August 16, 1888 – T.E. Lawrence:
“I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars.”T.E Lawrence, on his Arab lover
It is rather astounding to consider the films I have missed, even as a lifelong film fan, even after four years of university Film History and Film Theory classes, even after sharing more than half my life with someone who possibly loves movies more than me. I have somehow never seen Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), where T.E. Lawrence is played by an improbably beautiful young Peter O’Toole. I have caught scenes from the Academy Award winning film, and I can recognize the theme from the score, but I have never been to a screening, or even seen a television broadcast.
Thomas Edward Lawrence was a good-looking, diminutive (5’5”), Oxford educated British man, with a keen interest in Archaeology. As a youth, he rode his bicycle from England to The Holy Land to study the castles of the Crusades. He walked 1100 miles around the Middle East, learning all that he could about the cultures and languages. He was mugged and badly beaten on his first day in Syria (even then, a top vacation spot), a fact that he kept hidden from his mother.
At Oxford, Lawrence was curiously close to his male companion, Vyvyan Richards, who was significantly older than Lawrence. Their parents and their pals worried about the closeness of this friendship. Lawrence’s parents were especially concerned about Richards’ motives. They thwarted his plan to set up a printing press business with Richards. Instead, Lawrence accepted an offer to be part an archaeological dig sponsored by the British Museum in what is now called Iraq.
Soon after he arrived, Lawrence met a boy, Selim Ahmed, commonly called Dahoum, meaning “little dark one”. Initially, their friendship was based on a desire to learn each other’s language, Lawrence attempting Arabic with Dahoum learning the basics of English. The pair became closer than just friends. They lived and traveled together. Their relationship caused a scandal among the British archaeologists, not just because they were lovers, but the mixing of races.
When World War I broke out, British Intelligence sought out Arab experts (Turkey and Germany were allies at the time). Lawrence left Dahoum in charge of the local workers at their dig and he returned to England.
After training with the British Army, Lawrence’s Arabic skills and knowledge of the Middle East brought him to a post in Cairo making maps and gathering intelligence. He devised a plan to assist the Arabs in their uprising against the Turks, allowing the British forces to execute an attack on the highly prized Suez Canal. His kinship with the Arabs was noted and he quickly became the key to the operation, acting as a vital go-between for both armies. A deal over who would get what land after the rebellion was struck and soon the rebel forces began to prepare for battle.
At around this time, American journalist Lowell Thomas arrived in Cairo searching for a story of heroic proportions to boost the USA’s involvement in a war that was none of our business. He was instantly captivated by the story of the British officer in traditional Arab dress, and he chose Lawrence to be his subject for his stay in Cairo.
The rebellion began in June 1916 with an attack on the Turkish railway. The raid was a success. Other attacks were planned and carried out. But poor Lawrence was discovered and taken prisoner by the Turks. He was brutally tortured and raped. He suffered daily beatings. A guard sympathetic to the Arab cause gave Lawrence a short significant shot at escape. Lawrence took it and he walked hundreds of miles across the desert to safety.
Lawrence was deeply damaged by his capture. He attempted to resign from the service, but the British refused. He somehow found the energy to take on his trademark Arabic robes, pick up his gun and head for the front against charging rebel armies. Lawrence survived another year of fighting before the rebels took Damascus in 1918 and began to set up an all-Arab Government. We all know how that worked out. It was there that Lawrence found that his beloved Dahoum had died.
Of course, the British Government did not fulfill the promises of land for the Arabs that had been made before the rebellion, the beginnings of the mess that we are now in, but that Jared Kushner fixed in 2020.
Lawrence commenced a campaign for the Arab cause against the British government. Lawrence also began writing a book. Drawing on his experience in the Middle East, Lawrence wrote The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, part memoir and part a look at life in seven major Arab cities. After many months of challenging work, Lawrence lost the manuscript forever when his briefcase was stolen at a London train station.
Lowell Thomas returned from the war with a mission to make Lawrence a war hero. He traveled with a slide presentation, telling the tale of the misfit officer who had become the leader of an Arab army. Lawrence became a media star and he was granted an audience with King George V. Yet, Lawrence didn’t take well to being celebrated, saying that his role had been blown way out of proportion. He even used the opportunity to announce that he would refuse to accept any official honors for his actions.
Desperate to escape the attention in Britain and furious with Thomas for thrusting fame upon him, Lawrence convinced the RAF to take him under a fake name. Lawrence settled down to a military life and began rewriting of his famous book. The first edition was finally published in 1927.
After his retirement from the RAF in 1935, Lawrence took a small cottage in the English countryside in hopes of living quietly and anonymously. He enjoyed riding his motorcycle around the back roads. Once on a drive, he swerved to avoid a pair of boys on their bicycles. Lawrence crashed his motorcycle and died. He was just 46 years old.
He called himself an “ordinary man”, but Lawrence lived an extraordinary life. Among the mourners at his funeral were E.M. Forster and Winston Churchill.
The tale of Lawrence’s life as presented in David Lean’s film, confirms his place in history as an icon of WW I. The filmmakers left out the gay part, of course.
I am looking at my copy of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, thumbed through to ready myself for this post. I purchased it at a Seattle used bookstore in the early 1980s, thinking it was some sort of self-help book. I attempted to read it anyway but gave up after a few chapters. My limited information about the life of Lawrence was gleaned from the very readable Hero: The Life And Legand Of Lawrence Of Arabia by Michael Korda, purchased for just $10 at Powell’s City of Books in Portland in 2001, just as our country readied itself for a war, allowing history to repeat itself.