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.