By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
An Astounding Man in an Astounding Century
Most people know about T.E. Lawrence because of David Lean’s masterful movie, Lawrence of Arabia. What many may not know is that Lean could have made three movies about Lawrence and had plenty of material left over.
Briefly put: Lawrence was the illegitimate son of a British aristocrat. Enlisting in the British Army, he became the leader of the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the First World War. Afterward, seeking anonymity, he re-enlisted in the army as a lowly private and later was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Along the way, Lawrence’s daring exploits in the desert brought him the respect and adulation of the British and the deep gratitude of the Arab world. In time, the famous journalist Lowell Thomas would make him known to millions of people in every corner of the globe.
Lawrence had everything a handsome, charismatic military man should have—except height. He was only five foot four (something Lean would fix by casting the six-foot, two-inch Peter O’Toole in the movie). Lawrence was, however, far more than a brilliant tactician and fearless leader. He was also a great writer. His Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the Arab Revolt, is regarded one of the best books ever written on the merciless art of war. Less known is the fact that he was a visionary diplomat, and was partially responsible for redrawing the map of the Middle East (including Iraq) after the First World War.
Beyond that, he was a highly skilled archeologist, photographer and mapmaker—as well as a talented novelist and fine translator, whose version of Homer’s Odyssey is very highly regarded. He was also an innovative engineer, his design of small boats laying the groundwork for the famous PT boats in World War II.
Now comes the more mysterious part. In David Lean’s movie, the curve of Lawrence’s career steadily climbs until Lawrence is captured (incognito) by the Turks and held for a brief time; thereafter, the curve heads precipitously downward. By dramaturgical definition, whatever lies at that pivot point is the key to the drama.
When the film first came out in 1962, that point was glossed over, somewhat hamstringing an otherwise monumental motion picture. Only 17 years later, when the movie was re-released, did previously deleted footage appear which went far to explain the inexplicable downward spiral.
Lawrence had been tortured and sodomized by the Turks—and to his great disgust and horror realized that he had enjoyed the experience. Before that (and not unlike many other famous men), he had believed most of his fawning publicity and must have felt himself a jaguar among jackals–though by this time, he also felt that he had compromised the Arab cause by hewing too closely to the British colonist mind-set. Those twin realizations shattered his heroic self-image.
Thereafter, Lawrence became masochistic and self-destructive. When his memoir became a best-seller, he paid a soldier to whip him in atonement. Even his fatal “accident” might not have been an accident at all. He was known for racing his motorcycle at breakneck speeds that might have been survivable on a race track but were no match for a winding country road. Trying to avoid running into a flock of sheep, he did indeed break his neck.
More than 100 books have been written about Lawrence, including three published before his death—with many biographers grappling with an intriguing question: what is the ultimate price of heroism to the hero?