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Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert?
David Lean's film reviewed by a historian
Talk given by Jeremy Wilson at the Imperial War Museum, London
on 11 March 2006

Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert?


In general, people who are interested in cinema and people who are interested in history are on roads that never meet. If you admire Lawrence of Arabia as a film, it doesn't matter whether or not it is accurate. If you are interested in history, the artistic quality of the film is irrelevant.

The film does, however, concern historians in one sense:

  • Its huge success has made it central to the public's perception of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. It has been shown repeatedly in cinemas and on television, in many countries. In terms of success, it is arguably the outstanding example of a cinematic treatment of history

  • For every person who has spent three hours reading a serious book about Lawrence's life there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, who have seen the film

  • For most people, therefore, T.E. Lawrence 'is' the character in the film. That was borne in upon me recently when I was interviewed on an American radio station. To my surprise, the interviewer seemed to take the film as the basis for historical questions, on the assumption that it is an accepted version of events

So we are agreed that, as a film, Lawrence of Arabia is highly esteemed and has been hugely successful. But is it historically accurate? Or is it a largely fictional feature film?

In asking such a question, I think one should make reasonable allowance for the requirements of a screen drama. The film covers two years in three hours. No one could achieve that without omitting many things, simplifying what remained, and greatly reducing the number of characters.

Yet, even accepting those necessities, I think it should be possible to create a film that is consistent with our knowledge of the people and events. Documentary film-makers aim to do that.

I accept, however, that Lawrence of Arabia was a feature film not a documentary. A feature aims to be a successful drama. Makers of feature films would deny that there is any requirement for historical accuracy or balance.

Lastly, in this introductory section, I should draw your attention to a caveat. Tucked away in the credits at the end of the film is a paragraph in block capitals which few film goers are likely to read. This is what it says:

I feel uneasy about this. The title of the film names a real person. Can that be justified, if it turns out that what follows is largely invention? Lawrence of Arabia concerns the actions of a historical figure - T.E. Lawrence - and the history of a region that is still torn by conflicts rooted in the First World War and its aftermath. For many people, the film has been a starting-point for knowledge of the Arab world. If it is seriously inaccurate and unbalanced, so is their perception.

You've had a few moments to look at the question, so now I'll ask you. How accurate do you think it is? Hands up...

Well, in the next hour we will explore it scene by scene and try to come up with an answer.

Reading what Lawrence wrote about Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it is easy to see why it appealed to film-makers.

'Do you remember my telling you once that I collected a shelf of 'Titanic' books . . . and that they were The Karamazovs, Zarathustra, and Moby Dick. Well, my ambition was to make an English fourth.'

Long before the film, Seven Pillars was a bestseller in its own right, in English and in numerous translations. Lawrence himself was a pioneer celebrity - his name a household word. The story he wrote is indeed splendid.

It is an extraordinary work, in which narrative and reflection are continuously intertwined. Moreover, until British official archives were released in the late 1970s, it was by far the most detailed account of the Arab Revolt and of Lawrence's role in it.

Robert Bolt wrote:

'Seven Pillars of Wisdom was my prime, almost my only source for the screen-play. It is a long book, diffuse and detailed. Ten different dramas could be got from it. To choose which tenth you are going to take for your drama is an impudent exercise but must be done. You will choose of course what seems to you the most important tenth. Which tenth seems to you the most important, and why, will depend on yourself, not Lawrence....'

That last sentence invites a question. If the selective role of the writer is so important, does the screen play of Lawrence reflect a private agenda?

You don't have to delve very far into the history of the film to realise that it does. In fact, there were two screen plays, by different writers. The second was developed from the first.

Michael Wilson, who wrote the original script, was an American with strong political views. He had been a member of the Communist Party and was persecuted in the McCarthy era. His screenplay reflected, among other things, his anti-imperialist convictions.

Robert Bolt, who wrote the second script, also had marked political opinions. He was a prominent public campaigner for nuclear disarmament. As a dramatist, he was sincerely interested in the psychology of his characters and in moral judgements.

Both men were distinguished writers, but they seem an odd choice for a screenplay about a war hero from Britain's imperial era. Unsurprisingly, the script that emerged combined personal interpretation with a strong anti-war message.

The characters

I have already mentioned the dramatist's need to reduce the number of characters to manageable proportions. This is a real problem, even in history books. Back in the 1930s, a dramatist who read Liddell Hart's 'T.E. Lawrence' in Arabia and After advised him to cut down the number of named people.

In Lawrence of Arabia four of the principal characters are based on real people: Lawrence, General Allenby, Emir Feisal, and Auda Abu Tayi.

These historical figures are portrayed in the setting of what appear to be real events. So it seems reasonable to expect their words and actions to be consistent with what we know from historical sources.

Yet objections by historians and survivors were among the most telling criticisms of the film. A.W. Lawrence wrote 'I should not have recognised my brother' (The Observer, 16 December 1962).

Four other principal characters were invented. They could usefully combine the characteristics of several people. Given the necessity to simplify in a drama, that has to be done.

While the words and actions of invented characters need not adhere to historical records, these characters do play crucial roles in narrative and interpretation. Therefore, if we are talking about historical accuracy, they should not do or say things that are wholly incompatible with the record.

Taking them in turn, Dryden (Robert Bolt wrote): 'represents European political skills'.

He appears to have been modelled on D.G. Hogarth and Ronald Storrs, but Bolt's comment has a wider reach than that. Hogarth, incidentally, wore uniform, and was I think less cynically 'political' than Dryden.

Colonel Brighton
'Colonel Brighton', according to Bolt, 'has to stand for the half-admiring, half appalled disturbance raised by Lawrence in minds quite wedded to the admirable and inadequate code of English decency'.

In the real Arab Revolt, no English officer fulfilled the role given to Brighton. Candidates might be S.F. Newcombe, Pierce Joyce, or Hubert Young. However, while Brighton was an invention, his role is credible. Many of his lines echo real sentiments of the time.

Sherif Ali
It seems that Sherif Ali ibn Kharish of the Harith was, originally, to have been the Sherif Ali ibn el Hussein, a real Harith chief who appears in Seven Pillars. However, it was felt to be politic to change his name. Bolt wrote: 'Ali has to represent emergent Arab nationalism'.

No single Arab leader was with Lawrence for so much of the campaign. Moreover, confusion between the Ali of the film and the Ali of Seven Pillars seems to have focused attention on the latter in some post-film biographies.

Jackson Bentley
Finally, there is Jackson Bentley, who seems to have emerged from an earlier scheme to include Lowell Thomas in the script. Bolt saw him as representing '... the popular Press, here rather cavalierly embodied in the person of Bentley, who also stands in for the facile Lawrence denigrators.'

In real life Thomas was younger than Lawrence and was with the Arabs for only a week. In the film, Bentley appears repeatedly.

True or false?

It's time to set aside the magnificent sets, the desert landscapes, the photography, the music, the direction, the acting, the editing, and so on. To find out whether this is Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert we need to consider one thing only: historical accuracy.

Part I >>
Part II >>
Conclusion >>
Section contents page>>

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