Monday, October 8, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia: Seven Scenes From Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Originally posted here.

As preparation for seeing David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia in theaters last week, I re-read T.E. Lawrence's memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2000). Whatever its strict accuracy (and one must allow for embellishment and subjectivity in memoirs), it's an engrossing read on several levels: as literature, a military chronicle, an exotic travelogue, a political analysis, a psychological self-portrait. It's easy to understand how David Lean saw potential for an exciting film. But how does the movie compare to its source material?

Rather than an excruciating line-by-line analysis (see Jeremy Wilson), this article examines seven key scenes from Lawrence of Arabia based on their relationship to Seven Pillars. We'll view the filmmakers' choices through three general criteria: 1. How does the scene draw from Lawrence's writings? 2. Is it accurate or at least within the bounds of reasonable dramatic license? 3. What dramatic purposes do any changes serve?

1. Ali at the Well 

Perhaps Lawrence's most memorable scene is Sherif Ali's introduction at Matsurah Well: a black blob appearing on the horizon and slowly approaching, Lawrence and his guide Tafas watching in trepidation. He shoots Tafas, member of the rival Beni Salem tribe; Ali is a Harith, their blood enemy. Ali takes Lawrence's service pistol, previously gifted to Tafas. Lawrence then denounces Ali as a murderer and continues his journey to Feisal alone.

This scene draws on an incident in Seven Pillars, but the two depictions couldn't be more different. The real Sherif Ali traveled with a slave, and the two switched identities to fool Tafas. Lawrence treats the incident comically, far from the movie's deadly encounter. Lawrence also shows that Bedouin allowed common use of desert wells, even among unfriendly tribes. Here, Lean readily jettisons reality for artistic effect.

Lean introduces several thematic strands. It establishes Ali and his bipolar relationship with Lawrence. Lawrence starts as civilized man disgusted by the "savage" Ali; the two develop inversely throughout the film, reversing roles in the final act. The idea of Arabs torn "tribe against tribe," and Lawrence's efforts to unite them for a common cause, is dramatically established. Regardless of realism, the scene is both artistically impressive and dramatically important.

2. Feisal's Tent 

From his first meeting with Prince Feisal, Lawrence felt him "the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory" (92). As portrayed by Alec Guinness, Feisal embodies Arabia's glorious past and dreams of independence, with a shade of worldly cynicism. He has no illusions about British war aims and ultimately accepts an unfavorable compromise.

Lean and writer Robert Bolt draw loosely on Seven Pillars but use this encounter as a dramatic springboard. Obviously it's an important scene for Lawrence and the other characters. It's also crucial in delineating themes and plot devices that will recur throughout the film.

Lean introduces Colonel Brighton, a composite character representing military convention. Brighton emphasizes the importance of discipline, disputed by Ali (who wants modern weapons) and Feisal (who doubts its value). Lawrence immediately (and inaccurately) disagrees with Brighton and advocate a third way: guerrilla warfare. This piques Feisal's interest, allowing him to confide his fears to Lawrence that the English "hunger for Arabia."

In the subsequent "miracle" scene (drawing loosely on Lawrence's interlude at Wadi Ais), Lawrence realizes the Arabs must move north and seize Aqaba to regain the initiative. This is misleading. Contrary to Brighton's claim that the Royal Navy has "better things to do," they worked closely with the Arabs in seizing the port of Wejh (January 1917). After this, Lawrence says in Seven Pillars, "the Arab movement... had passed beyond danger of collapse" (169). Aqaba was not then a desperate gambit but a logical next step.

Dramatically, this scene places Arab and British war aims in opposition. The Arabs want complete independence; the British want to limit the uprising, in furtherance of imperial goals. Lawrence must choose one side or the other, or else be hopelessly conflicted. There's much truth to this characterization, though oddly Lean makes Lawrence ignorant of the Sykes-Picot Agreement until much later! This scene is dubious historically but provides a solid basis for further drama.

3. Gassim: Nothing is Written 

One of Lawrence's best scenes is the rescue of Gassim, an Arab tribesman lost on the road to Aqaba. This sequence, strikingly shot by Lean, closely follows Seven Pillars' description (260-264). Shortly afterwards Lawrence eschews his uniform for white robes, the Arabs accepting him as "El Aurens" - the cornerstone of his legend. Here Lean deviates from Seven Pillars: Auda abu Tayi (who in reality joined the Aqaba expedition at its onset) wonders why Lawrence risked his life for a man "not worth a camel's price" (263), while Lawrence had been wearing Arab robes long before.

Dramatically this scene serves two major purposes. First, as mentioned, it marks Lawrence's acceptance by the Arabs, especially Ali, who soon becomes an inseparable friend. Second, it highlights Lawrence's first triumph over Fate. Ignoring Arab fatalism, Lawrence proves he can overcome long odds through determination: "Nothing is written!" This minor triumph sets the stage for greater victories at Aqaba and Damascus.

Lean later provides an ironic coda when Lawrence executes Gassim for murdering a Howeitat (tellingly, with Tafas's revolver). "It was written then," intones Auda, reasserting Fate's power over Choice. It also introduces a new theme - Lawrence's enjoyment of killing. The real Lawrence executed another Arab, Hamed, for a similar crime earlier in Seven Pillars. Conflating the two events is acceptable dramatic license.

4. Meeting Allenby 

Lawrence spends a single page detailing his first encounter with General Edmund Allenby. He enthuses about his new commander, "physically large and confident" (330) and more willing to help the Revolt than his predecessor General Murray. Lawrence's admiration for Allenby, both man and military commander, is clear throughout Seven Pillars, even describing him as a father figure.

Lean transforms this "comic interview" into one of the film's pivotal sequences. Lasting nearly 15 minutes, it serves a myriad of functions. Bolt elucidates Aqaba's strategic importance, quoting Lawrence's arguments in Seven Pillars (cf. 281). The British officers who, just a scene before, inundated Lawrence with racial slurs now cheer him as a hero. Besides introducing Allenby and developing Brighton (who gains genuine admiration for Lawrence), it probes Lawrence's psyche at a key moment in the narrative.

Lawrence comes across as a broken, neurotic wreck. His pride in capturing Aqaba has dissipated, after losing his servant Daud to quicksand and his encounter with racist officers. Worse, Lawrence realizes his own blood lust, "enjoying" his execution of Gassim and fearing its future implications. Exhausted and afraid he desperately begs for reassignment. He has the bad luck of meeting Allenby, here not a supportive superior with "confidence... like a wall" (553) but a deceitful villain.

Where Murray dismissed Lawrence as "the kind of creature I can't stand," Allenby immediately recognizes Lawrence's military value. A guerrilla army harassing Turkish supply lines is a boon for future offensives. He also pegs Lawrence's Achilles heel: vanity. Dismissing Lawrence's concerns, he elicits complements from Brighton (officer), Dryden (civilian) and a Mr. Perkins (enlisted man), covering all bases of flattery. Then he holds a public military conference, expounding Lawrence's genius to his entire staff. Thus Allenby's defining traits: military skill and psychological perfidy.

Lean and Bolt re-introduce earlier anti-war/imperialist themes. Lawrence suspects Britain won't honor their promises, an inquiry Allenby and Dryden both dodge. The scene ends with Allenby, Brighton and Dryden deciding not to give the Arabs artillery. For now, Lawrence is satiated by vague promises of post-war freedom, and concrete promises of arms and money. His ego flushed by adulation, he returns to the desert.

5. Deraa Is The Key

Surely the most traumatic incident in Seven Pillars involves Lawrence's capture, torture and gang rape by Turkish soldiers in Deraa in November of 1917. Of course, many historians doubt this incident actually happened, but that debates fall outside this post's scope. Lean and Bolt make it a central scene in Lawrence, but distort both the background and its effects significantly.

Lawrence's reasons for entering Deraa were banal. Deraa (in present-day Syria) was an important railroad junction which Lawrence hoped to raid. While scouting in town he was arrested by the Turks and taken to a Turkish officer - supposedly Hajim Bey, the garrison commander. The officer "began to fawn on me... (offering to) make me his orderly... if I would love him" (452). Lawrence refused his advances, then was beaten and sexually assaulted by the Bey's soldiers. Lawrence escapes, and later learns that he was betrayed by Syrian nationalist Abd el-Kadr.

This incident obviously traumatized Lawrence, leaving deep physical and psychological scars. His post-war masochism likely originated with Deraa, and he remained incapable of sexual feelings afterwards. It's easy to overstate its effects, however. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence scarcely refers to the incident again. He's more distraught by a military failure, his continuing guilt over his liaison role and treachery by an Arab colleague. This is what convinced him to "beg Allenby to find me some smaller part elsewhere" (514), not trauma over Deraa.

Lean's restrained depiction of Lawrence's mistreatment is understandable. But Bolt's portrayal of Lawrence borders on ridiculous. Here, Lawrence and Ali stride into Deraa alone, Lawrence apparently thinking his mere presence will inspire a rising. Aqaba convinced him he can work "miracles," further inflamed by Allenby's flattery and subsequent successes. "Do you think I'm just anybody?" he asks Ali before embarking on his mission. This is utterly ridiculous hubris, and one of the film's weaker moments.

Bolt thought "Deraa is the key" to all of Lawrence's subsequent actions: his attempted resignation, the massacre at Tafas, his psychological collapse. In this he followed many biographers, who placed undue emphasis on Lawrence's psychosexual side. It seems altogether too convenient an explanation, if dramatically handy for a screenwriter.

6. Tafas Massacre 

Seven Pillars graphically describes the Tafas Massacre, a horrific incident during Allenby's Megiddo offensive. The Arabs brutally slaughter 2,000 Turkish soldiers, many after surrendering, in retaliation for sacking a local village. Some biographers shield Lawrence from responsibility, but Lawrence makes his own culpability explicit: "By my orders we took no prisoners" (653). Lean provides a reasonable dramatization of the event, but delivers a suspect characterization of Lawrence.

This scene brings Lawrence's neuroses to a head. Bolt offers a Freudian explanation for Tafas, Lawrence avenging his degradation at Deraa through massacre, now killing gleefully, surrounded by a bodyguard of hired killers. His descent into animal barbarism is contrasted with Ali's increasingly "civilized" behavior; the latter even echoes Lawrence's taunt from their first meeting: "Surely you know the Arabs are a barbarous people!" Lawrence ends the scene blood-soaked and mentally broken, having reached the apotheosis he'd tried to avoid.

As mentioned previously, Lean and Bolt largely draw on Anthony Nutting's biography of Lawrence. In Seven Pillars, Lawrence largely accepts the carnage as a fact of tribal warfare. The Turks after all precipitated it by murdering Arab civilians, initiating collective anger and brutal vengeance. Soon after the Bedouin captured Deraa and continued towards Damascus. The movie however treats Tafas as a hollow triumph, needless bloodshed born of one man's psychosis.

7. Damascus and the Arab Council

The worst scenes, historically-speaking, come at film's end. Lean and Bolt's version of post-war Damascus is recognizable only through a few colorful anecdotes gleaned from Seven Pillars. History is far more complex and interesting than what Lean and Bolt offer.

Lawrence describes raucous scenes in Seven Pillars, the town hall "packed with a swaying mob" (666) and arguing over Damascus's governance. The real threat, however, was neither Sherifian incompetence nor British indifference, but Abd el-Kadr: the same man who'd betrayed Lawrence at Deraa. Kadr and his brothers launched several attempted coups to undermine Feisal's authority, resulting in several skirmishes with Feisal's men. Kadr was eventually killed in November 1918 while imprisoned. The issue, therefore, was not (in Lawrence's account) tribalism but an ambitious man and his followers.

Far worse is the depiction of the Arabs as utterly incompetent. They appear as rubes baffled by machinery, allowing Damascus to catch fire (really set by Turkish troops) and Turkish wounded to die in hospital. In reality, the Arabs "quickly collected the nucleus of a staff and plunged ahead as a team" (671), creating a police force, fire brigades, mechanics and sanitation committees. The movie recounts Lawrence's encounter with an enraged British medical officer ("This is outrageous!"), focusing on its irony: after a movie of searching for his identity, Lawrence is mistaken for an Arab. What a time to highlight this!

Lawrence's narrative ends with him exiting Damascus, as does the movie. The situation left behind however is quite different. Feisal's government remained in power until 1921, when France ousted them at bayonet point. No conniver in Allied perfidy, Feisal fought the French tooth-and-nail before being placed as a contentious client on Iraq's throne. Allenby seemed genuinely to regret his role, doing his best to balance British, French and Arab interests as ordered. Neither man is fairly characterized here.

This anti-climax logically concludes the movie's anti-war themes and recurring hubris. Again, a major victory can't come without an offsetting failure, and bloodshed must amount to nothing. Perhaps we're to draw inferences about modern pan-Arabism; Nasser's United Arab Republic collapsed while the film was in production. Regardless, this scene is not only inaccurate but insulting, as this ostensibly anti-imperial film falls back on "White Man's burden" stereotypes. Here's one instance where the dramatic license proves genuinely regrettable.


Like all historical and literary adaptations, Lawrence of Arabia often sacrifices accuracy for artistic effect. In many cases it's justifiable or transcends the source. In several instances, however, it's highly questionable or even deleterious. Still, even the highly questionable scenes listed have some basis in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. As an adaptation, Lawrence is probably no better or worse than Hollywood's usual efforts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New Maarten Schild post

Maarten Schild has a fascinating new article on the debate over Lawrence's sexuality at his blog here. Very much worth a read.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Stewart F. Newcome Blog

During my web travels I encountered Kerry Webber's blog In the Shadow of the Crescent, a tribute page to Lawrence's friend and colleague Colonel Stewart F. Newcombe. It's an interesting site, with lots of pictures and detailed info about Newcombe and the Arab Revolt. It also appears that Mr. Webber is soon publishing his research in book form. Highly recommended.

For those who aren't aware, the film Lawrence of Arabia is receiving a 50th anniversary re-release in October. I will definitely be posting about it on my film blog. If any such pieces prove historically-minded (as opposed to film analysis etc.) I'll cross-post them here.

I'm feeling a bit burned out on Lawrence right now and I will probably go on hiatus from this blog soon. I hope to knock off Victoria Ocampo's 338171 T.E. beforehand, but Clare Sydney Smith may have to wait. Priorities.

Friday, August 17, 2012

16 Questions With Professor Stephen E. Tabachnick

Stephen E. Tabachnick is one of the world's foremost T.E. Lawrence experts. A Professor of English literature at the University of Memphis, he's written, co-written or edited several books on Lawrence: The T.E. Lawrence Puzzle (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984), T.E. Lawrence (New York: Twayne, 1997) and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004). Most importantly for us, he co-authored (with Christopher Matheson) Images of Lawrence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988), whose overview of Lawrence biographies largely inspired this blog.

Professor Tabachnick graciously agreed to an email Q&A for this blog. I asked him about his books Images of Lawrence and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia, along with his thoughts on Lawrence's reputation and the current state of scholarship. Enjoy!

1. What attracts you to Lawrence as a subject? 

He was a brilliant polymath who did more things well than almost anyone else of his period, and his Middle Eastern experience remains relevant to our own. Most of all, I think that he was a great writer whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom will live forever.

2. Your book Images of Lawrence largely dissects biographies and media portrayals of Lawrence. What do you consider the most common failing of Lawrence biographers? 

The most common failing of Lawrence biographers is to push a single thesis at the expense of the complexity of the subject. Anyone working on Lawrence has got to be open to his many contradictions and to the idea that as complex a person as he was cannot be easily made to fit a mold.

3. Why is Lawrence such a polarizing figure? 

Because Seven Pillars of Wisdom is full of ambiguities, including the Deraa incident, his own assessment of himself in the famous chapter 103, “Myself,” which contains many contradictions, and his divided loyalty between the British and Arab sides in the conflict. Some people (Aldington) take this as the equivalent of lying or disloyalty, while others (Mack and Wilson) are more accepting.

4. What are the most prevalent myths about Lawrence, either among the public or biographers? Why do you think they've taken hold?

Perhaps the most prevalent myth is that he was some kind of liar, and that myth gives biographers something to write about, so they perpetuate it. Another myth is that he was an active homosexual, although there is no evidence for that. He undoubtedly had homosexual tendencies but there is little evidence that he ever acted on them. The public is always fascinated by sexuality of any kind, as we see in the attention given to the affairs of celebrities. And finally there is the myth that he was a straightforward hero, when he was a very divided person and was very critical of the hero designation for himself.

 5. How truthful should we consider Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Mint and Lawrence's other writings? 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Mint reflect the truth of who Lawrence was and what he thought. They are subjective autobiographies rather than objective histories of the events in which he was involved. I believe that he did his best to be truthful but sometimes—as in the case of the Deraa incident—he simply could not bring himself to fully describe and comment about embarrassing episodes. Rather, he chose to be ambiguous, leaving a fertile ground for subsequent critics and biographers to impose their own interpretations. Also, he chose not say much about important British intelligence assets that still might be operative in the Middle East after his departure. But this is not the equivalent of lying, and to characterize it as such is very misleading and sensationalist.

6. What value do the early Lawrence biographies, such as those by Lowell Thomas and Robert Graves, still hold? 

They will always remain valuable because they contain eyewitness testimony concerning Lawrence’s personality, and eyewitness testimony is irreplaceable. Moreover, both Thomas and Graves were very intelligent people and often provide insights into his personality.

7. In Images you gloss over the books written by Lawrence's friends (eg. T.E. Lawrence by His Friends, Clare Sydney Smith, Vyvyan Richards). Do you feel these personal portraits hold any value? 

Yes, these portraits are certainly valuable, especially the essays in T.E. Lawrence by his Friends, which gives a variety of points of view. Any eyewitness testimony is valuable since no more eyewitness testimony will be forthcoming, because just about everyone who knew Lawrence personally has died.

8. Richard Aldington's Biographical Enquiry (1955) is undoubtedly among the most important Lawrence books, since it's the first critical account. But it's also vicious and ultimately as problematic as earlier works. Do you think such an extreme reaction was necessary to balance the debate? 

I think that this kind of extreme reaction is never necessary in the case of any biographical subject, except perhaps the most loathsome, such as a Hitler or Stalin. Biographies should strive for balance in my view. But there’s no doubt that Aldington, by presenting such an extreme picture of Lawrence, helped move the debate forward since many people have responded to him to balance the picture. So, perhaps without meaning to be helpful, Aldington is responsible for a lot of excellent scholarship on and discussion of Lawrence.

9. There's still a lack of Arab sources on Lawrence available in English. Even Suleiman Mousa's T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View is hard to find. What effect do you think this has on Lawrence scholarship? 

It would be nice to have more Arab scholarship about Lawrence because some new evidence or information about him might be unearthed. But it is worth noticing that Mack, for instance, traveled to the Middle East to interview individuals about Lawrence and to see the sites where the events transpired, and that other Western writers have made that pilgrimage for the same reasons. So even without Arab scholarship per se outside of Mousa, it has been possible to bring Arabs and Arab culture into the picture of Lawrence’s career.

10. Do you feel that certain biographers (John Mack, Desmond Stewart, Michael Asher) focus excessively on Lawrence's psychology/personality/sexuality? 

Lawrence’s sexuality seems always to have interested the general reading public. Writing for a popular audience, Stewart and Asher focused on this subject in order to gain readership and sales, and I do believe that they focus excessively on Lawrence’s sexuality. However, John Mack, as a psychiatrist, naturally was interested in this aspect of Lawrence’s life, and I believe that he remains the best source on this subject as on Lawrence’s personality in general.

11. How does a writer decide which sources are valid? Many Lawrence biographers still quote Richard Meinertzhagen and John Bruce, for instance, despite their questionable veracity.

Even when Meinertzhagen or Bruce might not be accurate concerning some things that they say about Lawrence, their testimony is still useful because they knew him. A scrupulous biographer must decide, on the basis of other, external evidence and cross-checking, which parts of their testimony might be useful and which not. Sometimes as in the case of Aldington, even the inaccurate things that someone says can be valuable in producing a counter-reaction that is more accurate.

12. What are your thoughts on Lawrence books published since Images' publication? Eg. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence James, Michael Korda, any others? 

Jeremy Wilson’s biography remains one of the best because it is solidly based on archival evidence. His series of volumes of Lawrence’s writing—which like his biography I have reviewed in the journal English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920 and in the Shaw Annual--is also an enormous gift to present and future scholarship on Lawrence. Philip O’Brien’s bibliography and its supplement are also extremely valuable. James and Korda in my view are popular writers whose research is not particularly outstanding, and who in my opinion do not contribute much that is truly new to the discussion.

13. What is the current state of Lawrence scholarship and debate? 

There have been some good books connecting Lawrence’s experience to ours in Iraq and elsewhere, such as John Hulsman’s To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad (2009). And detailed academic studies of Lawrence, including doctoral dissertations, continue to be produced (most recently, in 2007, one by Vinothini Charles from the University of Madras, India, “The Search for Identity in the Writings of T.E. Lawrence and Sayyid Qutb,” which shows Lawrence’s worldwide fame, and Andrew Williams’ Canadian dissertation on The Mint, which is now a book, The Toxic Morsel). And there have been excellent exhibitions on Lawrence, especially “Lawrence von Arabien: Genese eines Mythos” at the Landesmuseum in Oldenburg, Germany during 2010-11, and the resulting superb catalog.

But on the whole the most recent biographies, which are aimed at a popular audience, have not contributed much. I am always waiting for someone to find some genuinely new manuscript or archival material that will answer some of the questions we still have about Lawrence’s life and career. But like all discoveries, there is no knowing when such a thing might take place.

14. Do you find it more valuable to approach Lawrence's writings from a literary rather than historical perspective? 

As an English professor, I am naturally interested primarily in Lawrence as a writer. I believe that he was a great writer, and that he will increasingly come to be recognized as such. The Longman Anthology of English Literature, a textbook used in the classroom, now includes a passage from Seven Pillars of Wisdom along with selections from other important writers’ works.

But it is impossible to write about him as a writer without considering the historical perspective; and that perspective will continue to be very important in helping us understand the Middle East now and in the future.

15. How did you get the idea to compile your Lawrence encyclopedia? What sort of effort goes into a project like that? 

Biographies and critical books on Lawrence usually push the author’s thesis to the detriment of other viewpoints. I wrote the Lawrence encyclopedia because I felt that there was a gap in the scholarship on Lawrence, in that no one source brought together all of the disparate views about him as well as all aspects of his career, and that an encyclopedia would fill that gap, both for general readers and for scholars.

I have written on article about the problems involved in writing the encyclopedia—“An Attempt to Map the Lawrence Territory: Writing Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia” which appeared in the Journal of the T.E. Lawrence Society, 16.1 (Autumn/Winter 2006-7): 17-27. This article was based on a paper I gave at the excellent international Lawrence conference at Lee University, near Chattanooga, Tennessee in April 2006.

Essentially, writing the encyclopedia was a labor of love and I enjoyed working steadily on it for about five years. To write an encyclopedia like this, you first have to compile a list of important topics and then work through each one until you finally complete the work. I am pleased that many people, including academic researchers, seem to find the encyclopedia helpful, or at least they have told me so.

16. Do you have any current projects, Lawrence-related or otherwise, in the works? 

In the past few years, I have published an essay on Lawrence in the Oldenburg exhibition catalog, and have written several reviews of works about Lawrence. The reviews are to be found in the journal English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920 (which, much to its credit, has always been interested in studies of Lawrence), and in the forthcoming Shaw Annual.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve become interested in the graphic novel, and I gave a paper on Lawrence and the comics at the Huntington Library symposium in 2007. I’d like to turn that into an article one day. Also, I am interested in possibly doing a second edition of the encyclopedia, which would contain revisions of any factual or other errors based on the latest information.

* * *

Many thanks to Professor Tabachnick for his time. Hopefully this can become a regular feature as I come into contact with other Lawrence experts. I will have several new reviews coming up soon, so stay tuned.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (2010, Michael Korda)

Publishing Info:

Korda, Michael. Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 762 pp.


The most comprehensive Lawrence bio in 20 years, Hero attempts to repair Lawrence's reputation. Michael Korda might go a step too far in proclaiming Lawrence as a genius in everything he touched. Still, it's a judicious treatment of a man oft criticized but never fully understood.

The Author:

Michael Korda (born 1933) is the son of Zoltan Korda of the legendary British film family. Moving to New York, Korda spent decades as editor at Simon & Schuster, gaining notoriety for publishing racy novelists Jacqueline Susan and Harold Robbins. He's written numerous books, including biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Queenie (1985), a novel about his aunt Merle Oberon, and With Wings Like Eagles (2009), an account of the Battle of Britain. 

The Review:

Hero is a popular history with all the attendant virtues and foibles. It's extremely readable, Korda handling a dense, detailed narrative with delicacy. On the other hand, Korda's analysis of specialist areas (Middle Eastern politics, psychology) are shaky, with an unhappy reliance on secondary sources. He lards the text with awkward cultural allusions, such as quoting Casablanca when discussing Lawrence's pre-war encounter with an Arab bandit or comparing his subject to Princess Diana (!).

Korda begins in media res with Lawrence's most famous exploit: the 1917 capture of Aqaba. This awkward opening lasts for 100 pages before backtracking to Lawrence's childhood. Lay readers may prove overwhelmed by the barrage of dates, names and places, and Lawrence experts will note Korda's heavy reliance on Seven Pillars and Basil Liddell Hart. Fortunately, Hero recovers from this shaky start.

Unlike most biographers, Korda focuses on Lawrence's relationship with father Thomas Chapman. Noting Chapman's love of technology and intellectual pursuits, Korda also feels he shielded Lawrence from  his mother's more extreme impulses. "Ned not only learned from his father but worked hard to please him" (144), ultimately besting Chapman at his own hobbies. Korda's Sarah Lawrence mixes guilt, piety and protectiveness, but scarcely resembles the monster of Richard Aldington and Michael Asher's accounts.

Hero rejects common portrayals of Lawrence as neurotic. Korda depicts him as exceedingly erudite and likeable, with a "particular genius for friendship" (508) and craving for recognition. Korda views Lawrence as asexual but capable of strong attachments to men (Vyvyan Richards, Dahoum) and women (Janet Laurie, Charlotte Shaw, Clare Sydney Smith). Lawrence's ambivalence towards fame is a quirk rather than psychosis. In this account, Lawrence remains essentially the same man lifelong, despite his war-time trauma and guilt.

By Korda's reckoning, "there was always a germ of truth" to Lawrence's recollection of events (442). Korda discusses Deraa at length, accepting its validity because of the account's vividness, Lawrence's injuries and private correspondence afterwards. He accepts Knightley and Simpson's suggestion that Lawrence confused Hajim Bey with another Turkish officer. More minor anecdotes (Lawrence making Lord Curzon cry at a war cabinet meeting, forcing an obnoxious officer to salute him) are found equally plausible. His collaboration with Lowell Thomas amounts to idle ribbing that spectacularly backfired. Far from a braggart or liar, Lawrence at worst misremembered or playfully embellished events.

Korda grows rhapsodic discussing the Arab Revolt. He consistently plays up Lawrence's role, even his marginal involvement in Russia's capture of Erzurum and the diplomatic mission to Kut. Lawrence's colleagues receive due attention, though Korda uncritically accepts Seven Pillars' account of Feisal and his brothers. He echoes Liddell Hart in claiming Lawrence a self-taught military genius comparable to Napoleon and a pioneer in guerrilla warfare. Korda is extremely adept at battle writing, providing riveting descriptions of Arab victories at Abu el-Lissal and Tafileh. Lawrence's personal bravery is justly never in doubt.

Korda claims "no man ever tried harder to serve two masters than Lawrence" (400), desperately trying to square Arab sympathies with English allegiance. He depicts Lawrence's defense of Feisal at Versailles, criticism of imperial policy and involvement in the Cairo Conference. Korda's grasp of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration are fuzzy, undeniably inflating Lawrence's importance. One is amused by the assertion that the Hashemites brought stability to the Middle East: arguably true of Jordan, not so much with Iraq or the Hejaz. But Korda's account of Lawrence's rapturous reception in post-war Jordan demolishes the revisionist view that he was just another military adviser.

Sections on Lawrence's post-war career dabble heavily in speculation. Not unreasonably, Korda views Lawrence's descent into the Tank Corps and RAF more as an attempt to escape his wartime responsibility than a retreat from fame. He's undeniably right in rejecting Desmond Stewart's claim of Fascist sympathies. But Korda depicts Lawrence as a lifelong masochist, even while casting doubt on John Bruce's stories of flogging. Lawrence's youthful obsession with fitness becomes a prelude to self-torture in this dubious reading.

Balancing the conjecture are astute observations. We see a Lawrence whose work with boats and seaplanes was extremely productive. He also used his connections to affect RAF reform, and Lawrence's sympathy for rankers comes off strongly. Korda amusingly etches Lawrence's equivocation towards the limelight: he attends Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good incognito, only to sign autographs after the show! He shows Clare Sydney Smith as "the only woman who actually flirted with Lawrence, an experience... he seems to have enjoyed" (607). Far from a miserable hermit, Lawrence experiences "the best and most productive years of his life" (509).

Korda finds Seven Pillars overwritten but concedes it features "great pieces of modern writing about war" (310). He does defend its essential truthfulness, despite Lawrence's personalized view and downplaying the roles of men he disliked (Colonel Bremond, Hubert Young). On the other hand, he finds The Mint an implausible depiction of the RAF. Korda saves his greatest praise for Lawrence's translation of The Odyssey, feeling "nobody... understood better than Lawrence the difficulties facing a warrior... returning home, or could write more feelingly about it" (661).

Hero is a very good, old-fashioned biography. Perhaps Korda's idolatry is a bit much, but proves a welcome corrective to lingering skepticism. T.E. Lawrence is finally restored to his place as a genuine hero, warts and all.

PS: Readers stay tuned! I have a very special treat coming soon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Desert and the Stars (1955, Flora Armitage)

Publishing Info:

Armitage, Flora. The Desert and the Stars: A Biography of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Henry Holt, 1955. 318 pp.


Written simultaneous to Richard Aldington's Biographical Inquiry (and tweaked before publication), The Desert and the Stars reads like an extreme reaction to that skeptical tome. An admirable attempt at probing Lawrence's psyche, Armitage falls short of an effective portrait.

The Author:

Flora Armitage (1911-1995) was an English-born writer who spent most of her life in the United States. At the time she wrote The Desert and the Stars, she worked for the British Information Services in New York City. She published three novels and several collections of short stories, as well as essays published in the UK and US. Dartmouth College has a collection of her papers here.

The Review:

The biggest hurdle with The Desert and the Stars is its unfortunate style. Armitage's novelist instincts overwhelm her sober subject matter, and we're treated to laughably overripe palaver on the most banal subjects. For instance, Armitage writes of Lawrence's birthplace (p. 16):
"The house at Tremadoc... stood in the midst of a garden where the August flowers bowed their heads to the wind, and over which islands of Atlantic cumulus moved in shadowing phalanxes. To the south of Tremadoc the waters of a bay shimmered; and to the north the green foothills rose slowly up to the craggy peak of Snowdon."

Later, describing the fort at Azrak (p. 115):
"In winter a desolation more acute overtook it, for it was swept then by northeast winds and buffeted with driving rains. A pestilent dampness inflicted it, and a long and lingering melancholy which hovered like a hidden enemy in the gloomy passageways, waited upon the unwary, to swoop, to seize, to destory. Like a banshee the wind blew notes of doom through the volcanic rock towers which echoed into the shivering quiet below, trembled there, and then departed until the next gust."

This reader finds a little purple prose goes a long way. 300-plus pages of it are insufferable.

Other style points niggle, too. Throughout, Armitage insists on calling her subject "Edward Lawrence." Perhaps this is to distinguish him from his father, except she continues this affectation after the senior Lawrence departs. Awkward literary and Biblical allusions riddle the text to no effect. Ms. Armitage should have spent less time displaying her erudition than exploring her subject.

Armitage addresses many of Aldington's critiques. She concedes several points on Lawrence's honesty, but takes a more benign view. Recounting his claim of having read every book in the Oxford Union (tediously debunked by Aldington), she sniffs that "it is surely pedantic to take [it] seriously" (26). I'm inclined to agree; Lawrence's dishonesty was certainly more playful than pathological. She similarly addresses his claims about Lawrence's childhood; his alleged hatred of women; his heroism, politics and sexuality. It's a convincing rebuttal to Lawrence debunkers, though obviously not conclusive.

In this telling, Lawrence has a happy childhood. Armitage tiptoes over Lawrence's illegitimacy and describes him as a precocious child, mixing his mother's strength of character and morality with his father's love of history and machines. His time at Oxford and Carchemish receives almost idyllic treatment, his relationships with Dahoum and D.G. Hogarth lacking the sexual/political implications of later biographers. It seems fairly bowdlerized, even if one rejects Aldington's portrait of subtle repression. Armitage's repeating of apocryphal canards - for instance, that Lawrence's youthful leg fracture retarded his growth - somewhat weakens her credibility.

Armitage skims over Lawrence's war years, stopping for introspection only at Deraa and Damascus. Aqaba gets a few paragraphs, while the Tafas massacre receives a single sentence. She makes little effort to address the Revolt's effectiveness, though her assessment of Hussein as "a crotchety, devious-minded but sincere Arab patriot" (102) rings true. Less so does her implication that Lawrence was the Revolt's only worthwhile personage. Either Armitage had little interest in the subject or felt it would be familiar from past books.

Armitage excels, however, with Lawrence's post-war career. Aside from "personal portraits" like Claire Sydney Smith's The Golden Reign, most biographers up to 1955 elided his later activities, and Armitage's detailed description deserves commendation. She depicts Lawrence's unhappy stint in the Tank Corps, service in India and famous friends with skill. We encounters a Lawrence struggling with his fame, detesting life in the ranks and finding solace in technical achievements and unorthodox companions. It's only missing the testimony of witnesses like John Bruce, unavoidable in its era.

Armitage echoes Robert Graves in calling Lawrence "an iceberg... display(ing) a myriad of dazzling shapes and contours, though the inner matrix is forever hidden" (307). She views Lawrence's aversion to feminine company as product of his college and war experience rather than misogyny. "His hatred for sex should not be misconstrued... as a hatred of women," she chides (254). Similarly, she rebukes claims of Lawrence as budding Fascist, claiming that he "never had any message for mankind" (266). She ultimately views him as "a spirit so modern in vision and temper that his century has not caught up with him" (307) - a man who mixed the virtues of the scholar and soldier with nagging self-doubt and interior demons.

Despite its merits, The Desert and the Stars proves underwhelming. If one overlooks the acres of aureate verbiage it's readable, but offers few original insights or penetrating analyses.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 (2006, James Barr)

Publishing Info:

Barr, James. Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain's Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008 (paperback). Originally published 2006. 382 pp.


Since 9/11, increased American and British involvement in the Middle East has revived interest in World War I's Middle Eastern theaters. Looking for historical background on the region, causes for Islamic resentment of the West, understanding of Arab cultures, or pointers on combating insurgency, a slew of authors penned dozens of new books on this previously-neglected theater. Lawrence's own writings (especially the 27 Articles) have been standard reading for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

James Barr's lively book is more a general history of the Arab Revolt than a biography. Thus, my review will be unusually succinct. Nonetheless, Lawrence becomes the central figure in Barr's narrative, and Setting the Desert on Fire provides a fine portrayal of his exploits.

The Author:

James Barr is a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, an historian and an expert on the Middle East. He has recently published a follow-up volume, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 (2011). His website can be found here; his Lawrence-related blog here.

The Review:

Preparing for this project, Barr traveled extensively in the Middle East and trawled through British and French archives, taking advantage of new documents. His book contains much original research, but frustratingly little fresh analysis.

Barr scores most in portraying the Revolt's background. He spiritedly depicts the politicking amongst the British and French, each keen on establishing their own spheres of influence; disputes among military and political leaders over the Revolt's necessity; Lawrence's interactions with testy, skeptical superiors. He gives fair coverage to Lawrence's colleagues, both British and French, showing the Arab Revolt to have been a team effort. He also briefly addresses the post-war political fall-out, as broken promises "created a reservoir of deep resentment" in the Islamic world (322). Barr commendably strips this convoluted background down to readable length.

In Barr's account, the Arab Revolt was worthwhile militarily and defensible politically (at least for the Arabs). He gives a complex portrait of Sherif Hussein and his sons, showing them a mixture of self-interest and nationalist fervor. True, the Arabs were ridden by tribal faction and often avaricious. The staunch religiosity of the Sherif alienated nationalist "Town Arabs" in Syria who may otherwise have supported the uprising. Many, like Howeitat warlord Auda abu Tayi, blew hot-and-cold in their allegiance. But overall their military utility outweighed their small numbers and fractious nature, providing crucial support to Allenby's invasion of Syria.

Perhaps inevitably, Lawrence takes center stage. Bare depicts him heroically, as a brave man, skilled diplomat and expert military leader. While Barr notes Lawrence's propensity to stretch the truth (especially his strategic "revelations" at Wadi Ais), he argues that official records often support Lawrence's accounts. Most notably, he lays to rest any lingering doubts about Lawrence's "Northern Ride," showing that "recently unearthed British and French intelligence reports... corroborate the most audacious episode in Lawrence's story" (162). It's a limited portrait, but effective so far as it goes.

Barr's one bombshell regards Deraa. Using an electrostatic detection apparatus (ESDA) on Lawrence's journal, he analyzes pen compressions to argue that  missing pages indicate Lawrence was in Azrak, not Deraa, in late November 1917. "This new evidence makes it seem likely that Lawrence removed the page... because its contents did not correlate" with Seven Pillars' account of torture and rape, says Barr (206). While I lack technical expertise to critique Barr's method, his interpretation (that an impression of an A means Lawrence was at Azrak) isn't enitrely convincing.

Setting the Desert on Fire is hardly the most incisive Lawrence book. For providing a concise, lucid account the Arab Revolt though, James Barr surely deserves high praise.