Peter O’Toole who played Lawrence passed away today. If you ever get the chance to see the movie on a big screen, do it.
Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 British epic adventure drama film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. It was directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel through his British company, Horizon Pictures, with the screenplay by Robert Boltand Michael Wilson. The film stars Peter O’Toole in the title role. It is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema. The dramatic score by Maurice Jarre and the Super Panavision 70 cinematography byFreddie Young are also highly acclaimed.
The film depicts Lawrence’s experiences in Arabia during World War I, in particular his attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and his involvement in the Arab National Council. Its themes include Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the personal violence inherent in war, his own identity, and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army and his newfound comrades within the Arabian desert tribes.
The film is presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.
In 1935, T. E. Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter tries to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him, with little success.
During the First World War, Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo, notable for his insolence and knowledge. Over the objections of General Murray, he is sent by Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau to assess the prospects ofPrince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks.
On the journey, his Bedouin guide is killed by Sherif Ali for drinking from a well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton, who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment of Faisal’s intentions, and leave. Lawrence promptly ignores Brighton’s commands when he meets Faisal. His knowledge, attitude and outspokenness pique the Prince’s interest.
Brighton advises Faisal to retreat to Yenbo after a major defeat, but Lawrence proposes a daring surprise attack on Aqaba which, if successful, would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. While strongly fortified against a naval assault, the town is lightly defended on the landward side. He convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a sceptical Sherif Ali. Two teenage orphans, Daud and Farraj, attach themselves to Lawrence as his servants.
They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. Gasim (I. S. Johar) succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. The rest make it to an oasis, but Lawrence turns back for the lost man. Sherif Ali, won over, burns Lawrence’s British uniform and gives him Arab robes to wear.
Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence’s plan is almost derailed when one of Ali’s men kills one of Auda’s because of a blood feud. Since Howeitat retaliation would shatter the fragile alliance, Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. Stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, he shoots him anyway. The next morning, the intact alliance overruns the Turkish garrison.
Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby, of his victory. During the crossing of the Sinai Desert, Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money to support the Arabs. He is deeply disturbed, confessing that he enjoyed executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs’ suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. Pressed, the general states they have no such designs.
Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley publicises his exploits, making him world famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave him to be tortured, Lawrence is forced to shoot him before fleeing.
When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Daraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey. Lawrence is stripped, ogled and prodded. For striking out at the Bey, he is severely flogged, and possibly raped, which is implied. He is then thrown out into the street. It is an emotional turning point for Lawrence. He is so traumatised by the experience that he abandons all of his exploits, going from having proclaimed himself almost a god, to insisting he is merely a man. He attempts to return to the British forces and swear off the desert, but he never fits in there. In Jerusalem, Allenby urges him to support his “big push” on Damascus, but Lawrence is a changed, tormented man, unwilling to return. After Allenby insists that Lawrence has a destiny, he finally relents. Lawrence naively believes that the warriors will come for him rather than for money.
He recruits an army, mainly killers, mercenaries, and cutthroats motivated by money, rather than the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just slaughtered the people of the village of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men from the village demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man’s cry, resulting in a massacre in which Lawrence himself fully participates, with disturbing relish. Afterward, he realises the horrible consequences of what he has done.
His men then take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but they are desert tribesmen, ill-suited for such a task. The various tribes argue among themselves and in spite of Lawrence’s insistence, cannot unite against the English, who in the end take the city back under their bureaucracy. Unable to maintain the utilities and bickering constantly with each other, they soon abandon most of the city to the British. Promoted to colonel and immediately ordered home, his usefulness at an end to both Faisal and the British diplomats, a dejected Lawrence is driven away in a staff car.
Most of the film’s characters are either real or based on real characters to varying degrees. The events depicted in the film are largely based on accepted historical fact and Lawrence’s own writing about events, though they have various degrees ofromanticisation.
Some scenes—such as the attack on Aqaba—were heavily fictionalised, while those dealing with the Arab Council were inaccurate, inasmuch as the council remained more or less in power in Syria until France deposed Faisal in 1920. Little background on the history of the region, the First World War, and the Arab Revolt is provided, probably due to Bolt’s increased focus on Lawrence (while Wilson’s draft script had a broader, more politicised version of events). The theme (in the second half of the film) that Lawrence’s Arab army deserted almost to a man as he moved farther north was completely fictional. The film’s timeline of the Arab Revolt and World War I, and the geography of the Hejaz region, are frequently questionable. For instance, Bentley interviews Faisal in late 1917, after the fall of Aqaba, saying the United States has not yet entered the war, yet America had been in the war for several months by that time. Further, Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab Revolt prior to the attack on Aqaba—such as his involvement in the seizures of Yenbo and Wejh—is completely excised. The rescue and execution of Gasim is based on two separate incidents, which were conflated for dramatic reasons. The film shows Lawrence representing the Allied cause in the Hejaz almost alone with only one British officer, Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) there to assist him. In fact, there were numerous British officers such as colonels Cyril Wilson, Stewart Francis Newcombe and Pierce C. Joyce, all of whom arrived before Lawrence began serving in Arabia. In addition, there was a French military mission led by Colonel Edouard Brémond serving in the Hejaz, of which no mention is made in the film. The film shows Lawrence as the sole originator of the attacks on the Hejaz railroad. The first attacks on this began in early January 1917 led by officers such as Newcombe. The first successful attack on the Hejaz railroad with a locomotive-destroying “Garland mine” was led by Major H. Garland in February 1917, a month before Lawrence’s first attack. The film shows the Hashemite forces as comprising Bedouin guerrillas, whereas in fact the core of the Hashemite forces was the Regular Arab Army recruited from Ottoman Arab POWs, who wore British-style uniforms with keffiyahs and fought in conventional battles. The film makes no mention of the Sharifian Army, and leaves the viewer with the impression that the Hashemite forces were composed exclusively of Bedouin irregulars.
Representation of Lawrence
Many complaints about the film’s accuracy centre on the characterisation of Lawrence. The perceived problems with the portrayal begin with the differences in his physical appearance: the 6-foot 2-inch (1.87 m) Peter O’Toole was almost nine inches (23 cm) taller than the man he played, Lawrence. His behaviour, however, has caused much more debate.
The screenwriters depict Lawrence as an egotist. The degree to which Lawrence sought or shunned attention, such as his use after the war of various assumed names, is a matter of debate. Even during the war, Lowell Thomas wrote in With Lawrence in Arabia that he could take pictures of him only by tricking him, although Lawrence did later agree to pose for several photos for Thomas’s stage show. Thomas’s famous comment that Lawrence “had a genius for backing into the limelight” referred to the fact that his extraordinary actions prevented him from being as private as he would have liked. Others disagree, pointing to Lawrence’s own writings in Seven Pillars of Wisdom to support the argument that he was egotistical.
Lawrence’s sexual orientation remains a controversial topic among historians; though Bolt’s primary source was ostensibly Seven Pillars, the film’s portrayal seems informed by Richard Aldington‘s then-recent Biographical Inquiry (1955), which posited among other things that Lawrence was homosexual. The film features Lawrence’s alleged sadomasochism as a major part of his character (for instance, his “match trick” in Cairo, his “enjoyment” of killing Gasim). While Lawrence almost certainly engaged in flagellation and like activities after the Deraa incident, there is no biographical evidence he was a masochist before then. The film’s depiction of Lawrence as an active participant in the Tafas Massacre was disputed at the time by historians, including biographer Basil Liddell Hart, but most current biographers accept the film’s portrayal of the massacre as reasonably accurate.
Although the film does show that Lawrence could speak and read Arabic, could quote the Quran, and was reasonably knowledgeable about the region, it barely mentions his archaeological travels from 1911 to 1914 in Syria and Arabia, and ignores his espionage work, including a pre-war topographical survey of the Sinai Peninsula and his attempts to negotiate the release of British prisoners at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916.
Furthermore, in the film, Lawrence is only made aware of the Sykes–Picot Agreement very late in the story and is shown to be appalled by it, whereas the “real” Lawrence, while fighting alongside the Arabs, knew about it much earlier.
Lawrence’s biographers have had a mixed reaction towards the film. Authorised biographer Jeremy Wilson noted that the film has “undoubtedly influenced the perceptions of some subsequent biographers”, such as the depiction of the film’s Ali as the real Sherif Ali, rather than a composite character, and also the highlighting of the Deraa incident. (In fairness to Lean and his writers, the Deraa connection was made by several Lawrence biographers, including Edward Robinson (Lawrence the Rebel) and Anthony Nutting (The Man and the Motive) before the film’s release). The film’s historical inaccuracies are, in Wilson’s view, more troublesome than what can be allowed under normal dramatic license. At the time, Liddell Hart publicly criticised the film, engaging Bolt in a lengthy correspondence over its portrayal of Lawrence.