The documentary ‘The Real Lawrence of Arabia’ tries to pin down the revered but elusive soldier and Middle East scholar.
Travis Johnson

6 Sep 2021 - 11:42 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2021 - 12:13 PM

The broad facts of the life of Thomas Edward Lawrence are familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century history, and certainly anyone with a love of classic cinema.

As recounted in David Lean’s excellent, mythologising but still remarkably accurate 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, during World War One T. E. Lawrence was a minor functionary in the British Army serving under General Allenby at Cairo. Due to his extensive academic knowledge of the Middle East and gift for languages, he was sent to liaise with the Arab Bedouins in order to coordinate their revolt against the Turks with British efforts. He became a key leader in the revolt, winning countless victories in the guerrilla campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

Or so the story goes – and it’s a good one. The image of Lawrence (as played by Peter O’Toole in Lean’s film, naturally) in his white robes, bellowing orders at his desert warriors, is an iconic one. But history is littered with gifted warriors and leaders, many who left a bigger footprint than Colonel Lawrence. So why should he continue to capture our imaginations well over a century after his most notable deeds?

The man with no name

For a figure of such prominence in the Western historical canon, Lawrence remains enigmatic. His relationship to fame was a complicated one; although he seemed to court the press and wrote extensively (and, some argue, exaggeratedly) about his wartime exploits, he was in many ways an intensely private man. After the war he reenlisted twice under different pseudonyms: he was John Hume Ross when he joined the RAF in 1922, and T. E. Shaw when he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps in 1923.

Lawrence was no stranger to pseudonyms – even his own name bears no relation to his lineage. He was the bastard son of Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, who had been governess to Chapman’s children. The couple lived together under the assumed name “Lawrence”. In the straitened society of the time this made Lawrence an outsider: he could not inherit his father’s title, nor would he be accepted by polite society.

But there’s an allure to outsider status: unshackled from the cultural expectations of his time, Lawrence could reinvent himself – and who hasn’t dreamed of doing just that? If his name and his family life were a fiction, he could write his own story.

Forged in the crucible of the desert

Whether you subscribe to the “great man” or the “trends and forces” theory of history, you must acknowledge that there could be no Lawrence as we know him today without the First World War. Already a student of antiquity and an admirer of Islam, he was well positioned to bring his skills and passions to bear on the conflict at hand.

But the war also allowed Lawrence to reinvent himself. The outcast British ascetic scholar became a desert warrior, riding with Prince Faisal, leader of the Arab Revolt and later King of Iraq, against the might of the Ottoman Empire.

It’s a terribly romantic notion, and deliberately so. You can make the case – and The Real Lawrence of Arabia does so explicitly – that Lawrence saw himself as a kind of modern-day knight errant – Sir Lancelot on a camel (Lawrence actually carried a copy of Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur on his campaigns, strengthening the connection). Lawrence became the hero of his own fairy tale.

The idea of haring off to some distant, exotic land and making your fortune is an age-old fantasy, and while it’s not without its attractions, it’s also steeped in colonialism, orientalism and the centring of the white, Western experience – we speak of Lawrence for Arabia, but most of us rarely speak of Faisal, Ali, or any of the Arab resistance fighters of the time with the same reverence, if at all. The “white saviour” stereotype features prominently in the accepted Lawrence narrative – and yet reality is not so simple.

A soldier of empire, or a fighter for freedom?

What David Lean didn’t address, but The Real Lawrence of Arabia does, is Lawrence’s activities and attitudes immediately after the war, when the Middle East was parcelled up by the British and French under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Flying in the face of British policy, Lawrence advocated for an independent Arab state with Damascus as the capital, but it was not to be: new nation states were created, their borders set not according to tradition or ethnic and tribal lines, but in the interests of the colonial powers. Much of the strife that has plagued the region can be attributed to the arbitrary and high-handed Agreement, but Lawrence would not live to see it. He never returned to the desert after the war and died in a motorcycle crash in 1935.

But what could be seen as a mere coda to his life colours our view of his previous activities. What Imperialist backs Arab independence? What white saviour shuns the country where he was lauded? What fame seeker goes to his grave under an assumed name?

The contradictions in Lawrence’s life and character are what keep us returning. The Lawrence of popular imagination is not a single, knowable figure. He was an outcast who became a hero, a scholar who became a warrior, a tool of empire who fought for freedom, and an ordinary person who became something greater than himself. Although we can pore over the recorded facts and pontificate on his thoughts and motives, his actions and their consequences, there can never be one fixed, universal truth. The line from the Lean film is “For some men, nothing is written unless they write it”, but the real lesson, and the lasting appeal, is that, like Lawrence, anyone can write their own story.

The Real Lawrence of Arabia is streaming now at SBS on Demand: 

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