This is the first section of a two part article about T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. This first part will be about the better known side of Lawrence and especially the film whilst the second part will be a more personal look at Lawrence and my journey in his footsteps. You can read that here.
Whilst other children used to obsess over cartoons or animated films, there being no such thing as CGI animation in my day, from an early age I used to much prefer adult action and adventure films. I never really cared less about Mickey Mouse or Bambi though admittedly Transformers was pretty cool. Instead by the time I was about five years old, all my favourite films were historical films. By the time I was five I had watched thousands of people get killed and to date it doesn’t seem to have done me much harm. War films such as The Great Escape and Where Eagles Dare were my TV and video staples but just much films based on older periods. I lost count of how many times I had watched Zulu and Zulu Dawn. I knew them off by heart, I learnt a few phrases of Zulu, lots of military terms and got used to seeing people getting shot and stabbed in a pretty horrid fashion. It also got me interested in history and concepts such as politics and Empire and democracy. As a 6 year old it was quite hard to reconcile the concept that just because your country is stronger it doesn’t mean that you should conquer every one else. That even on the side of goodies and baddies there were differences in opinions and whether white or black, the poor men on the ground had little choice but to follow their orders and that 99.9% of them were hugely brave. However after repeated viewings I picked up most of the intricacies of such films. None of these films, excellent though they be can hold a candle to Lawrence of Arabia whose complexities keep me on my toes today and see too much entirely for current world leaders.
Lawrence of Arabia is an epic film. Thoughtful, philosophical but also full of action. The musical score is maybe the best of any film ever, it even has an overture before the film starts so one can prepare yourself for the adventure that is about to begin and it is filmed so beautifully words cannot do it justice. It is the only film I have ever seen that actually lives up to the real life beauty and dangers of the desert. Lawrence of Arabia is also long and some of its shots are also long but always majestic.
The film is the relatively true to life story of a British Officer in WW1. Lawrence is fed up with life in Cartography in Cairo and doesn’t really fit in with military life. Lawrence is portrayed by a very young Peter O’ Toole and asks and gets permission to travel to Arabia, his superior officers figure he is no loss if he doesn’t come back. Whilst travelling across Sinai, he makes friends with his Bedouin guide. He immediately takes a shine to the guide and quickly comes to think of him as a friend before the man gets killed by Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish who is masterfully portrayed by Omar Sharif. Ironically the men become best of friends although throughout the film Sherif Ali is a little perplexed by the intricacies of Lawrences character. He is also intrigued by Lawrence’s bravery and morals which at first he puts down to Lawrences British military training which is in stark contrast to the lifestyle of which he is familiar. That is only a part of it though as Lawrence is a true enigma.
At first Lawrence is unsure of himself though immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape and the honest if brutal nature of his Arab companions. He finds Prince Faisal leading a group of men being bombed by Ottoman airplanes, unused to modern machines and totally untrained for anything but hit and run warfare as employed by nomads the world over by centuries.
However Lawrence doesn’t look down on the Arabs, he firmly has a foot in both camps as being both British and an adopted tribesman and as such is often caught in difficult positions but also used as a pawn between both sides whose true enemies are the Ottoman Turks.
In geo-political terms, it tells the true story of this part of the WW1 campaign in most if not all of the Middle-East. The British have Egypt and its important Suez Canal with which shipping and supplies go onwards to places like India. Arabia and most of the Middle-East is under the Ottoman Empire who sided with Germany in the war. There are vague promises of the British granting freedom to the Arabs should they assist in overthrowing the Ottomans. This is achieved in large part due to Lawrence and his assembled groups of tribes. First they take the port of ‘Aqaba in Jordan and then they gain more support as they start blowing up train lines in Arabia and cutting off Turkish bases. Lawrence plays to the strength of the Arabs and their unique ability to survive in the desert and he uses their abilities to hit and run in much the same way as the Royal Navy historically worked to hit targets before making their escape.
Lawrence gets more and more supporters, they flock to his cause even if some of them come for rather un-British reasons such as bribery, treasure and looting. In return Lawrence loves ‘his’ people and they go from strength to strength until he is able to persuade the British they are a legitimate fighting force and not just a rag-tag army. There are plenty of times when things go badly for Lawrence, some supporters drift away after gaining more booty than they know what to do with. Sometimes his friends doubt his motives, they think he is playing a role and enjoying himself with backwards quaint Arabs who he will quickly mock and forget every times he meets his British superiors.
Lawrence is very much is own man but open to the best of both cultures. He takes on a pair of thieves to be his man-servants and uses his neutrality to avoid inter-tribal warfare, even executing a man whom he had just saved from the desert in order to preserve the peace. He is very saddened at the deaths of both his servants throughout the film and as his campaign falters he doubts himself and his cause. In the last third of the film, things change somewhat as Lawrence deliberately brings himself to the attention of the local Ottoman Beg. In the film he is tortured and it is suggested he was abused by the Ottoman who is implied to be homosexual. There is a great deal of disagreement what happened to Lawrence that night but it seems he may have been raped and as expected this changed his outlook on life. He lost his respect and humanity towards the Ottomans and also worried his Arab friends. Lawrence took on a personal group of body guard convicts and led a massacre of Turks who had already fled their defences.
After the British take Jerusalem with the aid of Lawrence it comes to Lawrences attention that the cause he believes in doesn’t actually live up to reality. Much of the Middle-East becomes British protectorates, they do get their own states but not immediately like Lawrence promised. Also as a sop to France, they were granted modern day Lebanon and Syria through the Sykes/Picot treaty and the Balfour Declaration set the grounds for the formation of Israel.
Nevertheless, Lawrence leads his men onwards to Damascus which they capture but in light of the new agreement, the British will only assist if the Arabs take down their flags. The Arabs of course don’t want to but as they have no engineers to get the city running again and the majority of them being nomadic, they have no need for cities especially ones that don’t work so they withdraw. Lawrences campaign is over, he is sick of the killing and leading a personality cult and takes the first ship home to England.
The film is bursting to the seems with the best actors of the 1960’s. Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton who is the archetypal British officer and the character who director Sir David Lean stated as being the only truly honourable character in the whole film. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby and perhaps the most memorable performance from Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi are just some of the star performers.
There are a few inaccuracies in order to heighten the drama of the film. Some characters are an amalgamation of several actual figures and General Allenby and Lawrence actually got on rather better than shown in the film and his descendants along with the the families of Auda and Ali both at times attempted to sue the studio for defamation of character. Despite all of this, it is a marvellous and complicated film that won a pile of Oscars.
It takes a look at politics, war the bedouin nomads, the desert and the complicated mind of Lawrence. It is also the most incredible adventure amongst the most incredulous characters imaginable. As much as the desert is perhaps one half of the show, the dialogue is also unforgettable with pages of wonderful quotes. A tiny selection of mine are below:
Auda: I am Auda abu Tayi! Does Auda serve?
Howeitat tribesmen: NO!
Auda: Does Auda abu Tayi serve?
Howeitat tribesmen: NO!
Auda [to Lawrence] I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies’ tents. I take away their flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because *I* am a river to my people!
Lawrence: I killed two people. One was… yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was… well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
General Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
General Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
Lawrence : No… something else.
General Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.
General Murray: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
Prince Feisal: There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.
Prince Feisal: With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.
T.E. Lawrence: Look, Ali. If any of your Beduin arrived in Cairo and said: “We’ve taken Aqaba” the generals would laugh.
Sherif Ali: I see. In Cairo you will put off these funny clothes. You’ll wear trousers and tell stories of our quaintness and barbarity and then they will believe you.
T.E. Lawrence: You’re an ignorant man.
Prince Feisal: The English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia.
T.E. Lawrence: Then you must deny it to them.
Prince Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?
T.E. Lawrence: To England and to other things.
Prince Feisal: To England and Arabia both? And is that possible? I think you are another of these desert-loving English.
Sherif Ali: God help the men that lie under that.
T.E. Lawrence: They are Turks.
Sherif Ali: God help them.
Auda abu Tayi: When Lawrence finds what he’s looking for, he will go home. When you find what you are looking for, you will go home.
Colonel Brighton: I will not.
Auda abu Tayi: Then you are a fool. Be thankful that when God gave you a face, he gave you a fool’s face.
General Allenby: You acted without orders, you know.
T.E. Lawrence: Shouldn’t officers use their initiative at all times?
General Allenby: Not really. It’s awfully dangerous.
Bartender: [after Lawrence enters with a dirty Bedouin] This is a bar for British officers!
T.E. Lawrence: That’s all right. We’re not particular.
Prince Feisal: My friend Lawrence, if I may call him that. “My friend Lawrence”. How many men will claim the right to use that phrase? How proudly! He longs for the greenness of his native land. He pines for the Gothic cottages of Surrey, is it not? Already in imagination, he catches trout and engages in all the activities of the English gentleman.
General Allenby: That’s me you’re describing, sir, not Colonel Lawrence.
Prince Feisal: But you know, Lieutenant, in the Arab city of Cordoba were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village?
T.E. Lawrence: Yes, you were great.
Prince Feisal: Nine centuries ago.
T.E. Lawrence: Time to be great again, my lord.
And finally one of the most memorable lines in all of cinema…
Auda abu Tayi: Paper, paper, there is no gold in ‘Aqaba, no gold, no great box. Aurence lied.
If you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia then I really recommend it. My next blog will be more of a personal look at Lawrence but this is the film that started things off for me in more ways than one.