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General biography

Rejected legend

Youth 1888-1914

War service 1914-1918

Diplomacy 1918-1922

Service years 1922-1935

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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 II
32-34 Opening the Syrian campaign
32  Akaba, Jackson Bentley talks to Feisal
Invention, misleading dialogue
33  Blowing up a train
Legitimate dramatisation from Seven Pillars
34  Looting the wrecked train
Lawrence's behaviour invented and most improbable - warps TEL

32 Feisal and Jackson Bentley at Akaba

Invented scene

  • Bentley tactlessly displays interest in Lawrence rather than the Arab Revolt. He is 'looking for a hero'

  • The meeting is fictional and historically trivial. Lowell Thomas visited Akaba for about a week in late-March 1918 That was the only time he spent with the Arab Revolt. He met both Lawrence and Feisal at Akaba. After Lawrence left, Thomas was taken to Guewira then Petra

33 Blowing up a train

Splendid cowboy-and-Indian scene - based on accounts in Seven Pillars

34 Looting

  • The Arabs loot the train, while Lawrence - here portrayed strongly as an exhibitionist - parades pointlessly on the roof. This is pure invention. No record suggests that he ever did such a thing

  • A wounded Turk shoots at him repeatedly. Lawrence stands still, letting him do it. Again, this is fiction. While Lawrence in Seven Pillars speaks of facing with calm a situation where there seemed to be no escape, in this situation he could easily have avoided the danger

  • Ali and Brighton arrive. Brighton is appalled by the looting, and points out that afterwards the Bedouin go home and not return to fight. Soon there will be no force left. This is the beginning of a new theme in Bolt's plot

  • Bentley asks if Lawrence is hurt. He replies. 'They can only kill me with a golden bullet'

35-38 Observations and insinuations
35  Bentley interviews Ali Invention
36  Bentley interviews Lawrence Invention, distorts TEL
37  Audas quest for honourable loot Invention, but based loosely on the portrayal of Auda in Seven Pillars
38  The Arabs attack a second train Invention which carries forward Bolt's mistaken themes

These four scenes are all invented and all seem relatively trivial, but they help Bolt build his dramatic interpretation.

35 Ali and Bentley

Bentley interviews Ali, who talks naively about a future democratic government.

  • Clearly, he will be easy meat for cynical imperialists

36 Lawrence and Bentley

  • Bentley asks Lawrence, 'What do these people hope to gain from this war?'
    Lawrence replies: 'Their freedom'
    Bentley comments 'There's one born every minute,' to which Lawrence replies: 'They're going to get it, Mr Bentley. I'm going to give it to them.'

  • Bolt's fictional Lawrence is now clearly deluded about what he can deliver

37 Auda's loot

Auda surprises Brighton by expressing the hope of finding some kind of loot that is 'honourable'. This adds a second dimension to Auda's character.

38 The second train

  • The Arabs capture another train, carrying horses. Auda is happy with this loot and goes home

  • Brighton asks Lawrence how he will campaign with no forces

  • Lawrence replies 'I'll go north. That's what Allenby wants, isn't it?'

  • Brighton: 'Allenby wanted the Arab Army behind Deraa.'

  • Lawrence: 'Then that's where I'll take it. Tell Allenby to hurry up . . . we'll be in Deraa before he's in Jerusalem...'

Bolt's combination of diminishing Arab forces and Lawrence's alleged promise to Brighton sets up one of the most absurd episodes in the film. But all this is fiction, not based on Seven Pillars or any other historical source.

39-42 Deepening failure
39   Death of Farraj Needless invention
40   Ali and Lawrence, riding Invention, historically absurd dialogue
41   EEF Headquarters, Allenby talks with Brighton Invention, historically absurd dialogue
42   Ali and Lawrence [at Azrak] Invention, completely at odds with Seven Pillars

39 Death of Farraj

Invented scene

It seems that the Seven Pillars version of this was not good enough for Bolt. In the film, Farraj is mortally injured by a detonator. Ali refuses to shoot him, so Lawrence does so.

  • The change is utterly pointless. It adds nothing

  • Bolt continues with the absurd fiction that Lawrence's force is now reduced to 20 people

40 Ali and Lawrence

Brief fictional scene

  • Ali asks Lawrence what he will do now, with so few men.

  • Lawrence replies 'Go north', adding bitterly 'What would you recommend?'

  • The exchange only makes sense in relation to Bolt's developing plot. It has nothing to do what that really happened

41 GHQ - Allenby with Brighton

Invented scene - historically impossible

  • Brighton tells Allenby that Lawrence has lied about the size of his army

  • Brighton thinks the Arabs may come back next year: 'They think he's a kind of prophet'. Allenby asks: 'They do or he does?'

  • An imaginary exchange which has no source, incompatible with historical events

42 Lawrence and Ali at Azrak

Invented scene - historically absurd

  • Ali warns Lawrence that if there is 'one more failure' he will find himself alone. He is asking them to do the impossible. Lawrence says he knows what they can do

  • Lawrence goes into the room where the men are, and asks 'Who will walk on water with me. Who will come with me into Deraa?'

  • They refuse, and Lawrence decides to go with Ali, to keep his promise to Allenby. He appears irrational

The dwindling force theme is Bolt's invention. It has nothing to do with Seven Pillars or any historical source.

43-47  Nemesis
43  Lawrence and Ali in Deraa
At first, absurd invention, then Seven Pillars
44   Lawrence and Ali back at Azrak
Invention no historical basis
45  Lawrence with Feisal, Allenby and Dryden
Invention no historical basis
46  Bentley questions Dryden
Invention no historical basis
47   Allenby persuades Lawrence to go back
Highly contentious invention, warping the characters of both Lawrence and Allenby

43 Lawrence and Ali in Deraa

  • In one of the most absurd sequences in the film, Lawrence (apparently believing that he is some kind of prophet) tells Ali he is looking for 'Some way to announce myself'

  • He is stopped by a party of soldiers and taken to the Turkish commander

  • What follows (while Ali waits in the street below) is fairly mild, compared to what you would expect in a modern film. But Lawrence of Arabia was made 40 years ago...

44 Lawrence and Ali at Azrak

Lawrence, completely broken, tells Ali he is leaving.

  • For Bolt 'Deraa explains everything'. It took biographers quite a while to recover from that (some never have). In reality, Lawrence had been deeply troubled by the fraudulence of his role for months before the Deraa episode - his contemporary notes show that he found this psychologically unbearable. These worries about moral responsibility are clearly spelled out in Seven Pillars and in his wartime notebooks and diaries. Here was a real anti-war theme - yet Bolt's script never once mentions it? Why? I don't know

45 Lawrence at EEF HQ Jerusalem

Invented scene - no historical basis

  • Lawrence finds Allenby, Feisal and Dryden together (in reality Allenby and Feisal met for the first time at Damascus)

  • Feisal leaves. He has found out about Sykes-Picot. Dryden explains Sykes-Picot to Lawrence. The scene has caused much confusion. In reality, Lawrence knew about Sykes-Picot before the Arab Revolt began

  • Lawrence hands in his resignation, for 'personal' reasons, asking for 'an ordinary job'. Allenby is angry. Dryden then sees that Lawrence's back is bloodstained, draws Allenby's attention, then leaves

46 Dryden and Bentley

Invented scene - no historical basis

  • Dryden, leaving, encounters Bentley, who asks what is happening

  • Dryden refuses to say, then adds: 'It's a little clash of temperament that's going on in there. One of them's half mad, and the other wholly unscrupulous'

47  Lawrence and Allenby

Invented scene - no historical basis

  • Allenby becomes fatherly 'Tell me what happened'. Allenby then plays on Lawrence's vanity. Lawrence knows he is being manipulated, but cannot escape. He agrees, bitterly, to go back

  • Lawrence says that the Arabs won't be coming for money, but for Damascus, which he'll give to them. And he'll get to Damascus before Allenby 'and when we've got it, we'll keep it.' This begins another false trail in the drama: 'the race to Damascus'

  • The false portrayal of Allenby here - doubtless driven by Bolt's personal agenda - drew strong protests

  • Allenby promises all the money there is. Lawrence, full of his own importance, replies: 'The best of them won't come for money. They'll come for me.'

48-51  A changed man
48  Back with the northern army
Invented scene - no historical basis
49  Allenby briefing his officers
Brief situation report fiction but realistic
50  The British artillery barrage in the distance
Brief narrative incident
51  Allenby and Brighton in a staff car
Brief invented conversation building the 'race to Damascus' myth and setting up the forthcoming clash at Tafas

48 Back with the Arab Army

Invented scene - no historical source

The film is now completely adrift from history.

  • Lawrence arrives with his hired bodyguard. Ali is shocked. Lawrence even ignores Auda. He has completely changed. He has bought half the men there. He no longer seems to have any personal mission or feeling for the Arab Revolt

  • Bentley takes pictures

  • Lawrence shouts 'Damascus'

Cowboy-and-Indian scenes as the Arab army rides off.

49 Allenby briefing

  • This shows the Allied forces closing in on Damascus

  • Allenby asks Brighton where the Arabs are. Brighton replies that you can only know by being with them

  • Allenby tells him to go

  • In reality, there were by this time a number of British officers with the Arab forces

50  the British barrage

Brief invented scene

  • Ali, to Lawrence: 'God help the men who lie under that.'

  • Lawrence, indifferently 'They are Turks'

  • Ali 'God Help them.'

51 Allenby and Brighton in a staff car

Brief invented scene

  • Sets up the clash between the Arab and Turkish columns at Tafas

  • Brighton says Lawrence 'has the bit between his teeth', and will get to Damascus before the British

52-54  The final advance
52  Tafas
Incident from Seven Pillars with invented dialogue and highly contentious anti-war interpretation
53  Butchery at Tafas
Invented treatment, fleshing out Bolts imagined drama. Military victory must be a sordid business
54  The Arab army approaches Damascus
Brief invented narrative scene

52 Tafas

Invented dialogue, making Lawrence personally responsible - denied by Peake and others.

  • The Arab column arrives at Tafas where (shown briefly) they find the women and children slaughtered

  • Lawrence is shown grappling with his wish to wreak vengeance

  • Ali tries to dissuade him, urging him to skirt the retreating column and go for Damascus

  • Talal rides out and is shot

  • Lawrence makes up his mind: 'No prisoners'

53 Butchery at Tafas

Invented treatment

  • Lawrence portrayed as carried away by blood lust

  • Is seen shooting a Turkish soldier who has his hands up

  • Ali begs Lawrence to stop the butchery

  • Bentley appears and is shocked. Ali implies that Lawrence, not the Arabs, was responsible for the butchery. Bentley says 'Oh, you rotten man' - and takes a photo

All this is complete fiction.

54 Approaching Damascus

Brief fictional scene

  • A rider offers Lawrence grapes, cut in Damascus. Lawrence tells him to offer them to Ali

  • Lawrence asks if Allenby is in Damascus. The Arab replies 'Near.'

The fictional 'race to Damascus' theme once again.

55  Allenby arrives in Damascus Fiction
56  The Town Hall Fiction, inconsistent with the historical record
57   At Allenbys headquarters the Arabs begin to leave Allenby was not closely involved with the civilian administration of Damascus
58  The Town Hall, now almost empty Fictional 'clearing up' scene, not based on Seven Pillars
59  Ali and Auda leave Fictional 'clearing up' scene, not based on Seven Pillars
60-62   The Turkish military hospital Dramatisation based loosely on Seven Pillars. Used here maliciously to represent Arab (rather than Turkish) failure

55 Allenby arrives in Damascus

Invented scene

  • Allenby arrives at his new HQ in Damascus. Brighton says the Arabs have been in the town for a day and a night, have set up their HQ in the Town Hall, and have taken control of the utilities

  • Allenby advised by Dryden, orders that the British troops and technical and medical units should stay in their barracks. They evidently believe that the Arab government will quickly collapse

56 The Town Hall

Invented scene

The scene shows Auda, Ali and other Arab leaders, bickering and complaining about machinery such as generators they do not understand.

Bolt wishes to show the Arab Government collapsing [there can be no victory]. To do this, he ignores the civilian population of Damascus, which was now working for the Arab Government.

57  the Arabs begin to leave

Invented scene

Allenby, Dryden and Brighton are awaiting events.

  • The electricity fails, and then they hear the Bedouin army beginning to leave the town

  • This is the failure they expected

58  the Town Hall, now almost empty

Invented scene, in which Bolt strongly implies that the victory has been fruitless.

  • Auda tries to persuade Lawrence to return to the desert. Lawrence refuses, and Auda leaves

  • Lawrence then turns to Ali, who says he will stay and become a politician

  • Ali tells Lawrence 'You tried very hard to give us Damascus'. Lawrence replies 'It's what I came for. And that would be something.'

  • Ali also leaves

59 Ali and Auda leave

Invented scene

  • Leaving the Town Hall, Ali tells Auda of his concern about Lawrence: 'How must he fear himself, who hates himself'

  • They exchange insults in the moonlight, before parting

60-62 The Turkish military hospital

  • The medical officer protests to Allenby that he must take charge

  • Allenby tells him to go to the Town Hall

  • In the Town Hall, he finds Lawrence, who asks what it is like

  • The film cuts to the hospital. Lawrence, alone, wanders round

  • The British medical staff arrive. The officer in charge approaches Lawrence, who laughs hysterically, and is slapped on the face

  • See Seven Pillars

63  Allenby, Feisal and Lawrence meet at Damascus
Invented dialogue no source
64  Lawrence leaves the meeting
Invented encounter
65  Allenby and Feisal talk
Invented dialogue no source
66   Lawrence is driven away
No source

63 Allenby Feisal and Lawrence at Damascus

Invented and misleading dialogue

  • Feisal and Allenby have no further use for Lawrence. Faisal comments: 'There is nothing further here for a warrior.' He and Allenby are negotiating a political bargain over the control of the utilities

  • They are both happy to see Lawrence leave, bidding him courteously farewell. As he leaves, Feisal says 'What I owe you is beyond evaluation'

64 Lawrence leaves the meeting

Invented scene

The medical officer who has slapped Lawrence's face at the Turkish military hospital does not recognise him, and asks to shake his hand.

65 Allenby and Feisal remain behind

Invented dialogue - while such a meeting did take place at Damascus, the Arab administration was far more competent than is implied here

  • Feisal and Allenby are negotiating. Allenby claims that the Arab power is illusory. Feisal produces a newspaper report

  • Allenby argues that the Arab army was led by a serving British officer. Feisal replies: 'Ah yes. But the Aurens is a sword with two edges. We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?'

  • Allenby and Feisal then reach a compromise over control of the water works

66. Lawrence is driven away

There is no record of how Lawrence left Damascus.

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