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Perspective: Laurence Raw on The Movie

Excerpt from “T.E. Lawrence, the Turks, and the Arab Revolt in the Cinema: Anglo-American and Turkish Representations,” Laurence Raw, Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2005

“The Arab Revolt against Ottoman occupation began on 5 June 1916, as the ruler of the Holy Cities, Hussein, proclaimed himself “King of the Arab Countries,” a title he later modified into “King of the Hejaz,” following protests from the British and French. The Ottoman army in Arabia was stationed in the Yemen, and along the new Hejaz Railroad in Syria connecting Medina with Damascus. Hussein organized the Bedouin chiefs under his control into a guerilla army commanded by his son Feisal with the help of several British officers including T.E. Lawrence. The immediate effect of this revolt was to cut the Hejaz Railroad and overrun the Ottoman garrisons at Mecca, Cidda, and Damascus. All other towns in the Hejaz were soon under rebel control with the exception of the Media, which remained under siege, and the Yemen was entirely cut off.

The Arab Revolt paved the way for the Syrian campaign, where a combined British and Arab force began an offensive that would result in the Ottomans quitting the country within a year, and surrendering to the Allies on 13 November 1918. The Allied forces invaded the Ottoman Empire with the firm conviction that since the Ottoman Turks The Ottoman Turks were the subdivision of the Ottoman Muslim Millet that dominated the ruling class of the Ottoman Empire. The ruling class is covered under Ottoman Dynasty.
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had arbitrarily slaughtered millions of their subjects, they had forfeited the right to rule themselves. Admiral Calthorpe, the Allied High Commissioner, remarked in a 1919 letter, “it has been our consistent attitude to show no kind of favour whatsoever to any Turk” and “all interchange of hospitality and comity has been rigorously forbidden” (qtd. in Shaw and Shaw 329). By contrast the British supported the Arab claims for full national rights and self-government: at the Paris Peace Conference.

This article focuses on two cinematic representations of these events from the Anglo-American and the Turkish points of view, in David Lean’s biopic “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and Lutfi O. Akad’s “Ingiliz Kemal Lavrens’e Karsi” (“Ingiliz Kemal Against Lawrence” [1952]). The orientalism of Lean’s film has been extensively analyzed by Steven C. Caton (1999) and Martin Stollery (2000), focusing in particular on how the director’s representation of Arab culture seeks to challenge familiar stereotypes of the “sophisticated” West compared with the “uncivilized” East. Caton in particular argues that the film is critical of the colonialist project within the constraints of the historical (post-Suez) and cultural contexts from which it emerged (Caton 199). However, there has been scant critical attention paid to the portrayal of the Ottomans in the film, who are represented as inefficient, ruthless, or perverted. There are two explanations for this — first, that Michael Wilson’s treatment and Robert Bolt’s eventual screenplay largely follow Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph is the autobiographical account of the experiences of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks of 1916 to 1918.
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, wherein the Arabs are shown to be fighting for liberation from the colonialist yoke of Ottoman rule (Wilson 30). In their efforts to challenge orientalist representations of the Arabs, the screenwriters — like Lawrence himself — orientalized the Ottomans. Lawrence of Arabia stresses the contrast between the two races by drawing upon a tradition of homosexual orientalism, applied specifically to the Ottomans (and the Turks) that dates back to the work of nineteenth-century travelers such as Sir Richard Burton, and that persists in more recent films such as “Midnight Express” (1979). Lean was not particularly anti-Ottoman; rather he chose to demonize them as a means of explaining the behavior of his Arabic and British central characters. …”

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