None of these criticisms are meant to deny or downplay the vast improvements that Bolt made to the film’s final screenplay. The then-acclaimed playwright of A Man for All Seasons used his considerable dramaturgical skills and talents to rearrange and condense scenes, to conflate (or simply eliminate) an excessive number of English (as well as Arabic, French, and Australian) characters, and to not only prune but also to lend a sophisticated, theatrical quality to the dialogue, which even Wilson acknowledged as “a job well done,” calling Bolt “a gifted man.”
It is also clear, however, that, at Lean’s urging, Bolt focused on the more sensationalistic, even disturbing psychological aspects of his protagonist, foregrounding a vainglorious personality easily swayed by flattery, intimations of homosexuality, and sadomasochistic tendencies. Indeed, what struck viewers at the time, especially since Lawrence followed in the wake of more conventional historical biopics such as Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961), was the decidedly antiheroic trajectory of its protagonist, an initially quirky but sympathetic young scholar and soldier who, by film’s end, has authorized and committed unspeakable wartime atrocities. The psychological, the personal, can also be political, of course, but too often Lawrence’s aberrant mentality or excessive self-regard become the real focus of the story, displacing the social context in which he was acting. The screenwriter and producer Paul Jarrico (Michael Wilson’s brother-in-law) explained the basic difference between Wilson’s and Bolt’s approaches:
These distortions of character and the historical record did not go unnoticed among viewers in 1962, especially in England, where the film generated considerable controversy, even outrage, among those intimately familiar with the man and the history, including contemporaries of Lawrence (such as his younger brother, Arnold, or General Allenby’s widow), descendants of other historical figures portrayed (including family members of Auda Abu Tayi and Sherif Ali), military historians (notably Basil Liddell Hart), and authors (including David Garnett). Arnold Lawrence wrote numerous diatribes against the film in the British press, in particular criticizing the film’s focus on Lawrence’s “sadism” and “blood-lust” to create a portrait of a brother he did not recognize. While such critics of the film admittedly had their own agendas, above all protecting the reputations of family members, they were also, as Adrian Turner (author of The Making of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia) wrote, “people with history on their side.”
The relatives of Auda Abu Tayi, an ardent Arab nationalist, principal leader of the Arab revolt, and chief strategist of the plan to seize Akaba, protested the film’s portrayal of him as a venal, amoral, and petty tribal chieftain. The descendants of Sherif Nasir Ibn Ali (on whom Omar Sharifs Sherif Ali Ibn el Kharish character was loosely based), filed suit for defamation of character, in particular for the film’s portrayal of his murder of Lawrence’s guide at the Masturah Well. Indeed, this scene in the script was vigorously protested during production by the film’s political advisor, Anthony Nutting–Middle East expert, former British Prime Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and Lawrence biographer–as a blatant distortion of the nearly sacred Bedouin tradition of hospitality to travelers, but he was unable to convince the filmmakers to change or eliminate the scene. It should be noted here, so as not to make Michael Wilson the “hero” and Robert Bolt the “villain” of this article, that this scene was Wilson’s invention, as was the distorted portrayal of Auda Abu Tayi.
The film’s portrayal of Arab culture was deemed so distorted and even disrespectful that Lawrence of Arabia was banned in most Arab countries, even in Jordan, where much of it was filmed, and, not surprisingly, the film remains banned to this day in Turkey. Critical assessments of T. E. Lawrence’s actual role in the Arab revolt have been the focus of writings by a number of Arab historians and scholars, including Suleiman Mousa, George Antonius, Lucy Ladkioff, and Subhi Al-Umari. To the best of my knowledge, however, there has been little critical Arab writing on the film itself, save for some commentary in lack Shaheen’s Red Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, an article by Mehdi Derfoufi in a 2001 issue of the French magazine, Tausend Augen, (7) and a 1989 Wall Street Journal article by Orientalism author Edward Said, who derided the film’s reactionary views of Arabs and Arab nationalism as redolent with “the retrospective nostalgia of an imperial daydream.” He focused his criticism on the film’s portrayal of the raucous meeting of the Arab National Council in Damascus at the film’s conclusion: “Mr. Lean’s Arabs are shown in this depressing scene to be semi-barbarous children, garishly fighting over trifles, totally incapable of reason, debate, policy … Lean wants us to understand that serious rule was never meant for such lesser species, only for the white man.”
At other times, the film shows considerable respect for Arabs and their political struggle, or uses Sherif Ali as a moral foil for Lawrence’s worst behavior. Several scenes flatter Western viewers in their knowing awareness of the duplicitous nature of British politicians. But Bolt’s version of these Damascus scenes dramatically condenses and politically simplifies Wilson’s version, which makes clear the many political forces contending for power (Syrian and Iraqi nationalists, Bedouin sheikhs, Druse protestors, Lebanese Christians, and Palestinian fellahin, as well as British, French, and Australian troops, and Western interests seeking oil concessions in the newly liberated area). In these final scenes, Wilson’s script has virtually everyone questioning Lawrence’s motivations and aims, including Arabs who accuse him of acting as a British agent or spy and British officers who charge him with treason. Even Ali, in a final encounter with Lawrence, proclaims, “Arabs cannot be saved by a blue-eyed Messiah. We must save ourselves. We will make mistakes. Many of them. But we must have the right to make our own mistakes.”
In Bolt’s version of the Damascus episode, Lawrence descends to its most culturally reactionary, even racist Level in portraying the seemingly inborn collapse of the Arab Revolt, thus clearly demonstrating Arab unreadiness for self-rule. While it’s understandable how the filmmakers would find that reliance on these stereotypes would provide them with a dramatically neater resolution of this otherwise complex historical and biographical drama, there’s also no question that we should have been able to expect much better from filmmakers of this caliber. A comparison of some of the film’s concluding scenes with the historical events is instructive.
The Film: The concluding scenes begin with the arrival of General Allenby and the British Army in Damascus, where they learn that Lawrence and his Bedouin army have arrived in the Syrian capital a day and a half earlier and have set up the Arab National Council in the Town Hall. Allenby explains to Dryden (Claude Rains) that, as requested, he is delaying Prince Feisal’s arrival in the city by two days, an amount of time that the Arab Bureau’s representative feels should be “ample” for their purposes.
The History: While the Arab Northern Army did arrive a day and a half before the British Army, General Allenby and Feisal actually arrived in Damascus, just hours apart, on the same day. As the result of a British government pledge made in July 1918, which agreed to recognize the complete and sovereign independence of any Arab territory liberated from Turkish control by the force of Arab arms, General Allenby had ordered all British troops to remain outside Damascus until the Arab Army had entered and occupied the city. This was a geopolitical ploy by Great Britain aimed at denying or at least forestalling French claims to Syria as a French Mandate under the provisions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The Film: At an unruly meeting of the Arab National Council, Lawrence, leading the meeting as Prince Feisal’s deputy, is unable to prevent petty personal arguments between Auda, Ali, and other tribal chieftains, who are also unable to understand the nature or need for electrical generators or telephones and incapable of responding sensibly and urgently to the news that tire has broken out elsewhere in the city.
The History: The chaos and dissension in the newly liberated Damascus, something not at all unusual in any revolutionary situation, had far less to do with bickering between “primitive” Bedouins than with political disputes between the representatives, respectively, of a temporary government hastily installed the day before by France and the former Turkish government, the Syrian national liberation movement, King Hussein’s Hashemite Arab Government, and Damascenes fearful of political domination by the newly arrived Sherifian forces. Within a day following the withdrawal from the city by Turkish and German troops, and by the time Allenby had arrived, Arab forces had restored electrical power (which had actually been inoperative for several weeks before their arrival), public sanitation and transportation, as well as police and tire services.
The Film: Allenby and Dryden, back at their HQ, waiting patiently for the Arab National Council to self-destruct, discover that electrical power has failed and then watch from their balcony as droves of camel-mounted Bedouins leave the city. Back at the Town Hall, Lawrence goes through the motions of government by himself, continuing to sign official decrees, as Auda tries to convince Lawrence to return with him to the desert and a dispirited Ali bids him a tearful farewell. Shown as a defeated, broken man in his final meeting with Allenby and Feisal, Lawrence is granted leave to return to England.
The History: The departing irregular Bedouin troops, the “marvelous looking beggars” disparaged by Allenby in the film, comprised only one component of the Arab Revolt, which also included uniformed Arab infantry and cavalry from numerous countries as well as Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi nationalists, intellectuals, politicians, and a wide variety of professionals. Although the film’s final meeting between Allenby and Feisal dramatizes only the Anglo-Arab rivalry, the major political obstacle confronting Feisal’s claims for a Hashemite kingdom in Syria was the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which promised the country as a French protectorate.
Throughout 1919 and 1920, while a Hashemite government ruled Damascus, Feisal waged a political struggle for Arab independence at peace conferences in Paris, London, and San Remo, which repeatedly denied his claims. The Syrian National Congress proclaimed Feisal as king in March 1920. The French then intervened militarily and, after defeating the Syrian Army at a major battle near Damascus, Feisal was forced into exile.
When obliged at last to confront his divided loyalties during his first meeting with both of his “masters,” Allenby and Feisal, in attendance, Lawrence knew his political game was up. After refusing Allenby’s directive to serve in Damascus with a French liaison officer, Lawrence requested the leave he was due, and returned to England, where he prepared to defend Arab interests at the Paris Peace Conference the following year. (8)
Films such as Lawrence of Arabia raise the perennial question of whether the competing demands of (at least reasonable) historical fidelity and compelling drama can be reconciled. Even a masterwork such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, one of the most politically sophisticated and morally challenging films ever made, simplifies many important aspects of the Algerian national liberation struggle. As for Lawrence, over time I have gradually been able to develop a happily schizophrenic attitude to the film, one in which I am still able to admire it purely as cinema, despite the fact that extensive readings about T. E. Lawrence and the historical period have made clear to me the vast distance between the film and historical or biographical factuality.
Viewing the film innumerable times over the last several decades has thus become a continually fascinating exercise in appreciating the interplay between film and history, in recognizing the ways in which dramaturgy either enhances of distorts its subject, including the occasional necessity to conflate several real-life historical figures into one fictional character, or the need to forgo invariably futile attempts at literal depictions of “historical accuracy” in favor of dramatizing “larger historical truths.” (9)
Anthony Nutting perhaps best described how these tensions between artistry and history ultimately resolved themselves in Lawrence of Arabia when, asked for his opinion of the film, he commented: “I thought it was magnificent. Perhaps this is being a little frivolous, but in a sense it is a picture not so much about Lawrence as about a love affair between a director, a cameraman and a desert.”
(1) “A Few Words about Lawrence of Arabia in Blu-ray” discussion thread on Home Theater Forum, November 12, 2012, http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/324904/ a-few-words-about-lawrence-of-arabia-in-blu-ray.
(2) Additional supplementary features on the Blu-ray include a Secrets of Arabia: Graphic-in-Picture Track, which relates interesting facts about life in the desert and the making of the film and, on the four-disc box set, a fascinating feature-length documentary, In Love with the Desert, produced by Alain Littaye, in which property master Eddie Fowlie visits the various locations where the Mm was made. This documentary had previously been available only with May 2001 special issue of the French magazine, DVDvision.
This Blu-ray edition of Lawrence–which follows in the wake of previous VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and Superbit DVD editions–is unlikely to be the last home-video version of this classic film, so let me sugest to Sony that, among possible new “extras” for a likely “Super Hi-Vision” edition (a format now being developed by NHK in Japan), they consider a 2008 one-hour French documentary entitled Once Upon a Time … Lawrence of Arabia, which includes interviews with Anne Coates, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, authorized Lawrence biographer Jeremy Wilson, historian Henry Laurens, and Lean’s widow Sondra Lean.
(3) The Journal of the Society of Film and Television Arts, No. 10, Winter 1962-1963.
(4) We’re proud that Joel Hodson’s article in Cineaste proved instrumental in persuading the Writers Guild of America in 1995, thirty-two years after the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain had done so, finally to recognize Michael Wilson’s coauthorship of the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia. The WGA even reprinted an abridged version of Hodson’s article in the March 1995 issue of its own magazine, The Journal.
One of the most moving accounts of Wilson’s long struggle for official film-industry recognition of his contributions as a blacklisted screenwriter, one that succeeded only posthumously in the United States, was related to me years ago by his daughter, Becca, who recounted going as a youngster with her father to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the end credits started to roll, she looked over to see tears streaming down her father’s face, a reflection, no doubt, of his admiration for the film he had just seen combined with the painful awareness that his contribution to it was completely unacknowledged.
(5) “Out of the Wilderness,” an interview with David Lean, Films and Filming, January 1963.
(6) Paul Jarrico letter to Gary Crowdus, May 13, 1994.
(7) “L’Occident regarde l’Orient: a propos de Lawrence d’Arabie” by Mehdi Derfoufi, Tausend Augen #24, December 2001.
(8) In this regard, the 1992 Anglia Television film, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia, starring Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence, portrays Lawrence and Feisal’s pleas for the Arab cause at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, thus making an interesting political bookend to Lawrence of Arabia.
(9) These issues were examined in two interviews with Oliver Stone–“Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies” by Mark C. Carnes and “History, Dramatic License, and Larger Historical Truths” by Gary Crowdus–in our Spring 1997 issue, Vol. XXII, No. 4.