Lawrence of Arabia: The Movie, the Man and the Messy Middle East

Even though there’s a general consensus among all political parties that the Middle East is a quagmire well worth getting out of, we keep getting further immersed in it. A lot of time, money, and blood have been wasted on the region by many a superpower—we’re not the first, and we won’t be the last. Why this is is headachingly complex, and the first step to understanding the whole thing starts with a short, most-likely gay, Anglo-Irish archaeologist slash army officer who died on this day in 1935: T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

The real T.E. Lawrence was born out of wedlock in Wales in 1888. He later attended Oxford, where he studied history. After graduating, he went to work as an archaeologist in Syria, at the same time gathering valuable intelligence for the British government.

Lawrence of Arabia is familiar to most through the movie of the same name. Lawrence of Arabia is, arguably, the greatest movie of all time. Just saw it recently on the big screen, and was awed by its depth and scope and power.

In addition to being the subject of the greatest film of all time, T.E. Lawrence can also take credit for writing, arguably, the greatest book of all time: Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Just re-read it after seeing the film, and was filled with wonder and envy.

But first more about the movie. It was directed by David Lean, also known for other epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor ZhivagoLawrence of Arabia, first released in 1962, is his masterpiece, and it is the ultimate artistic extension of what cinema was made for. It boasts heart-achingly beautiful on-location cinematography, great acting, a smart script, and a sweeping, unforgettable musical score. Cinematically-speaking, you can’t ask for anything more.

The main star of the film is the desert. The camera lingers on it for obscene amounts of time, drinking in its harsh, lovely desolation. The next biggest star of the film is Peter O’Toole, who plays Lawrence. He brings a certain humorous irony and vulnerability and campiness to the role that is entirely fitting. And he’s hard to take your eyes off of—what with his big expressive blue eyes and long white robe standing out against the starkness of the sand.

The script was written by Robert Bolt, a British playwright most famous for A Man For All Seasons. Bolt’s script is not your typical epic full of cardboard cutouts and simplistic rhetoric—it’s an intense character study coupled with intricate politics. In the film, Lawrence is a thoroughly modern, conflicted man—unlike the one-dimensional he-men of other later epics like Braveheart and Gladiator.

Now, if you enjoyed the two aforementioned films, you might not like Lawrence of Arabia. Be warned—it is not for those with attention spans on the short end of the spectrum. First of all, it’s even longer than most epics are, clocking in at 216 minutes. It also, as I said, lingers lustfully on the landscape—the editing decidedly not being of the Michael Bay variety.

But if you can get past those things, see it now, particularly if you have a large HD TV and a Blu-Ray player. Originally shot in Super Panavision 70 mm, it’s meant for the big screen.

Now, the film does take some liberties with the historical record, but not too many. It basically gets the geo-politics and personal psychology of Lawrence right.

The real T.E. Lawrence was born out of wedlock in Wales in 1888. He later attended Oxford, where he studied history. After graduating, he went to work as an archaeologist in Syria, at the same time gathering valuable intelligence for the British government.

Then World War I broke out. Lawrence was drafted into the army and began working as an intelligence officer in Cairo, Egypt. The British Empire and the Turkish, or Ottoman, Empire found themselves on opposing sides. Turkey at that time ruled almost the entire Middle East. It had been that way for about four hundred years.

The British determined that they could weaken Ottoman power if they encouraged a revolt amongst the Arabs in the Middle East. Although Turkey and its Arab subjects were all Muslims, Turkish rule was resented.

Being fluent in Arabic and already having an in-depth knowledge of the cultures and geography of the region, Lawrence became involved in this British-supported revolt in the desert. Working with Emirs Faisal (who later became the first King of Iraq) and Abdullah (who later became the first King of Jordan), Lawrence spearheaded a program of guerilla warfare aimed at breaking the supply lines of the Turks.

Lawrence totally submerged himself in Arab culture, living and fighting with people who had grown up so differently from him. Instead of drilling and training his soldiers in the British fashion, he adapted his strategies to play to the Arab army’s strengths. The British called this “going native,” and he went about as native as you can go.

He also became a wanted man. The Turkish government offered a hefty reward for his death or capture. One time he was rounded up in a routine police sweep in the Syrian city of Dera’a, and was most likely gang-raped by Turkish soldiers. Luckily, his identity was not discovered, and he was released—but the experienced haunted him for the rest of his life. What perhaps haunted him most was that part of him enjoyed it. In a letter to a friend, he confided, “a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me” during the incident.

Lawrence also felt guilty for betraying the Arabs. Unbeknownst to him, the British and the French had already come to an agreement about dividing up the Middle East into “spheres of influence” after the Ottoman Empire fell. Lawrence’s promises of future Arab independence seemed to be a hollow lie, and he two-faced.

Anyway, Turkey was defeated, the Middle East was divvied up between England and France like a prize turkey, and after Lawrence’s extraordinary story got spread around by American journalist Lowell Thomas, Lawrence became an international star.

Lawrence was eager to tell his side of the story, so he wrote a poetic, somber book about his time in Arabia entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is filled with beautiful prose like this:

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.

In this lone paragraph you can really feel the exultation and disgust Lawrence felt about his time in the Middle East. The book is the very rare product of a military man who is also an artist—the mythical warrior-poet. 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom begins with a curious dedication to “S.A.,” which seemingly details his motivations for becoming embroiled in the Arab cause in the first place:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.

Undeniably homoerotic, the dedication might have been written for a young Arabian assistant of Lawrence’s named Selim Ahmed, who died of typhus during the war. We may just have this young man to thank for inspiring a revolt which led to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the fragmentation of the Middle East, the propping up of superpower-endorsed leaders, and the rise of religious extremists like al Qaeda who fight for the return to a time when Islam and the Middle East were ruled under one Supreme Caliphate.

There are two competing theories of history: one says that history shapes people, the other that people shape history. Lawrence of Arabia and “S.A.”—whoever he was—are arguments for the latter.

  • May 19, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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