Lawrence of Arabia - The Man, The Books, The Film
Created | Updated Dec 28, 2007
The patrons who attended The Royal Film Performance held in London on December 10, 1962 were in for a long night - 222 minutes. They had paid to view the premier of a film based on the exploits of TE Lawrence who, since the publication of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was more commonly known as 'Lawrence of Arabia'. The man, the book and the film all capture the imagination.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in North Wales on August 16, 1888. He was the second of 5 illegitimate sons born to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, who had previously been employed in the Chapman household as governess. They eloped and adopted the surname 'Lawrence'. The family moved to Oxford and TE won a scholarship to study history at Jesus College, Oxford. During his course he was lucky enough to undertake research in Palestine and Syria and used his experiences to compile his thesis for his finals: The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture - to the end of the XIIth century. He graduated with a first class honours and considered taking a post-graduate course on medieval pottery but, instead, studied the Arabic language at Jebail. This fostered an interest in archaeology which he pursued after graduation by working on the British Museum excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish, on the River Euphrates. Here he managed the local workforce and learned an invaluable lesson in how to motivate the Arab peoples.
When war broke out in 1914 he joined the Geographical Section of the General Staff, but soon became bored and moved on to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. He was soon cited as an expert on Arab matters and started to wear full Arabic ceremonial dress. In October 1916, he was sent to discover why Sherif Hussein of Mecca had rebelled against Turkish imperial rule. The standard of his work was high, and his empathy with the Arabs led to Lawrence being appointed by General Allenby - the new Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force - as liaison officer with the rebel forces led by the Emir Feisal, a son of Hussein. He effectively cut off the Turkish forces in Medina and, seeing the need to set up a safe supply route to Akaba, crossed the desert to defeat the strong defences based at the pass of Wadi Itm. His affinity with the Arabs enabled him to cut the Turkish supply route offered by the Hedjaz railway by inciting the locals to revolt at exactly the same time the railway was attacked. The Turks were defeated and, with the capture of Damascus, the war in the desert was effectively over.
Lawrence returned to England in September 1918 and worked tirelessly to promote the cause of Arab independence in which he had come to believe passionately. Throughout the war Lawrence's exploits had only been known by the military and a few close personal friends. This all changed with the arrival in London of Lowell Thomas. He had met Lawrence briefly in Akabar and, invited to write an account of the conflict, started lecturing on the subject using films, slides, music and dancing. Attendees were amazed by the romanticised story of the dashing army officer dressed in Arabic costume, riding camels and horses alongside the rebels. The stark contrast with the bleak pictures and accounts of trench warfare led to Lawrence being portrayed as an heroic figure akin to knights of old.
Lawrence, usually a shy and retiring man1, actively courted this new-found fame in order to promote the cause of Arab independence. A recently released map discovered in the National Archives in Kew, shows just how passionate he was about dividing the area fairly by taking into account the separate requirements of, amongst others, the Kurds, the Armenians and the Palestinians. The French, however, stood firm with their determination to rule Syria and Great Britain was also reluctant to cede Iraq. Bitter about his failure, Lawrence took up a fellowship appointment at All Souls College, Oxford and began to write his own account of his exploits, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Towards the end of 1920 Britain found itself faced by a revolt of the Iraqi people. The government of the day appointed Winston Churchill to head the Colonial Office and he contacted Lawrence and persuaded him to act as his advisor. Despite being diametrically opposed to the policy of the day, Lawrence saw this as a great opportunity to further advance the Arab cause. This time his efforts paid off as, in 1922, Emir Feisal was made king of Iraq and the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan (later Jordan) was established. Although still ostensibly under British rule, this gave both countries the chance to participate more in self-government.
By now Lawrence was exhausted both physically and mentally. The strain of writing his book and the continuing hounding by the press forced him into taking drastic steps. He applied to join the Royal Air Force using the assumed name of 'John Hume Ross'. The RAF recruiting officer was suspicious and insisted that he produce more ID. Lawrence, with the help of friends in high places who procured him forged papers, returned and was sent to the Commanding Officer to complete his enlistment. That officer was Capt. W E Johns, who was later to become well known as the author of the Biggles series. After only four months his identity was discovered and, once more, he became the subject of much speculation. He felt, however, that the only escape for him was to merge into the ranks of the armed forces. He again enlisted, this time into the Tank Corps, and used the name 'Thomas Edward Shaw'. He was based at Bovington Camp in Dorset and started to rent a cottage close by. He later managed to transfer back into the RAF and was posted to India, thus avoiding the furore when his book was finally published.
In 1928 he found himself again the subject of press speculation. This time he wasn't hailed as a romantic hero but accused of espionage. He transferred back to England and took a position with the flying-boat unit at Plymouth. Another passion was kindled when he witnessed a fatal crash by one of the flying boats. He realised that high-speed, planing-hull design boats were needed to provide quick, efficient rescues and devoted his final years of service to developing them - often working at local boatyards in civilian clothes.
Lawrence retired from the armed forces in 1935 and moved to his cottage at Clouds Hill. A film, based on the book Revolt in the Desert was proposed by Alexander Korda but Lawrence persuaded him to abandon the project. He was still being continually hounded by the press and he chose to leave and hide out in London for a short time. He eventually managed to convince various press chiefs to call off their reporters and moved back to his cottage in early April, 1935. On 13 May he rode his motorbike to a nearby village Post Office but, on the way back, swerved to avoid two young boy cyclists, hit a tree and fell into a coma. He died six days later and was buried at the local parish church of St Nicholas' Church, Moreton2.
Many memorials and places of interest to visit have recently been established. Thanks to a kind donation from his brother, AW Lawrence, it is possible to visit his home, Clouds Hill, now owned by The National Trust. There is a sculpture carved by his friend, Eric Kennington, in St Martin's Church, Wareham. His gravestone, inscribed with the Latin phrase Dominus illuminatio Mea3 can be viewed at Moreton church and the spot where he crashed is marked by a tree planted in his memory and a stone memorial erected by the TE Lawrence Society.
Lawrence wrote prolifically throughout his life. A draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was completed in 1922 - but only after he left his first draft on a train and had to write it all over again - and circulated among his friends. The text was abridged for the limited Subscribers' Edition of 1926 but the detailed prints were so expensive and the production costs so high that Lawrence made a substantial loss. To recover some of his costs he reluctantly agreed to publish a cheap, more heavily abridged version, Revolt in the Desert, in 1927. The 1926 text of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was republished in a trade edition in 1935 while the full 1922 version of 334,500 words wasn't issued until 1997. This original version is usually known as 'The Oxford Text' as the draft was typeset by the Oxford Times. Nowadays, since there are only six known copies, the flimsily printed 1922 draft is extremely valuable, with one being sold at auction in 2001 for £700,000. The 170 copies of the Subscribers' Edition are admired for the quality of production and for the illustrations by leading contemporary artists such as John Singer Sargent, Colin Gill, Augustus John, Gilbert Spencer and Paul Nash. All the versions were succesful but the graphic details of his capture, flogging and violent male rape in 1917 plus the absence of any noticeably lady friends led to the misperception that he was homosexual4.
He followed this by writing about his experiences in the RAF but this book, The Mint, caused such anxiety that it would damage the reputation of the service that he withdrew it and stipulated that it shouldn't be published until 1950. Lawrence also undertook translation work. The Forest Giant, published in 1924, was based on the French novel Le Gigantesque by Adrien le Corbeau. His outstanding offering in this genre, however, was his version of the Odyssey entitled The Odyssey of Homer which was published in 1932 and soon acknowledged as a classic.
Another valuable insight into his life and beliefs is afforded by the book The Letters of TE Lawrence published in 1938 and edited by David Garnett. Throughout his life Lawrence corresponded with an amazing number of notables of the century. These ranged from writers such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Bernard Shaw, John Buchan, EM Forster, Henry Williamson and David Garnett, through to artists William Rothenstein, Eric Kennington, and Augustus John. His passion for archaeology shines though in his letters to fellow travellers and experts ET Leeds, DG Hogarth, CM Doughty and Gertrude Bell and political and campaigning letters were exchanged with Winston Churchill, Nancy Astor and Lord Trenchard. Many of these letters were originally privately printed and distributed but are becoming more widely available.
In deciding to create a film based on the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, David Lean was confronted with a problem. Telling the story of a man widely believed to be homosexual and who described in detail scenes of violence, beating and male rape, was not an option in 1962. So he had to attempt to portray him as an unconventional man without labels or comment - make the man an enigma. He chose, instead, to focus on the vastness of the desert, the enormity of the task of uniting the disparate nomadic, warring tribes and the battle of one man against the elements. To this end he couldn't have chosen a better leading man than Peter O'Toole. A comparative unknown, O'Toole managed to portray the man in all his conflicting moods - courageous, compassionate, ruthless, determined, suffering. He was ably assisted in this by a strong supporting cast which included Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal, Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Harry Brighton and José Ferrer as Turkish Bey. Memorable scenes included the massacre scene when Lawrence discovered that he had become an 'unfeeling' mass of blood and the explosive scene of masochism and (implied) homosexuality between Lawrence and Turkish Bey.
For many, however, the winning features of this film were the wonderfully evocative desert scenes, which captured precisely the feeling of emptiness, violence and despair, coupled with the brilliant music score penned by Maurice Jarre. One such scene was when Sherif Ali appeared far off on a camel in the desert. Lean, employing an extremly long shot coupled with a sense of threat, caused the figure to disappear in a mirage and then, as he approached, made him frightening. As the character of Lawrence said in the film when asked why he was drawn to the desert: 'It's clean!'
A week after the premier in London it opened to critical acclaim in the USA. The following year it was awarded 7 Oscars including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Music (Score) and Best Picture. Peter O'Toole (Best Actor in a Leading Role) and Omar Sharif (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) were nominated but didn't win, although O'Toole did win the BAFTA for Best British Actor. Other BAFTAs won included Best British Film, Best British Screenplay and Best Film from any Source.
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
TE Lawrence from Seven Pillars of Wisdom