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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

Part I

1-2 opening scenes  
1  Title sequence: the accident
Historical, no dialogue
2   Memorial service, Saint Pauls Cathedral, London
Historical, dialogue reasonable except for a remark about exhibitionism that warps TELs character

So far as Lawrence is concerned, these opening scenes don't seem contentious:

  • Curiously, the boys shown are cycling towards Lawrence on the wrong side of the road, not in cycling correctly line ahead as recorded in their testimony. I don't know if they ever lodged a complaint

  • The opening shots suggest that Lawrence had a sensual love of speed. They also remind us that he met a violent death

The memorial service gave Bolt the opportunity to fill out Lawrence's character:

  • He was an 'extraordinary' person to Brighton (who knew him well), and revered by an ex- medical officer (who did not)

  • He had served in the Arab Revolt, which was historically significant

  • He was an intellectual

  • He owed his reputation to a journalist

  • Few people claimed to know him well

  • Some people questioned his reputation

  • The journalist said he was an exhibitionist

Most of these comments reflect views that real people held.

  • However, Jackson Bentley's remark: 'He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey' has no contemporary basis that I know of. It may be based on the famous remark by Lowell Thomas that Lawrence has a flair for 'backing into the limelight.' However, in saying that, I suspect that Thomas probably hoped to excuse himself. He had continued coining money out of the 'Lawrence of Arabia' legend long after it became an acute embarrassment to the real Lawrence

  • Bolt's exaggerated version is a tendentious foundation for the plot he intended to develop

3-6 Cairo
3 Map office Invention, errors, warps TEL
4 Passing through the Officers' Mess Pointless invention, warps TEL
5 Lawrence, Dryden and General Murray Fantastic invention, warps TEL
6 Lawrence with Dryden Invention with errors, warps TEL

The four scenes set in Cairo provide an opportunity to say more about Lawrence before the scene switches to the desert.

3 Map office:

  • Basement incorrect - Lawrence had his own office in the Savoy, which was one of the most luxurious hotels in Cairo

  • Lawrence's manner is an affected and slightly effeminate ('Michael George Hartley'). No one ever said he was familiar with subordinates

  • The incident where he snuffs out a match with his fingers is invented. It is intended to suggest that he was a masochist - though there is no evidence of this during the pre-war years

4 Passing through the officers' mess

  • Invented and somewhat contrived scene, which presents Lawrence as something of a fool, and as generally unpopular with his fellow officers. There is no evidence to support this. A few individuals may not have liked him, but his work was well respected by colleagues. He would have had little to do with anyone else

  • He is also represented as boastful, building on the earlier 'exhibitionist' comment. He claims to be: 'Going for a pow-wow with the General'

  • The scene further warps Lawrence's character

5 Lawrence, Dryden and General Murray

  • Invented scene

  • General Murray regards Lawrence as 'over-wheening, finiking, crass'. I know of no evidence that he had even heard of Lawrence at that stage. His HQ had not been in Cairo

  • There is certainly no evidence that Lawrence met Murray on this occasion. It would not have been necessary

  • Dryden, of the Arab Bureau, says 'He's no use here in Cairo' - yet contemporary Arab Bureau reports show that his work was valued greatly - to the point that the Arab Bureau had organised for him to move there from Military Intelligence

  • Lawrence is mannered and insolent towards his GOC, repeatedly answering him back. This is fantasy

  • Lawrence was not given permission to spend three months with the Arabs

  • Murray's 'side-show of a side-show' comment is, in fact, Lawrence's - though the sentiment was widely held.

  • In summary, the scene is historically impossible and further warps Lawrence's character

6 Lawrence with Dryden

  • Invented scene

  • Lawrence is shown as over-confident: 'I'm the man for the job'

  • Dryden: 'Only two kinds of creatures get fun out of the desert: Beduins and Gods . . . Take it from me: for ordinary men, it's a burning, fiery furnace'
    Lawrence: 'No, Dryden, it's going to be fun'

    This exchange is absurd, because Lawrence had been in the Middle East since 1910

7-9 Journey to Feisal's camp
7  With Tafas, on camel and by the camp fire
Journey took place, but words invented
8  With Tafas at a Harith well, Ali arrives, shoots Tafas, and leaves
Impossible and misleading invention
9  Lawrence arrives at Wadi Safra, where he meets Colonel Brighton
Absurd invention, warps TEL

7  With Tafas, on camel and by the camp fire

Although this corresponds to a real journey, the dialogue is invented. Some of the ideas incorporated have equivalents in Seven Pillars. We learn that:

  • Lawrence aims to match the Beduin (he puts his drinking water back into bottle)

  • He considers himself 'different' from the British ('a fat country; fat people')

He also needlessly gives away his pistol - apparently his only weapon. His motives for this are unclear, and the action seems little short of idiotic.

8 With Tafas at a Harith well

Invented scene

  • In the context both of Bedouin conventions and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, this scene is misleading fantasy. It libels both Bedouin customs and Sherif Ali. It is so offensive to Arabs that Anthony Nutting, specialist adviser to the film, strongly urged that it should be cut out - but his objections were brushed aside

  • This demonstrates, at the outset, that the scriptwriters and the director were happy to trample over historical accuracy if their inventions would improve the drama

9. Lawrence arrives at Wadi Safra

Invented scene

  • Lawrence - an unarmed Christian travelling alone wearing British uniform in a Muslim country and well behind enemy lines, is shown singing loudly as he rides. This fantasy further warps his character

  • He greeted by Colonel Brighton. In reality, no Englishman before Lawrence had visited Feisal's forces inland. Brighton's presence in the scenes that follow is an invention that substantially misrepresents what really happened

10-13 With Feisal
10  Feisals camp bombed by Turkish aircraft
Invention, misrepresents situation
11  The Arab army moves, Daud and Farraj appear
Where are they all going?
12  With Col. Brighton in Feisals tent
Invention, misrepresents history
13 Lawrence stays behind and talks with Feisal
Invention, warps TEL

10 Feisal's camp bombed

Invented scene.

  • Feisal's camp at Wadi Safra was not attacked by Turkish aircraft at that time

  • Brighton would not have advised Feisal to move 'fifty miles south' for safety. That would have taken Feisal's army to Rabegh, depriving Rabegh of forward defences along the Turks' expected line of advance

11. The Arab Army moves

Invented scene

  • This spectacular sequence is a mystery. Where are they going? In the scene that follows, Brighton is still advising Feisal to move....

  • Farraj and Daud provide some comic relief. In Seven Pillars, they do not appear until the journey to Akaba

12. TEL and Brighton in Feisal's tent

Invented but important scene. The conversation bears no relation to what happened or might have happened. In terms of history, its content is nonsensical fiction.

  • Setting aside the fact that no other British officer was present when Lawrence met Feisal, the dialogue is historically and geographically absurd

  • The geography is now a total mystery. Where is the Arab Army, after the march we have just seen? Brighton now urges Feisal to move, not "fifty miles south", but to Yenbo just a few miles west of Wadi Safra, his original starting point (see Map 1 below)

  • Brighton says the British cannot supply Feisal where the army now is, but could in Yenbo. Why?

  • Lawrence opposes this, saying that moving to Yenbo will make the Arab force 'one poor unit in the British Army'. Why? No one has suggested this

  • Feisal argues 'You could supply us through Akaba'. Just look at the map! The capture of Akaba had nothing to do with operations in the Hejaz

  • We learn of the difficulties of taking Akaba. But in reality taking Akaba itself would have been easy. Both the defences and the reason for wishing to take Akaba are completely misrepresented

  • The script here notes inevitable differences between British and Arab objectives, but builds on that to lay the foundation for a political allegation. The allegation is hardly surprising, given the scriptwriters' views. The script will claim that the refusal to supply artillery to Feisal was deliberate British policy, intended to handicap the Arabs and prevent the Revolt becoming anything larger than a local rising. The allegation misrepresents both history and Seven Pillars. Not by any stretch of imagination could the War Office have spared scarce mountain artillery for a theatre as insignificant, at that time, as the Arab Revolt

  • In reality, there was little conflict, if any, between British and Arab war aims in the Hejaz. True, Britain needed to defend the Suez Canal against the Turks, and an Arab revolt in the Hejaz had little direct bearing on that. Far more important, however, was Britain's wish to have a friendly government in the Muslim holy places

13. Lawrence stays behind with Feisal

  • Feisal appears to be a grave man, perhaps in his fifties. In reality he was 33, just five years older than Lawrence, who said he was full of 'wild, freakish humour' The film misrepresents Feisal's character and their relationship at every point

  • Lawrence is portrayed as an idealistic dreamer. He declares that he is loyal 'To England and to other things.'

  • Feisal says that 'To be great again' the Arabs need 'What no man can provide . . . We need a miracle'

  • This sets up the next scene, where Lawrence dreams up the 'miracle' - but reality wasn't like that at all

14-16 Planning for Akaba
14  Lawrence thinks all night, and concludes 'Akaba'
Invented scene, historically misleading
15  Lawrence explains his Akaba plan to Ali
Impossible, misleading invented scene
16  As the Akaba party sets out, it encounters Feisal
Invented scene, misrepresents history

14 Lawrence thinks all night

Invented scene

  • The scene, apparently set in September 1916, shows Lawrence thinking-up the idea of taking Akaba from the land. It represents part of his thinking while ill, at Wadi Ais in March 1917. Unfortunately, while we learn his conclusion, we know nothing of the reasoning behind it

  • Daud and Farraj appear in the scene, still long before they appear in Seven Pillars

15 Lawrence explains his Akaba plan to Ali

Invented and misleading scene

  • There is no record of such a conversation. The real Sherif Ali was not involved. Opposition to the plan came, primarily, from the British Military Mission which (by the time Lawrence put forward the plan) had joined Feisal

  • Akaba could easily be approached from the landward side: the Turks supplied Akaba from Maan. There was nothing fantastic about Lawrence's plan. However, its success would hinge, above all else, on surprise, and also on Auda's ability to raise a Howeitat force in Wadi Sirhan

  • Before setting out, Lawrence discussed the scheme in detail with Auda, who accompanied the expedition

  • Lawrence's route from Wejh to Wadi Akaba did not cross the Nefudh desert. It passed to the north, following a route taken by Arab travellers

  • Lawrence pointing 'over there' is completely misleading. To attack Akaba he was proposing a wide circuit inland, not a direct line of march (see Map 2 below)

16 As the Akaba expedition sets out, it is confronted by Feisal

Invented scene with absurd dialogue

  • We learn that Lawrence has not told Feisal about the expedition. In reality, Feisal almost certainly knew about it from the outset

  • Feisal is apparently still in Wadi Safra, and is now going to fall back on Yenbo. In reality, he had by this time advanced to Wejh

  • Lawrence has not told Brighton about the Akaba trip either - but in reality he did tell Colonel Newcombe of the British Military Mission

  • Feisal asks Lawrence 'in whose name do you ride?' - As though there was some doubt!

Map 1: Geography of the Hejaz Campaign:

  • The film has suggested that the Arabs have moved fifty miles south from Wadi Safra. In reality they had moved a long way north, to Wejh. This move is never mentioned

Map 2: Geography of the route to Akaba

  • Lawrence to Ali (pointing) 'Akaba is over there'

  • The implied straight-line journey is absurd, not least because of the information in the film:

    • Start at Wadi Safra

    • Cross the Hedjaz Railway

    • Cross the Nefudh Desert

    • Meet Auda in Wadi Sirhan

    • Dine in Wadi Rumm

    • End at Akaba

  • This leaves viewers ignorant of the wide circling movement (shown below in green) that allowed the force to approach Akaba from inland


17-21 - On the way to Akaba
17  At an oasis, Farraj and Daud appear Loosely based on Seven Pillars
18  The expedition continues on its way Invented scenes, some dialogue impossible and warps TEL
19  Lawrence rescues Gasim Based on Seven Pillars
20  Lawrence rejoins the expedition and Ali gives him Arab clothes Invented scene, bears no relation to Seven Pillars
21  While Lawrence admires his new clothes, Auda appears Invented scene, bears no relation to Seven Pillars

I'll pass briefly over this section, which has lots of action but relatively few significant words

17 At an Oasis

  • Comic relief: Daud and Farraj enrol as Lawrence's servants

  • Based loosely on Seven Pillars

18 The expedition continues on its way

Invented scenes

  • Ali is shown leading the expedition (in fact led by Sherif Nasir)

  • Ali thinks this is a crazy venture and blames Lawrence for it The two bicker with one another

  • Lawrence wastes water by shaving - an absurd invention

19 Lawrence rescues Gasim

These spectacular scenes are based on about ten paragraphs in Seven Pillars

20 Lawrence rejoins the expedition

Invented scenes

  • Lawrence receives a hero's welcome - in Seven Pillars the Arabs decried the risk he had taken rescuing Gasim

  • The relationship portrayed between Lawrence, Ali, and the Arabs is pure fiction. Lawrence had, by this time, been with Feisal's army for several months

  • Lawrence had been wearing Arab clothes, at Feisal's request, since December 1916

  • There is no evidence that Lawrence told any Arab of his illegitimacy during the war, nor indeed that he knew the full details himself before 1919

21 Lawrence admires his new clothes; Auda appears

  • In reality Auda has been guiding the expedition ever since it left Wejh

In historical terms, these spectacular desert-crossing scenes are lightweight. The only significant history is that the expedition crossed the desert from the coast to Wadi Sirhan.

The symbolic reconciliation between Lawrence and the fictional Ali plays a role in Bolt's developing drama - but has nothing to do with history or with the content of Seven Pillars. It seems that Bolt's imagination has by this time entirely freed itself of such constraints.

22-24 Preparing to take Akaba
22  Auda confronts the Akaba party
Historically impossible invented scene
23  In Auda's camp
Invented: impossible location/dialogue
24  Lawrence has to execute Gasim
Invented setting for something that happened much earlier and in different circumstances

22 Auda confronts the Akaba party

This invention appears to hark back to the earlier invented scene at the Harith well. However, it is impossible since Auda had been with the expedition all along.

  • Auda and Ali confront one another and exchange insults

  • Lawrence makes peace between them by invoking Feisal's name

  • Auda then invites the party to dine with him that evening at his summer camp, which turns out not to be in Wadi Sirhan (where they are) but some days' journey off in Wadi Rumm!

23 In Auda's camp

In this invented scene, Lawrence with some difficulty persuades Auda to join the Akaba expedition. In reality, Auda and been an enthusiastic participant from the outset.

  • Auda and the Howeitat are represented as being influenced by nothing except than money and the prospect of loot. The reality was more complex than that

24 Lawrence has to execute Gasim

This is based on something that had happened months before, on Lawrence's journey to Wadi Ais.

  • 'Gasim' is now the man Lawrence had rescued from the desert

  • The murder committed by Gasim is now shown as jeopardising the capture of Akaba by creating a blood feud between Ali's Harith (who were not not involved in these events) and Auda's Howeitat

  • Lawrence shoots Gasim publicly, in the clear ground between the two sides, whereas in Seven Pillars the execution takes place in a narrow gulley

25-28 Akaba and after
25  The Arabs ride into Akaba
Spectacular but misleading
26  Ali and Lawrence by the shore
Invented, nothing to do with history
27   Auda discovers that there is no loot in Akaba
Invented interlude
28   Lawrence crosses Sinai, but Daud dies in a quicksand on the way
Farraj+Dauds presence and Dauds impossible death invented

25 Taking Akaba

Magnificent cowboy-and-Indian action scenes; but the only significant battle took at Aba el Lissan, many miles from Akaba.

  • The emphasis on Akaba completely obscures the historical importance of Lawrence's action. The crucial objective was to secure not just Akaba, but the track from the Akaba to Maan which was the essential supply route for future operations further north

  • Akaba itself was barely more than a village. It was far smaller and less significant than the film set suggests

26 Ali and Lawrence by the shore

Invented scene, developing the symbolic fictional relationship between Lawrence and Ali and the Arabs

  • Ali: "The miracle is accomplished. Garlands for the conqueror. Tributes for the Prince. Flowers for the Man."
    Lawrence: "I am none of those things, Ali."
    Ali: "What, then?"
    Lawrence: "Don't know. My God I love this country."

27 Auda and the treasure chest

Invented scene

  • Auda is furious that there is no gold in Akaba, so Lawrence writes an IOU and then sets off across Sinai 'to tell the generals in Cairo'. The reason given in Seven Pillars was to get a supply ship sent

  • As companions, Lawrence takes Daud and Farraj. In Seven Pillars, he selected 'a party of eight . . . on the best camels in the force'. There is no mention that the boys were among them

28 Crossing Sinai, the death of Daud

Impossible invented scene

  • Despite Lawrence's hubris, Daud dies in a quicksand. This is June 1917. The real Daud died of sickness at Azrak, early in 1918. Quicksands (a mixture of sand and water) are extremely rare in the desert, and complete drowning in any quicksand is a near impossibility. This scene in Lawrence of Arabia is quoted in physics papers from time to time as an example of the popular myths about quicksand

  • The scene is utterly contrived and, to my mind, rings false in every respect. Its dramatic purpose is plainly to offset Lawrence's victory at Akaba with a personal setback (he had promised that the boys would be safe). But historically it is a pointless fiction and, I think, one of the weakest moments of the film

  • Lawrence, allegedly in a tragic mood, continues alone with Farraj. Despite losing his compass (another fiction) they reach the Canal

29-31 Back in Cairo
29  The officers' bar
Impossible invention
30  With Allenby
Invention, highly improbable dialogue
31  The officers' mess
No historical source

29 The Officer's mess, Cairo

Invented scene

  • Lawrence creates a sensation in the Officers Mess in Cairo by taking in Farraj and ordering a drink

  • He then announces to an astonished Brighton that he has taken Akaba, and is rushed off to see Allenby, the new GOC

  • None of this bears any relationship to the account in Seven Pillars or any other source

30 With Allenby

Invented scene with highly improbable dialogue

  • After some amateurish conversational sparring about the importance of Akaba (which Bolt seems not to have understood), Allenby accuses Lawrence of acting without orders, and then promotes him Major

  • He says Lawrence is to go back. Contrary to the historical record, Lawrence resists, on the (completely fictional) grounds that he had 'enjoyed' shooting Gasim. This invention is a key step in Bolt's forthcoming characterisation of Lawrence as a man dehumanised by war

  • Allenby immediately becomes very jovial and flattering. Lawrence loves it and Allenby goes with him to the officers' club for a drink

31 The Officers' Mess, Cairo

Fictional scene

  • Lawrence, bathing in glory, is now keen to go back and asks Allenby for the money and supplies he will need. Allenby promises him everything. Brighton and Dryden listen

  • Afterwards, as Allenby, Brighton and Dryden walk away, Allenby says 'He's riding the whirlwind', Dryden replies 'Let's hope we are not.'

  • These exchanges reflect Bolt's anti-military agenda: generals ruthlessly exploit their men


  • Much of the shooting of the first part of the film was completed before Bolt delivered the script for Part 2

  • The two halves have a very different atmosphere, as Bolt admitted. There is much more action - and less dialogue, in the second half

  • In terms of history, Bolt's script now goes further and further off the rails. While it's true that he could not avoid selection and abridgement, his treatment is both wrong and tendentious. He seems to have used the difficulty of following history as a convenient excuse for creating a historically false drama of his own

  • So far as Lawrence is concerned, Bolt now develops very negative themes. To my mind, these were almost certainly suggested by his private political agenda

  • It has been suggested that this negative treatment of Lawrence in Part II may have been a response to a public humiliation inflicted on Bolt by Sam Spiegle. When Bolt should have been finishing this second part of the script, he was serving a much publicised prison sentence for CND activities. He could leave prison only if he agreed to keep the peace. But to do that involved breaking his word to other CND activists and compromising what many believed were his deeply-held principles. Under pressure from Spiegle, Bolt nevertheless signed away these principles and left prison. It is said that he found the incident deeply traumatic. If so, he may indeed have wreaked his vengeance on Lawrence

Part II >>
Introduction >>
Conclusion >>
Section contents page >>

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