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What’s Right and Wrong in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

Jan 16, 2015 Movie or TV Tie-In

Editor’s Note: Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, whose work also appears in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper’s, Outside, and many other publications. Over the years he has reported from Beirut, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Israel, Sudan, Sarajevo, El Salvador and many other war-torn countries. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Triage, as well as the nonfiction book The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny and, with his brother Jon Lee Anderson War Zones. His latest book is the bestselling Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s School, Anderson lives in upstate New York with his wife, the filmmaker Nanette Burstein. Here, he examines “Lawrence of Arabia” for what it got right — and what it got wrong.

David Lean’s 1962 epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” is considered a cinematic masterpiece, with critics regularly listing it among the ten greatest movies of all time. Despite this, many Lawrence biographers have criticized it for its artistic license: the creation of composite characters, the scrambling of chronology and geography, the exaggeration of actual events – or the fashioning of wholly fictitious ones – for greater dramatic effect.

Certainly the greatest criticism has centered on the movie’s portrayal of Lawrence himself, a portrait less of the idealistic and principled “war hero” that many biographers have promulgated, than of a complex and flawed antihero driven half-mad by war. As Lawrence’s one surviving brother wrote upon seeing the movie in 1962, “I should not have recognized my own brother.”

But that is exactly the point. Rather than perpetuating Lawrence as a matinee idol, Lean and his screenwriters set out to tell the tale of a man tortured and transformed by his experiences on the battlefield, one so guilt-ridden over his role in the Arab Revolt that he emerged virtually unrecognizable to himself. What’s more, their principal source in telling this story was Lawrence’s own memoir. The end result is a film that trades strict historical accuracy for a deeper emotional truth, in the process becoming less a great “war movie” than perhaps the greatest “anti-war” movie of all time.

Following is a list of some of the details Lean got wrong in “Lawrence of Arabia” – along with some that he got very, very right.

Wrong: The beautiful sand dune imagery. Contrary to popular imagination, most of the deserts of Arabia and Syria consist of dreary and relatively flat gravel plains. Since it was across such plains that the enemy-held railway had been built, it was also on such terrain that Lawrence conducted most of his raids and battles.

Right: Lawrence’s disdain for military protocol, and generally slovenly appearance.Lawrence was constantly upbraided by his military superiors, both for his cheeky manner and carelessness in uniform. Even while extolling Lawrence’s virtues in a posthumous tribute, an admiring former superior in Cairo noted that “many men of sense and ability were repelled by the impudence, freakishness, and frivolity he trailed so provocatively.”

Wrong and Right: Water well scene where Omar Sharif (Ali) kills Lawrence’s guide.This scene is wholly fictitious. However, it does illustrate the fantastically intricate network of rivalries and allegiances that existed between the various tribes in Arabia, and made the task of forming a cohesive rebel army such a daunting one.

Right and Wrong: One of the more remarkable features of “Lawrence of Arabia” is the uncanny resemblance many of the actors bore to their real-life counterparts – and with none was this more true than Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence. Not only did O’Toole perfectly replicate Lawrence’s piercing, blue-eyed gaze – a detail noted by most everyone who encountered the real Lawrence – but also his awkward, slightly effeminate gait and manner. There was a limit to the similarities, however; at 6-foot-3, O’Toole stands nearly a full foot taller than the diminutive real Lawrence.

Wrong: After rescuing a man lost in the desert, Lawrence is given a hero’s return by his Arab companions, marking the beginning of his acceptance as a “son of the desert.” In reality, Lawrence was rebuked and ridiculed by his Arab companions for having risked his own life to save one so worthless.

Wrong: The cavalry charge and battle against the Turks at Aqaba. The crucial battle for control of Aqaba really occurred several days earlier and some forty miles away. Their fate thus sealed, the Turkish garrison trapped in Aqaba surrendered after barely firing a shot.

Right: Lawrence’s first meeting with General Allenby. While many assume the oddness of this encounter must be a Hollywood invention – a disheveled Lawrence clad in soiled Arab robes brought before the general in his dress uniform – it actually took place much as depicted. Lawrence had just returned to Cairo from capturing Aqaba, and Allenby was anxious to hear his news; with Lawrence’s uniform having been destroyed by moths in his absence, there was no time to find a replacement.

Wrong: Daud’s quicksand death scene. This is perhaps the one truly laughable scene in the entire movie. Not only does quicksand require the presence of standing water – highly unlikely on the slope of a sand dune, as the film depicts – but science has largely debunked the idea of someone being “swallowed” by it. In reality, “Daud” (his real name was Ali) died while guarding a remote desert outpost, apparently from exposure, with Lawrence only learning of his death several months later.

Right: Lawrence orders that “no prisoners” be taken when leading a charge against retreating Turkish troops at Tafas. Many of Lawrence’s British military colleagues, as well as some of his biographers, stoutly denied that any such order was given – never mind that Lawrence explicitly admitted as much in both his memoir and official battlefield report. Worse was his response upon discovering that one rebel group, having missed the “no quarter” edict, had taken some 250 German and Turkish soldiers prisoner. As Lawrence recounted in his official report, “we turned our Hotchkiss [machine gun] on the prisoners and made an end of them.”

Wrong: Lawrence only learns of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British-French accord that betrayed the promise of Arab independence, in the waning days of the war, prompting a final crisis of conscience when Lawrence returns to the battlefield. In fact, Lawrence knew of Sykes-Picot even before the Arab Revolt had begun, a knowledge that, as he wrote, cast a “fraudulence” over all his subsequent dealings with the Arab rebels and lay at the core of his ever-deepening sense of guilt.

Right: Lawrence goes berserk on the Tafas battlefield, randomly shooting any Turk who crosses his path. Defending Lawrence biographers have frequently pointed to this insanity-tinged scene at the film’s close as a kind of baroque Hollywood invention. That contention is rather undercut by Lawrence’s own account, however: “We killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake the agony in our brains.”

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