'Lawrence Of Arabia'

Classic film has new look after Sept. 11

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 4, 2002

4 Min Read

The image of U.S. Special Forces on horseback riding across the Afghan desert reminded me of one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, Lawrence of Arabia. I saw it with my father when it was originally released in 1962. It has been generally acknowledged as a great achievement in filmmaking--it won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and is No. 5 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best Films of All Time.

The real Lawrence of Arabia: career soldier Thomas Edward Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia is the story of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a historian, archeologist, and career soldier who served in the British Foreign Service in World War I, assigned to the Arab division, first in Cairo and then in the desert aiding the Arab revolt against the Turks. The Arabia referred to in the title encompassed the geographic area adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea--Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and what was later called Saudi Arabia. At the outbreak of WWI, that part of the world was controlled by the last vestiges of the Turkish Ottoman empire. The Turks allied with Germany in WWI, and the British and French established a front in Arabia, with an eye toward empire building when the war ended. Arab tribes from several parts of this area took the opportunity of the war to try to throw off Turkish control, and the British and French were only too happy to help.

T.E. Lawrence was a larger-than-life character. He studied the geography, culture, and languages of the area. He also was a mapmaker, and he published an impressive history of the Arab revolt after the war called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence also was an intelligence officer and a spy. After the war he became a cult hero in England, helped by fawning journalists, but he mostly avoided the limelight and eventually enrolled in the Royal Air Force under another name. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

There are two important points to keep in mind when viewing the film in light of recent developments.

Peter O'Toole became an international star as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 film.

First, the Arab revolt during WWI was led by the family of Sherif Hussein, which belonged to the Sunni sect of Islam (the Hussein family was from the Beni Hashem tribe, which claimed to be directly descended from Mohammed). This struggle was not a Jihad (holy war) against infidels, which is why the British were allowed to participate. A later Arab revolt in the 1930s was led by the family of Ibn Saud, and was helped by tribes belonging to the radical Wahhabi sect of Muslims, which is the sect Osama Bin-Laden and his followers belong to. That revolt was a Jihad that established control of the Arab peninsula under the Saudi family and established Wahhabi Islam in that area.

Second, at the time the movie takes place, oil hadn't yet transformed the geopolitics of the area. It was being produced in Persia (Iran) and dug for in Mesopotamia (Iraq), but the major finds in Saudia Arabia came in the 1930s. When WWI ended, the British and French divided the area into "protectorates" under their control, and their influence wasn't completely thrown off until the '60s.

Lawrence of Arabia has been criticized as historically inaccurate at best, and bigoted and racist at worst. Both criticisms are unfair. Everyone knows historical accuracy and the narrative form of film don't mix well, but the moviemakers this time tried hard to incorporate historical developments and characters while still providing an exciting adventure story. What's striking about the characterization of the Arab people is that these developments took place less than 90 years ago, yet the nomadic, tribal lifestyle depicted seems appropriate to some ancient time. In the movie, Hussein's son Feisal is speaking with Lawrence about how the Arab people had paved, lighted cities at a time when London was a village. "Yes, you were great," says Lawrence. "Nine centuries ago," says Feisal.

The discovery of oil catapulted the Arab world into the 20th century. But the tribal dynamics illustrated in Lawrence still influence developments in that region, and by extension the rest of the world.

The only way to view the epic scope of Lawrence at home is in wide-screen format; DVD is the best medium. A two-disc set includes enlightening documentary features.

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