Movies or plays based on “history” have long fascinated me – particularly the liberties that they sometimes take, and why they take them. One of my favorite books, Past Imperfect, is an anthology of essays by historians, each of which chose a different “historical movie” to review – and in all cases, these reviews compare “here’s what actually happened, and here’s what the movie says happened.” Some essays go even further and discuss “and here’s what was happening when they were making the movie, and here’s how that influenced things.” All historical films adapt the story somewhat, even if only for the sake of dramaturgy; a straightforward depiction of things “as they actually happened” would be either dull or confusing, since things rarely happen at a drama-worthy pace and often there are false starts and red herrings as the story unfolds. ut sometimes looking at how a filmmaker tells such a story – what bits they emphasize and what they sweep under the rug – can also be telling.
Lawrence Of Arabia is more of an adaptation of an adaptation, basing itself on the real T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his time in Arabia. To sum up very quickly: the real T. E. Lawrence was a British officer during the First World War who was stationed in Egypt, and who was tasked with supporting (or, rather, encouraging) an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, a move which would in turn impact control of the Middle East and the Levant. Lawrence was one of several British intelligence officers and diplomats assigned to this task, but his approach was particularly impactful, as he was able to unite two of the major tribal factions into a single force. He also coordinated a number of Bedouin tribes’ fighters into a guerilla army, making regular attacks on Ottoman railways and the smaller towns surrounding major cities. At one point he was captured during a scouting expedition in the Syrian city of Daraa, and was tortured by the Ottoman officer there – he was definitely whipped, and was possibly sexually humiliated. At another point, he and his party came upon a retreating Ottoman platoon, and he gave the order to “take no prisoners” as punishment for the Ottoman massacre of a nearby Bedouin settlement. Following the war he encouraged the British government to grant the Arab nations independence after the Ottoman Empire fell, but the U.K. and France already had their own plans for the post-war empire, and his efforts came to naught. He returned to England and lived a bit aimlessly for the next 15 years – writing his memoirs, joining in a stage show about the Arab Revolt, and even trying to re-join the military under a pseudonym. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.
That’s the “real” story. Lawrence’s own account, and the story the film wants to tell, goes something like this:
Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) had long been fascinated with Arabia and had finagled his way into a post with the Arab Bureau during the war; but ended up stuck in a dim office for a good while. He felt he had a unique understanding of the Bedouin culture and wanted to put it to use. So when offered the chance to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the Syrian revolt against the Ottomans, he jumped at the chance – and ignored the orders to stay impartial, offering Prince Faisal some military strategic advice instead. Faisal is impressed, as is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), one of the Bedouin tribal leaders serving Prince Faisal; after a particularly impressive victory, Ali gifts Lawrence with a set of Bedouin robes to wear in lieu of his British military uniform.
Ali is Lawrence’s “sidekick” for much of his ongoing campaign – keeping peace amongst the various tribes, tending his wounds after Lawrence is beaten by the Ottomans, trying to stop his massacre of the retreating Ottoman army. He is skeptical when Lawrence assures him the British will surely give the Arabs their independence, but is among the last to leave when Lawrence’s attempts to set up an Arab-run government fall apart. Lawrence goes to appeal to Prince Faisal, to urge him to demand independence – only to find that Faisal already knew about British and French plans to divvy up the empire, and had resigned himself to it.
It’s actually not that far off the facts. The film leans heavily into Lawrence’s love of Arabia and the Middle East, implying he was a bit of an outcast in England who’d found a family among the Bedouin. It draws a little bit of a veil over Lawrence’s torture, but implies that this fuels some anti-Ottoman sentiment in him which leads to the bloody Ottoman troop massacre. It does play a little fast-and-loose with some of the non-Western characters – in particular, it implies the Bedouin leader Auda abu Tayi (here played by Anthon Quinn) was more of a mercenary than the team player he actually was.
The film really shies away from commenting on rumors about Lawrence’s sexuality – just before the film’s release, a play about Lawrence addressed rumors that he was gay. And while film Lawrence does have a couple of close friendships among his Bedouin comrades, the film plays really coy about whether these are lovers or comrades-in-arms.
Ultimately, though, the film seems to suggest that Lawrence may have ultimately been unknowable. Things start off a bit like Citizen Kane does – we first see the motorcycle accident which caused his death, then we eavesdrop on various mourners’ chatter following his state funeral. A reporter is on the scene trying to find someone who knew Lawrence well – but cannot. Everyone has an opinion on the man, but no one can say that they really knew him. One particular admirer of Lawrence’s says that he “had the honor of shaking his hand once in Damascus” – but when we see the actual incident towards the end of the movie, we learn that the officer in question had actually insulted Lawrence when he was in Arab dress just moments before.
Visually, the land itself might be the real star of the film. Director David Lean filmed in the then-new “Super Panavision” technology, sort of a grandfather to IMAX. Super Panavision called for bigger screens, and quick cuts on big screens were making audiences nervous – so Lean opted for longer, panoramic takes which were perfectly suited for sweeping desert vistas. Honestly, if you put anyone against a backdrop that beautiful – and added in Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score – they would end up looking as larger-than-life as Lawrence became after this film.