lust, “enjoying” his execution of Gassim and fearing its future implications. Exhausted and afraid he desperately begs for reassignment. He has the bad luck of meeting the movie’s Allenby, here not a supportive superior with “confidence… like a wall” (553) but a deceitful villain.
Where Murray dismissed Lawrence as “the kind of creature I can’t stand,” Allenby immediately recognizes Lawrence’s military value. A guerrilla army harassing Turkish supply lines is a boon for future offensives. He also pegs Lawrence’s Achilles heel: vanity. Dismissing Lawrence’s concerns, he elicits complements from Brighton (officer), Dryden (civilian) and a Mr. Perkins (enlisted man), covering all bases of flattery. Then he holds a public military conference, expounding Lawrence’s genius to his entire staff. Thus Allenby’s defining traits: military skill and psychological perfidy.
Lean and Bolt re-introduce, and emphasize their earlier anti-war/imperialist themes. Lawrence suspects Britain won’t honor their promises, an inquiry Allenby and the political officer Dryden (Claude Rains) both dodge. Dryden is a composite character, loosely based on Ronald Storrs and Sir Mark Sykes; he initially acts as Lawrence’s mentor, securing his posting to the field and applauding exploits, only to reveal his true colors later on. “A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth,” he’ll chide Lawrence, “but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he’s put it.”
The scene ends with Allenby, Brighton and Dryden deciding not to give the Arabs artillery (an odd element to hinge the plot on, considering that Lawrence’s guerrillas would have little use for heavy guns). For now, Lawrence is satiated by vague promises of post-war freedom, and concrete promises of arms and money. His ego flushed by adulation, he returns to the desert and initiates a successful campaign against the Hejaz Railway.
5. Deraa Is The Key
The most traumatic, and controversial, incident in Seven Pillars involves Lawrence’s capture, torture and gang rape by Turkish soldiers in Deraa in November of 1917. Many historians doubt this incident actually happened: biographers dispute the details of Lawrence’s account, whether it matches his supposed whereabouts at the time, whether it matches the character of the Turkish commander (he was supposedly a womanizer), etc. Accepting its truthfulness, Lean and Bolt make it a central scene in Lawrence, but distort both the background and its effects significantly.
Lawrence’s reasons for entering Deraa were banal. Deraa (in present-day Syria) was an important railroad junction which Lawrence hoped to raid. While scouting in town he was arrested by the Turks and taken to a Turkish officer – supposedly Hajim Bey, the garrison commander. The officer “began to fawn on me… (offering to) make me his orderly… if I would love him” (452). Lawrence refused his advances, then was beaten and sexually assaulted by the Bey’s soldiers. Lawrence escapes, and later learns from Auda that he was betrayed by Syrian nationalist Abd el-Kadr.
This incident obviously traumatized Lawrence, leaving deep physical and psychological scars. His post-war masochism likely originated from Deraa: while serving in the Tank Corps, Lawrence enlisted John Bruce to ritually flog him as “punishment” for his supposed sins. (This did not become public knowledge until several years after the movie, when journalist Philip Knightley interviewed Bruce about his relationship with Lawrence.) In his book, Lawrence claims that “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost” (456); referring either to his inability to resist, confronting his repressed sexuality in a traumatizing fashion, or else simply a natural reaction to sexual assault.
In the short term, though, its effects are often exaggerated. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence scarcely refers to the incident after it happens. He’s more distraught by a military failure, his continuing guilt over his liaison role and treachery by an Arab colleague. This is what convinced him to “beg Allenby to find me some smaller part elsewhere” (514), not trauma over Deraa. Here, as elsewhere, we can debate the truthfulness of Lawrence’s account, or the memoirist’s need to shape life into a coherent narrative.
Lean’s restrained depiction of Lawrence’s mistreatment is understandable. A movie made in 1962 could not honestly interrogate Lawrence’s probable homosexuality, resorting to coded hints rather than an explicit portrayal. But Bolt’s portrayal of Lawrence borders on ridiculous. Here, Lawrence and Ali stride into Deraa alone, Lawrence apparently thinking his mere presence will inspire a rising. Aqaba convinced him he can work “miracles,” further inflamed by Allenby’s flattery and subsequent successes. “Do you think I’m just anybody?” he asks Ali before embarking on his mission.
Bolt thought “Deraa is the key” to all of Lawrence’s subsequent actions: his attempted resignation, the massacre at Tafas, his psychological collapse. In this he followed many biographers, who placed perhaps undue emphasis on Lawrence’s psychosexual side over his political actions and more commonplace. With its Freudian neatness, it seems altogether too convenient an explanation, if dramatically handy for a screenwriter.
6. Tafas Massacre
Seven Pillars graphically describes the Tafas Massacre, a horrific incident during Allenby’s Megiddo offensive. On September 26, 1918 the Arab rebels brutally slaughter 2,000 Turkish soldiers, many after surrendering, in retaliation for sacking a local village. Some biographers shield Lawrence from responsibility, but Lawrence makes his own culpability explicit: “By my orders we took no prisoners” (653). Lean provides a reasonable dramatization of the event (while understandably toning down the more gruesome details), but delivers a suspect characterization of Lawrence.
This scene brings Lawrence’s neuroses to a head. Bolt offers another Freudian explanation for Tafas, with Lawrence avenging his degradation at Deraa through massacre, now killing gleefully, surrounded by a bodyguard of hired killers. His descent into animal barbarism is contrasted with Ali’s increasingly “civilized” behavior; the latter even echoes Lawrence’s taunt from their first meeting: “Surely you know the Arabs are a barbarous people!” he asks Bentley. Lawrence ends the scene blood-soaked and mentally broken, having reached the apotheosis he’d tried to avoid.
As mentioned previously, Lean and Bolt largely draw on Anthony Nutting’s biography of Lawrence. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence largely accepts the carnage as an unfortunate fact of guerrilla warfare. The Turks, after all, precipitated it by murdering Arab civilians, initiating collective anger and brutal vengeance. Soon after the Bedouin captured Deraa and continued towards Damascus. The movie however treats Tafas as a hollow triumph, needless bloodshed borne of one man’s psychosis.
7. Damascus and the Arab Council
The worst scenes, historically-speaking, come at film’s end. Lean and Bolt’s version of post-war Damascus is recognizable only through a few colorful anecdotes gleaned from Seven Pillars. This history is far more complex and interesting than what Lean and Bolt offer, starting with the fact that the Australian Light Horse entered Damascus before Feisal’s armies.
Lawrence describes raucous scenes in Seven Pillars, the town hall “packed with a swaying mob” (666) who argued over Damascus’s governance. The real threat, however, was neither Sherifian incompetence nor British indifference, but Abd el-Kadr: the same man who’d betrayed Lawrence at Deraa. Kadr and his brothers launched several attempted coups to undermine Feisal’s authority, resulting in several skirmishes with Feisal’s men. Kadr was eventually killed in November 1918 while imprisoned. The issue, therefore, was not (in Lawrence’s, admittedly questionable, account) excessive tribalism but an ambitious man and his followers.
Far worse is the depiction of the Arabs as utterly incompetent. They appear as rubes baffled by machinery, allowing Damascus to catch fire (a fire, the film doesn’t mentioned, set by retreating Turkish troops) and Turkish wounded to die in hospital. In reality, the Arabs “quickly collected the nucleus of a staff and plunged ahead as a team” (671), creating a police force, fire brigades, mechanics and sanitation committees. The movie recounts Lawrence’s encounter with an enraged British medical officer (“This is outrageous!”), focusing on its irony: after a movie of searching for his identity, Lawrence is mistaken for an Arab. What a time to highlight this!
Lawrence’s narrative ends with him exiting Damascus, as does the movie. The situation left behind, however, is quite different. Feisal’s government remained in power until 1921, when France ousted them at bayonet point. No mere conniver in Allied perfidy, Feisal fought the French tooth-and-nail before being placed as a contentious client on Iraq’s throne. Whatever imperialist sentiments Allenby harbored, he seemed genuinely to regret his role in the mess, doing his best to balance British, French and Arab interests as ordered. Neither man is fairly characterized here.
This anti-climax logically concludes the movie’s anti-war themes and recurring hubris. Again, a major victory can’t come without an offsetting failure, and bloodshed must amount to nothing. Perhaps we’re to draw inferences about modern pan-Arabism; Nasser’s United Arab Republic, an attempted political union of Egypt and Syria, collapsed while the film was in production. Regardless, this scene is not only inaccurate but insulting, as this ostensibly anti-imperial film falls back on “White Man’s burden” stereotypes. Here’s one instance where the dramatic license proves genuinely regrettable.
Certainly in its time, Lawrence of Arabia‘s historicity excited much comment. A.W. Lawrence complained that “I should not have recognized my own brother” and worked to discredit and suppress the movie; relatives of Sherif Ali and Auda abu Tayi sued Columbia Pictures. The filmmakers responses were rather dismissive (““I sympathize with Lawrence’s relatives,” Robert Bolt said, “but no film could hope to satisfy them”) but it didn’t matter. Lawrence was a massive hit, and continues to dominate the perception of its subject to this day.