Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 British epic historical drama film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence and his 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel, through his British company Horizon Pictures, and distributed by Columbia Pictures. The film stars Peter O’Toole as Lawrence with Alec Guinness playing Prince Faisal. The film also stars Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy. The screenplay was written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.
The film, a British production with American distribution, depicts Lawrence’s experiences in the Ottoman Empire’s provinces of Hejaz and Greater Syria 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 with its army and his new-found comrades within the Arabian desert tribes.
Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards in 1963; it won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Outstanding British Film. The dramatic score by Maurice Jarre and the Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Freddie Young also won praise from critics.
The film is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. In 1991, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute placed it fifth on their 100 Years…100 Movies list of the greatest American films, and it ranked seventh on their 2007 updated list. In 1999, the British Film Institute named the film the third-greatest British film of all time. In 2004, it was voted the best British film of all time in a Sunday Telegraph poll of Britain’s leading filmmakers.
Most of the film’s characters are based on actual people to varying degrees. Some scenes were heavily fictionalised, such as the attack on Aqaba, and those dealing with the Arab Council were inaccurate since the council remained more or less in power in Syria until France deposed Faisal in 1920. Little background is provided on the history of the region, the First World War, and the Arab Revolt, probably because of Bolt’s increased focus on Lawrence (Wilson’s draft script had a broader, more politicised version of events). The second half of the film presents a fictional desertion of Lawrence’s Arab army, almost to a man, as he moved farther north. The film’s timeline is frequently questionable on the Arab Revolt and World War I, as well as the geography of the Hejaz region. For instance, Bentley’s meeting with Faisal is in late 1917, after the fall of Aqaba, and mentions that the United States has not yet entered the war, but the US had been in the war since April. Further, Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab Revolt prior to the attack on Aqaba is completely excised, such as his involvement in the seizures of Yenbo and Wejh. The rescue and the execution of Gasim are 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 Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) the only British officer 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 but it is not mentioned in the film. The film shows Lawrence as the sole originator of the attacks on the Hejaz railroad. The first attacks 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 Herbert Garland in February 1917, a month before Lawrence’s first attack.
The film shows the Hashemite forces as consisting of Bedouin guerrillas, but the core of the Hashemite forces was the regular Arab Army recruited from Ottoman Arab prisoners of war, who wore British-style uniforms with keffiyehs 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 concern the characterisation of Lawrence. The perceived problems with the portrayal begin with the differences in his physical appearance; the 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) Peter O’Toole was almost 9 inches (23 cm) taller than the 5-foot-5-inch (1.65 m) Lawrence. His behaviour, however, has caused much more debate.
The screenwriters depict Lawrence as an egotist. It is not clear to what degree Lawrence sought or shunned attention, as evidenced by his use of various assumed names after the war. Even during the war, Lowell Thomas wrote in With Lawrence in Arabia that he could take pictures of him only by tricking him, but Lawrence later agreed to pose for several photos for Thomas’s stage show. Thomas’s famous comment that Lawrence “had a genius for backing into the limelight” can be taken to suggest that his extraordinary actions prevented him from being as private as he would have liked, or it can be taken to suggest that Lawrence made a pretence of avoiding the limelight but subtly placed himself at centre stage. Others point to Lawrence’s own writings to support the argument that he was egotistical.
Lawrence’s sexual orientation remains a controversial topic among historians. Bolt’s primary source was ostensibly Seven Pillars, but the film’s portrayal seems informed by Richard Aldington’s Biographical Inquiry (1955), which posited Lawrence as a “pathological liar and exhibitionist” as well as a homosexual. That is opposed to his portrayal in Ross as “physically and spiritually recluse”. Historians such as Basil Liddell Hart disputed the film’s depiction of Lawrence as an active participant in the attack and slaughter of the retreating Turkish columns who had committed the Tafas massacre, but most current biographers accept the film’s portrayal as reasonably accurate.
The film shows that Lawrence spoke 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 prewar topographical survey of the Sinai Peninsula and his attempts to negotiate the release of British prisoners at Kut, Mesopotamia, in 1916. Furthermore, Lawrence is made aware of the Sykes–Picot Agreement very late in the story and is shown to be appalled by it, but he may well have known about it much earlier while he fought alongside the Arabs.
Lawrence’s biographers have a mixed reaction towards the film. The 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 being real, rather than a composite character, and also the highlighting of the Deraa incident. The film’s historical inaccuracies, in Wilson’s view, are more troublesome than should be allowed under normal dramatic licence. At the time, Liddell Hart publicly criticised the film and engaged Bolt in a lengthy correspondence over its portrayal of Lawrence.
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