“Lawrence of Arabia” (Columbia Pictures, 1962; reconstruction, 1989) is widely regarded as David Lean’s masterpiece and one of the most critically acclaimed of Hollywood films, winning seven Oscars (including best picture and best director). In genre terms, it is considered an epic adventure film, telling the story of an heroic individual, the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, and his struggles against enormous natural and political odds to win the freedom of the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks in World War I. But viewed in a different light, especially when one bears in mind the criticism of western imperialism that emerged in the 1960s among left-wing intellectuals and artists (some of whom worked on the film), “Lawrence of Arabia” can also be viewed as an anti-epic or as a probing critique of the romantic hero and the ultimately tragic situation that destroyed him. Indeed, Part One of the film is cut in the mold of a classic epic movie, whereas Part Two, a darker, more inward-looking, and more cynical look at the classic hero, seems to be its antithesis.
It is this duality or contradiction lying at the heart of its conception (examined in more detail below) that makes the film “good to think with” in regard to the Middle East and the troubled relationship western powers have had with it since Napoleon invaded Egypt in the early part of the nineteenth century. It was thus no coincidence that when the U.S. invaded Iraq, the first time in 1991 and then again in 2003, “Lawrence of Arabia” was re-released on giant film screens across the country because it seemed to set the framing story — at once drawing audiences into a romantic story and then inviting them to criticize it — for events in the region. The extent to which actors involved in those events looked at themselves through the lens of the film may be most spectacularly illustrated by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Operation Desert Storm, who confessed in his memoir It Doesn’t Take a Hero (1993), “that, when he received as a gift from the Emir of Kuwait the garb of a desert sheikh, he looked at himself admiringly in the mirror and could not help but think of the scene in the movie when Peter O’Toole donned his sheikh’s white robes for the first time.”
The first screenplay for the film “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) was not written by Robert Bolt, who for years was given primary or even sole screenwriting credit by Columbia Pictures, but by the Oscar-winning, black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Michael Wilson, who had earlier collaborated with the director, David Lean, and the producer, Sam Spiegel, on their film “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). Bolt was later retained to make the dialogue more English-sounding, to render more psychological complexity to the characterizations, and to lend a Brechtian distance to certain scenes so that audiences could view the story in a more critical light. Nonetheless, it was Wilson who provided the movie’s overall structure and many of its themes — imperialisms British, Ottoman and Arab — the need for agents like Lawrence — contradictory in their impulses though they may be — to make them work, and the role of media in constructing their myths to glorify the imperial system.
Before writing the script, Wilson prepared a film treatment entitled “Lawrence of Arabia: Elements and Facets of a Theme” (1958), in which he explained his thinking about the historical character and his situation. It is a work of considerable scholarship, based not only on his reading of Lawrence’s memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1935), but of numerous biographies that solidified the war hero’s reputation in the 1930s and also anti-establishment, revisionist accounts that appeared after World War II. Among the primary biographical sources none stood out more for Wilson than Lowell Thomas’ best-selling “With Lawrence in Arabia” (1924) and the hugely popular show on which it was based, for as Wilson noted in his treatment, “The prime mover in the creation of the [Lawrence] legend was, of course, Lowell Thomas.” He then astutely added, “But wittingly and/or unwittingly, Lawrence himself contributed heavily to the myth. In this sense, he helped to perpetrate a fraud.” Wilson might have had in mind Lawrence’s statement to the effect that he had no knowledge of Lowell Thomas’ cameraman, Harry Chase, taking photographs of him in his pure white, Bedouin robes, that appeared in Thomas’ show — a disclaimer hard to square with the photographs themselves showing the sitter self-consciously posing in front of the camera. One of the best lines to come out of this affair was Lowell Thomas’ when he remarked that Lawrence had a genius “for backing into the limelight.” And in this anecdote lies the germ of the conception for the screenplay that Wilson would produce for Lean and Spiegel.
Part One is a romantic telling of Lawrence’s exploits up to the epic crossing of the Nefud Desert and the seizure of the port of Akaba, Jordan, by the end of which he is dressed in spotless white robes much as the dashing figure in Chase’s photographs. The contradictions in Lawrence’s character, which Thomas does not entertain in his account, if he was even cognizant of them, begin to appear by the end of Part One, when a number of incidents occur that call into question not only the hero’s motives but even his sanity.
It is not until Part Two, however, that Wilson introduces the American newspaperman Jackson Bentley, loosely based on the real-life Lowell Thomas. Having begun to question the hero’s representation, the audience is now told how that picture came into being in the first place. It is in the first scene of Part Two, a meeting between Thomas and Prince Feisal, the political leader of the Arab Revolt, that the newspaperman reveals his intentions. He is in search of a romantic figure that will persuade the American public to join the war effort in Europe and the Middle East. Feisal cynically responds, “Then Lawrence is your man.” For the rest of the movie, as Bentley constructs this romantic image by interviewing the hero and having him pose before his camera, that image of Lawrence and his situation are shown in fact to become more desperate and false, until at the end, the Arab cause has been betrayed and Lawrence has become a hollow man. This moral and mental decline is symbolized by, among other things, the gradual soiling, bloodying and rending of the white robes the character had donned earlier in the story.
Lowell Thomas was not particularly taken with the movie, as can be seen by his review, though his reservations had mostly to do with historical authenticity a rather rich criticism from someone who was not terribly troubled about this question in his own accounts of Lawrence. We do not know what he made of the character Jackson Bentley, who is so obviously based on him. It was not, of course, a flattering portrait. He is cynical and crassly exploitative of the man he has “made,” as he puts it bluntly to the diplomat Dryden. Perhaps more disturbing to Lowell Thomas, however, would have been the way in which he is inserted into the narrative. Thomas was not a newspaper man, he had a cameraman and a ton of equipment. He did meet Lawrence for the first time in the middle of the Arab Revolt, but never — as the Movie depicts — did he witness Lawrence in, or even see, any actual fighting.
Rather he was introduced in Jerusalem and later rendezvoused with him at his military base of Akaba, where he did see and film Lawrence in the field with Prince Feisal's Arab Army. This dramatic license served the character’s dual narrative functions, of both constructing the myth and commenting derisively on it as the character’s exploits increasingly belied his heroic stature. This disillusionment reaches its nadir after the massacre of the Turks Lawrence had ordered on the march to Damascus: a horrified Bentley stumbles onto the scene of carnage muttering “Jesus wept, Jesus wept,” and then disgustedly points his camera at Lawrence, saying, “Let me take your bloody picture . . . for the bloody newspapers.” Whatever reservations the real Lowell Thomas may have harbored about his hero, he never publicly expressed them. And as far as his own historical role was concerned, it was to find the hero, not to make him.