The passing of Peter O’Toole this week has brought an abundance of Laurentian iconography to TV screens, web pages and YouTube. For millions, O’Toole was Lawrence of Arabia. Over time, the incarnations of actor, character, and historical figure have coalesced into a single essence.
In what seems to be a strange convergence, Lawrence’s legend has been further enhanced by Scott Anderson’s recent history, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Through the lives of four characters, the book delves into the diplomatic machinations of the Great Powers during and after World War I that shaped the region’s fate. Although all the book’s main subjects are fascinating, Lawrence gets pride of place.
And, in the coming year, we are about to observe the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The expected barrage of books on the causes and consequences of the conflict has already begun, and Lawrence will likely play a notable role in the salvos.
Lawrence was always fortunate in his iconographers: First, the American journalist Lowell Thomas in 1919 just after the Great War ended, and then the English director David Lean in 1962, more than 40 years later. Both undertook ambitious theatrical projects. Thomas, back from a foray to the Middle East where he’d spent two weeks covering Lawrence, played to audiences in New York and later London in an act that was in equal parts historical lecture, exotic travelogue, and brash vaudeville. That he never stuck around long enough to see Lawrence in action did not prevent the imaginative Thomas from describing vivid combat encounters in his 1925 best-seller, With Lawrence in Arabia.
Although Thomas ballyhooed the name “Lawrence of Arabia,” it was David Lean who brought it to a world-wide audience in his epic film. Lean’s movie, may be closer to the truth—always elusive with the enigmatic Lawrence—than some of the enthusiasms in Thomas’s account. Benedict Nightingale, in his New York Times obituary, notes that O’Toole read everything about his subject, imbibed Bedouin culture, learned to ride a camel, and virtually became Lawrence in his preparation for the role. We are struck by how much the warrior was an actor and the actor imbued the warrior. In real life both men shared the gift of audacity; they were subversive, dissident and seductive.
Lawrence was not only a warrior but a writer. His Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of the seminal war memoirs of this or any time. The essayist Hillel Halkin has written of this exceptional chronicle: “If one were to read it as fiction, Seven Pillars of Wisdom would be the greatest war novel in English literature.”
Halkin raises an intriguing question. How would the English novelists who fought in the Great War—or for that matter the writer-combatants of any nationality—compare with the novelistic Lawrence? Virtually all the great novels that emerged from World War I were set on the Western Front. This speaks not only to the writing on the Great War but the fighting as well. And it goes to the heart of Lawrence’s canonization as an icon of that conflict.
Lawrence was a throwback to an earlier age of chivalry, a knight-errant, half Richard the Lionhearted, half Robin Hood.
In the aftermath of the war, Seven Pillars of Wisdom—exotic, romantic, adventurous—served as an antidote to the gloomy literature that had emerged from the maelstrom. One can only think of the baleful if brilliant lyricism of the War Poets and the grim postwar account of Ford Madox Ford, whose Parade’s End is probably the finest English novel about the war, to recall the sense of disjointedness that followed the carnage. Similarly despairing are such postwar novels as Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire and Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear on the French side and Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front from the Germans.
There is no question of Lawrence’s bravery, courage, endurance, daring, and sacrifice. But surely, many of the men who fought on the Western Front manifested equal virtues. Yet can we name any of them? A century later, it is Lawrence’s name that stands out. Why? The millions who fought on the Western Front were caught in the grinding maws of modern warfare. They succumbed in massive waves of death, many dying anonymously, their deeds unheralded, their names appearing on little more than casualty lists. In the midst of all this, Lawrence was a throwback to an earlier age of chivalry, a knight-errant, half Richard the Lionhearted, half Robin Hood, whose exploits could be celebrated by a war-weary England.
Lawrence’s ascendancy could not have been more apposite. He literally rode to the rescue of a despondent British home front that was reeling under the losses at Ypres and the Somme with no end in sight. Whatever the setbacks in France, it was still possible to believe in the virtues of the British Empire and the pluck of the beau ideal engaged in its service. That Lawrence’s mission freed him from the strictures of the Regular Army and allowed him to improvise freelance and strike with considerable autonomy, only enhanced his prestige.
As Lawrence observes about the Bedouin forces he led in a glimpse of postwar film: “We were a self-centered army, without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds.” Lawrence also enjoyed the benefit of being virtually the lone chronicler of his deeds. His comrades were Bedouin. He could embellish or not, but there’d be none to say him nay.
Lawrence’s guerrilla tactics bedeviled the Turks, hampered their communications, and pinned down forces that could otherwise have been thrown against the British. But it was a sideshow. It was General Allenby who captured Jerusalem and drove the Ottomans from the region. Lowell Thomas’s original lecture tour was touted: “With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia.” Yet, over time, the general became overshadowed by the dashing young officer.
Lawrence’s renown may have more to do with the nature of modern warfare than his martial accomplishments. World War I was the first mass industrial conflict, albeit fought by European powers still in thrall to the idea of the colonial campaigns that had brought them hegemony over half the world. The romance of elan energized the volunteers who flocked to the colors in the early years of the struggle. The populations on either side were soon disabused of their enthusiasms and, within a short time, their sons were literally disappearing by the thousands into the mud of Flanders. The struggle had become a war of attrition in which gains were measured in yards only to be lost again in counter-attacks ending in bloody stalemate.
As the flower of England’s youth was fed into the maws of the Western Front, faceless in gas masks, huddled in trenches, crawling through barbed wire against an entrenched enemy, the yearning for a hero was paradoxically greater than ever— a noble paladin who, with a single stroke, could vanquish the enemy. Enter Lawrence.
It should be noted that Lawrence’s mission in the Hijaz began in October 1916, just a few months after the British had taken 60,000 casualties in a single day on the Somme. With his appearance, the British public was given better than a knight in shining armor—one in flowing robes, a valiant champion who would engage the enemy in mortal combat and conquer for England. The war in Arabia afforded Lawrence two advantages unavailable to his peers on the Western Front: distinction and mobility.
Desert warfare was, by definition, mobile warfare, the antithesis of the lethal attrition in the mire of the Western Front. Swathed in his Bedouin attire, Lawrence was the epitome of the gentleman-adventurer who had captured the imagination of the British populace in the previous heady days of empire. Going native in the manner of the intrepid Sir Richard Burton and the dashing figures of the Great Game was something that always fired the souls of the English public, even more so given the gloomy news from France. Lawrence’s good fortune was to be fighting a 19th-century campaign in a 20th-century war. Leading his Arab irregulars in hit-and-run raids against the Ottoman rail lines, he was a glorious throwback, a valorous combination of the elusive Pimpernel and the dauntless Chinese Gordon, outmaneuvering the hapless Turks.
When the fighting ended, and a generation that had been decimated by the conflict began questioning the necessity of the war and its butcher’s bill, the relative success of Lawrence, whose troops rode on to Damascus, was exempt from the aftermath of soul-searching that followed. In fact, as the victors‘ squalid struggle over the spoils at Versailles cast a further pall on the conflict, Lawrence’s vain if valiant efforts to honor the understandings that his Arab comrades believed had been on their behalf, put him in an even more sympathetic light.
As the British Empire receded after World War II, Lawrence’s stature has only grown. He can be adopted by those who long for England’s faded glory as an avatar of the colonial past, and by those who condemn it as a champion of the people who struggled to free themselves from the imperial yoke. The jewel in the Laurentian crown, of course, is David Lean’s screen epic, which has made Lawrence an icon of world cinema and an image of heroism to a global audience who thrill to the image of Peter O’Toole riding out of the desert long after the British Empire has faded from memory.