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  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962):A Dying Empire's Cri de Coeur
  • David Barber


In 1962, two of the nation's motion-picture production giants—20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures—released a major war film. Fox's The Longest Day focused on the US-led invasion of Normandy, late in World War II, and featured John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, and Robert Mitchum. Columbia's Lawrence of Arabia, in contrast, centered on a First World War "side-show of a side-show," the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and featured a then-unknown Irish actor, Peter O'Toole, alongside a then-unknown Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif. Despite The Longest Day's superior star power, immediate patriotic appeal, and closer temporal proximity to the events being celebrated on screen, Columbia's film proved to be the more popular, grossing twice as much as Fox's and topping the year's charts. Lawrence's success, however, was less a product of those who directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the movie and more a product of how deeply the film channeled the political and psychological upheavals of 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in America.

Lawrence follows the historical career of the unconventional British intelligence officer Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), and his relation both to the Arab Revolt and to the British government. At the urging of Britain's Arab Bureau, the British military command assigns Lawrence, a classically trained Oxford archaeologist, to gather intelligence in the camp of the Hashemite Prince Faisal, the Arab leader most successful in attacking Ottoman troops. Lawrence's British military commanders cannot visualize, nor do they want, the "wogs" carrying out their own independent revolt; on the other hand, they would not mind the Arabs as adjuncts to the British military campaign. Counter to his superiors' beliefs and orders, Lawrence successfully unites the fractious Arab tribes and leads them through a succession of victorious military campaigns, ending with the seizure of Damascus as the seat of what Lawrence hopes will be a genuinely independent Arab nation. There, the Arab tribes prove incapable of putting aside their own narrow interests to unite, and the movie ends with the British cynically reaping the fruits of the victory.

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When Lawrence first appeared in American movie theatres, most Americans likely had only the vaguest knowledge of the Turkish-run Ottoman Empire's five-century existence and vast domain—ranging from the shores of the Danube in central Europe through southeastern Europe and the Balkans, across the Anatolian Peninsula to the fabled lands of Mesopotamia and the Levant, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and thence westward across Africa's Mediterranean coast. Nor were most Americans likely aware of the two- or three-century decline and final collapse of that Empire, a collapse completed by the World War I events depicted in Lawrence.1 But, if most Americans were unaware of this history in 1962, those same [End Page 28] Americans could hardly have been unaware of the similar (and far more precipitous) collapse of Empires occurring in their own day: the great European Empires—British, French, Dutch, and Belgian—had fallen, and the United States, at least since WWI but decisively since WWII, had risen. This breakup of Europe's empires then provided the historical context within which the American producer, Sam Speigel, and the British director, David Lean—along and their screenwriters, American Michael Wilson and British Robert Bolt—brought Lawrence of Arabia to the screen. Lawrence would be a cri de coeur from the dying colonial empire—an explanation for its death, a lament over its loss, a justification for its prior existence, and a call for its enlightened continuation.

The Lawrence Legend and World War One

We have American journalist Lowell Thomas to thank for the legend of Lawrence. Thomas, a prototype of today's "infotainer," had been asked by US government officials to cover the war in Europe in order to "encourage the American people's support' for the war."2 Unable to make much inspiring propaganda out of the muck of European trench warfare, Thomas packed himself and a cameraman...


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