December 16, 1962—Lawrence of Arabia, an unconventional epic that would go on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, premiered in New York City. Fittingly for a biopic about the British intelligence officer in WWI that consistently asked questions about his essential identity, archaeologist A.W. Lawrence, after watching the masterpiece, remarked that he did not recognize in it his older brother, T.E. Lawrence.
The younger Lawrence was nonplussed for reasons besides the fact that the actor embodying his brother, Peter O’Toole, stood eight inches taller than the short military hero who aided the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. (Nor would A.W. recognize his brother’s frequently dirty, desert-coarsened face in O’Toole’s well-lit, cosmetically enhanced visage. “If he were any prettier, they’d have to call it Florence of Arabia,” Noel Coward famously cracked.)
As the blogger “Groggee Dundee” wrote in a fine post on the blog Nothing Is Written, the film “is handicapped because historians do not agree on Lawrence’s importance, motivations or personality”—disputes that have abated little in the half-century since the movie’s premiere, even after the release of official military records not available up to 1962. Some difficulties arise from a personality that, even Lawrence himself admitted in a 1927 letter, was complicated.
Yet the process of giving a focus to a figure with so many different facets resulted in distortions that should lead the film to be thought of as historical fiction rather than biopic or docudrama. To embody particular points of view, for instance, composite characters were created, such as Claude Rains’ wily Arab Bureau diplomat Dryden, or Anthony Quayle’s Colonel Brighton, a representative for elements in the British Army who moved from disgust to admiration of Lawrence. The American journalist who transforms Lawrence into a figure of worldwide renown, Jackson Bentley, was strongly suggested by Lowell Thomas.
The family of General Edmund Allenby, Lawrence’s commander in the pivotal months of the Arab Revolt, lodged a formal protest over his representation in the Columbia release. The descendants of Auda abu Tayi and Sherif Ali pressed a lawsuit against the studio before finally dropping it 10 years later. Moreover, the film’s account of Lawrence's alleged capture and rape by guards under the control of the Turkish governor, Hajim Bey, remains hugely controversial.
Most accounts of Lawrence of Arabia treat it as an example of pure cinema—a perfectly valid approach that rightly celebrates the achievement of director David Lean. But seldom in cinema analysis is it more helpful, and even necessary, to consider the importance of the screenplay to a film’s success. This, after all, is a film about one man’s attempt to change and rewrite history—or, in its hero’s protest against the Arab status quo, “Nothing is written.” The movie itself is, in a sense, a revision of history.
For awhile, there was a serious question whether it would be made at all, given that so many players did not appreciate this version of history. Independent producer Alexander Korda secured the rights to Lawrence's memoir Revolt in the Desert all the way back in the 1930s, with Leslie Howard in mind for the soldier-scholar. Yet even the death of Lawrence in a motorcycle accident in 1935 did not give real creative freedom to Korda, who was told by the British government that a movie on this subject would not be helpful at that time. (The Turks didn’t like any implications that they had tortured prisoners; the Arabs hated the thought that they needed British aid to win their freedom from the Ottoman Empire; and British diplomats balefully eyed the prospect of unrest in what is now called “the Arab street.”) Korda sold the rights eventually to producer Sam Spiegel, as freewheeling a character in his way as Lawrence. More actors would see their names peddled in connection with the project—including Olivier, Brando and Albert Finney—before Spiegel and Lean turned to the young stage actor Peter O’Toole.
The screenplay, itself nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, flew in the face of other historical epics of the time because it was an anti-war satire about a military genius. Making possible the filming of a similar Hollywood treatment of a war hero, the 1970 film Patton, its creation, in turn, was facilitated by the success of Lean’s prior film, another Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The two movies have more in common than a single man at the creative helm. In a sense, Lawrence is a brother under the skin to Colonel Nicholson, the protagonist of Bridge. Eccentric, flawed heroes, they perform their tasks far better than anyone can reasonably expect, only to come a cropper in a changed military/political environment.
(Those similarities must have been too pointed to ignore by Bridge’s Alec Guinness, who expressed a desire to play Lawrence for Lean, too—a wish the actor might have felt perfectly appropriate, considering he had played the hero in Terrence Rattigan’s play Ross. Told bluntly that he was too old to play the legend of Arabia, Guinness took another significant role in the production—Prince Feisal.)
Spiegel got much for his money out of the services of screenwriter Michael Wilson in Bridge: a WWII intelligence officer for the U.S. Marine Corps who understood in his bones the frequent absurdity of the military’s command structure and objectives, as well as a scribe who could be bought cheaply because his blacklisting left him desperate for work. (Wilson and co-screenwriter Carl Foreman, unable to accept their Oscars because of the blacklist, watched as the prize was awarded to Francophone novelist Pierre Boulle, who delivered what is believed to be the shortest acceptance speech in the history of the award ceremony: “Merci.”) The producer was hoping for similar magic with the story of Lawrence.
But, after two years and a massive script, Wilson disappointed Lean and Spiegel. The director found dialogue that was not as sharp as he liked it; Spiegel, on the other hand, was concerned that the script was too anti-military, or so it is said. In truth, however, the producer had nobody to blame but himself for the latter: Not only had Wilson’s original screenplay for Friendly Persuasion looked sympathetically on the Quaker characters’ pacifism, but Bridge on the River Kwai was absolutely scathing about the folly of war, and the writer’s prepared testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee had lambasted that body for its threat to the world's well-being (“I am not surprised to be hauled before a Committee that is trying to make peace a dirty subversive word”).
By Wilson’s own estimate, no more than 10% of the dialogue in the finished film was in his screenplay. But, if Spiegel was hoping for a script with a more benign view of the military from replacement Robert Bolt, he was terribly mistaken. The playwright of A Man for All Seasons possessed inclinations every bit as strong as Wilson’s against armed force. In fact, production in Spain had to be halted on the second half of the film when Bolt was arrested for participating in an antinuclear demonstration in London's Trafalgar Square; refused, More-like, to renounce his conscience; and languished in jail for several weeks without access to his typewriter. Nobody knows what combination of threats and blandishments Spiegel used to get Bolt to back down and get released early, but the screenwriter was so disgusted that he never spoke to the producer again.
If the first half of the film could be almost wickedly satirical about the military brass’s attitude toward the “balmy” Lawrence (General Murray: “I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted”; Lawrence: “I have the same problem, sir”), the second half was dispiriting in tracing how the stress of fighting led to Lawrence’s terrifying recognition of his egomania and sadomasochism.
In a sense, it reflected not just the preoccupations of Wilson and Bolt, but also the vision of Lawrence presented by George Bernard Shaw in the latter’s 1932 play, Too True to be Good.
I first saw this play at the Shaw Festival in Canada in 1994. Though the first act was fine, the play truly snaps to attention (so to speak) with the introduction of the puckishly named “Private Meek” in Act 2. Shaw’s physical description of the character left little doubt about who was being depicted:
“He is an insignificant looking private soldier, dusty as to his clothes and a bit gritty as to his windbeaten face. Otherwise there is nothing to find fault with: his tunic and puttees are smart and correct, and his speech ready and rapid. Yet the colonel, already irritated by the racket of the bicycle and the interruption to his newspaper, contemplates him with stern disfavor; for there is something exasperatingly and inexplicably wrong about him. He wears a pith helmet with a pagri; and in profile this pagri suggests a shirt which he has forgotten to tuck in behind, whilst its front view as it falls on his shoulders gives a feminine air of having ringlets and a veil which is in the last degree unsoldierly. His figure is that of a boy of seventeen; but he seems to have borrowed a long head and Wellingtonian nose and chin from somebody else for the express purpose of annoying the colonel.”
And annoy the colonel, Meek promptly does, in much the way that the Lawrence of film does with Generals Murray and Allenby: “If I could get hold of the recruiting officer who enlisted you, I’d have his stripes off.”
By the time that the soldier is revealed as a quartermaster’s clerk, interpreter, and intelligence officer—not to mention a colonel who prefers the ranks, where he has a “freer hand”—the playwright has described unmistakable terms the longtime friend who, when he entered the Royal Air Force, did so under the assumed name “T.E. Shaw.”
Whatever its pretenses as history, Lawrence of America has also become, in another sense, prophecy. Instead of Britain, another world superpower has found itself in the Middle East, sure that, under its guidance, ancient prejudices can be erased because “nothing is written.” Ironically, like Lawrence at the film’s end, the United States now can’t wait to extricate itself from this cat’s cradle, finding that geopolitical gamesmanship which might have begun with the best intentions only ends in moral ambiguity.