How Peter O’Toole Saved the Arabs (According to David Lean)

(By Juan Cole)

The late Peter O’Toole played T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s 1963 “Lawrence of Arabia” with genius and abandon. All of us in my generation who went into Middle East studies were influenced by that film one way or another.

Only later did it gradually become apparent to many of us how flawed the film was as history and as culture. Steve Caton has a great book about the making of the film, situating it in the new international cinema of the 1960s. Producers began realizing that films with international themes could do good box office overseas, adding to the profit margin. (This consideration has only grown over time, so that films are now crafted that will do well in the Japanese and Chinese markets). Also, with the rise of air travel tourism, film-makers could no longer pass off Burbank sets as a foreign setting. It became important to shoot abroad. Interestingly, Hollywood’s tradition of showing yellow big-dune deserts made Lean despair of the Jordanian desert being accepted by audiences. (In fact, no one lives in yellow deserts, whereas areas like the eastern desert in Jordan have enough brush and other flora to support pastoral nomads; Lean thought it was brown and not cinematic enough. It is a good metaphor for how Hollywood sometimes prized the ersatz but gaudy over the gritty but authentic).

Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons Faisal and Abdullah led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The empire had become more centralized under the Young Turks from 1908 and had extended a railroad to Mecca in Arabia, so that Ottoman officials and officers were interfering more in local affairs. As the “sharif” of Mecca, a kind of mayor claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein and his local dynasty had earlier been fairly autonomous from Istanbul. Hussein not only chafed under Ottoman rule, but dreamed of an Arab kingdom encompassing what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The British, like some airlines, were experts in double booking. When Hussein reached out to them, they were happy to promise him his Arab kingdom (excepting the Christians of Lebanon to the west of Aleppo and Damascus). At the same time, they promised Russia Jerusalem and promised the French Greater Syria, and promised the international Zionist movement a ‘homeland’ in Palestine (as long as it did not inconvenience the nearly one million Palestinians).

T.E. Lawrence was only one of several British intelligence officers detailed to Hussein’s forces, which were led by Faisal and Abdullah. Obviously, it was Arabs who waged the Arab revolt, and Lawrence was a small part of it.
T.E. Lawrence was only one of several British intelligence officers detailed to Hussein’s forces, which were led by Faisal and Abdullah. Obviously, it was Arabs who waged the Arab revolt, and Lawrence was a small part of it. Faisal was an educated gentleman, having grown up and been schooled in cosmopolitan Istanbul, but the film makes him a primitive tribesman. In fact, he was elected and served in parliament as the representative for Jiddah in the brief period 1909-1912 when the empire had a democratic phase.

In his later grandiose memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Laurence actually talked about setting the revolt in motion as you might start a desert avalanche. And, of course, Lawrence knew that the British were simply using the Meccan forces and their allies to harass the Ottomans in what is now Jordan and Israel/ Palestine, then Syria. He knew that Syria had been given away to the French. The entire enterprise was one of incredible duplicity and bad faith, though to be fair, the promises made to various parties were made by different parts of the British imperial government.

O’Toole understood Lawrence’s delusions of grandeur, playing him as a preening peacock. He understood that Lawrence had been Irish and gay in Oxbridge, no easy burdens to bear, not to mention having been illegitimate in an Evangelical household. He understood that Lawrence seemed to think he could “pass” as Arab, the only way to understand his odd, implausible anecdote about being briefly captured and raped by an Ottoman officer before being released. The idea of T.E. Lawrence being taken by anyone for an Arab beggars all belief. Robert Bolt, brought in to fix the screenplay, saw Lawrence in the Syria campaign as a sadist, who rather liked hurting the Ottomans in revenge for the rape, and O’Toole captured the manic cruelty of that phase.

The film mocked the Arabs for not being a nation even as it hid the perfidy of the British and French and Zionists in conspiring to keep them from becoming one.

Lawrence was depicted as a foreign savior of an adopted people when in fact he was a British spy who, while he did not agree with the Sykes-Picot agreement giving away Syria to the French, hardly resigned in disgust at the prospect.

In real life, Faisal (played by Alec Guiness, who used the same vocal techniques later on for Obi Wan Kenobe) was the hero of the story. He relentlessly pushed the Ottomans, led by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, out of Syria and claimed it for his own kingdom 1918-1920. The French, after a couple of years, invaded and claimed their prize, leaving Faisal a king without a country. The British, at last a little guilty, set him up instead as the king of Iraq. His dynasty, tainted by its foreign alliance, was overthrown bloodily by angry leftist crowds in 1958. The British, having destabilized Palestine and Syria, went on to leave Iraq with an untenable imperial legacy of Sunni rule over Shiites and Kurds, setting the stage for the current civil war.

O’Toole’s searing performance cannot be faulted, however flawed the politics of the film, and however insidious its Orientalism. He was one of the greats.

Euronews briefly reviews O’Toole’s career:

41 Responses

  1. The film is good but very unfair. T.E. Lawrence was never as flamboyant, egotistic and self-aggrandising as the script claims. Nobody knows what his true sexuality was. It is very much open to doubt that he could have stopped the massacre of Ottomans at Tafas, and he certainly did not enjoy it as the film depicts. You say it shows him as a saviour of foreign people, and that is true, but it was largely journalists who concocted that image. It certainly does not emerge from his memoirs. After the Balfour agreement he retreated entirely from public life.

    You can accuse Lawrence of being a naive arabist, one who implicitly accepted at least some aspects of imperialism. But even if he had never been sent to that campaign, even if Faisal never fought against the Ottomans, the outcome would have been the same.

    • We’ll never know what would have happened, but as long as we’re in the what-if mode and the Balfour Declaration has been invoked, I suggest we posit that if the colonial period had ground to a halt well before WWI instead of well after WWII, there would have been no Balfour Declaration, certainly not one naming Palestine, which by that time would have had an indigenous government.

      I see Balfour as a tragic mistake in the real world made on the altar of little more than a utopian political theory. We watched those constructs, all of which were designed to give privileged insight into the future, crash and burn over and over again in the 20th Century.

  2. Bending history in the service of artistic license is an old Hollywood tradition. That aside, “Lawrence of Arabia” was a great film, perhaps the finest film ever made. I had read Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” before the film came out, and both heavily influenced my budding interest in the Near East.

    Many Lawrence scholars’ works (John Mack’s “A Prince of Our Disorder” being one of the best) suggest that the rape by the Turkish official in Deraa did not occur. There are too many inconsistencies in Lawrence’s account of the event. But if that is true, it is puzzling why he recounts the event in “Seven Pillars.” In any case, Lawrence did not try to pass as an Arab so much; rather, when necessary, he often passed himself off as a Circassion.

    Peter O’Toole clearly was the star in the movie, and deservedly so. The film launched Omar Sharif’s movie career as well. (Prior to “Lawrence” Sharif had been best known as a world class bridge player.) Nevertheless, my personal favorite in the film was Anthony Quinn in the role of Auda Abu Tayi.

    • Auda Abu Tayi was my favorite figure too when I first read Seven Pillars as a teen ager. To my taste then Faisal seemed a bit aristocratic and remote.

      Whatever their faults, both the book, a classic in the great 19th Century English travel/adventure/exploration tradition, and the wonderful film, served what seemed to me to be Lawrence’s purpose, to depict the dignity and basic gravitas of the Arab people.

      I’m a layman. Can anyone help me remember the great English traveler who did indeed pass for Arab wandering about alone in Arabian Peninsula in the 19th Century. He even visited Mecca, essentially in disguise. It was a display of raw courage in the service of intellectual curiosity which I think equalled that of Lawrence.

      Many thanks to Professor Cole for this article.

      • I think you are referring to Sir Richard F. Burton. Burton was a Victorian polymath. He spoke 29 languages (including some dialects) and did indeed enter Mecca disguised as an Afghan.

        Burton is perhaps best known for his exploration of the Lake Region of Africa with John Hanning Speke during the period 1857-1859. They discovered Lake Tanganyika, but failed to discover the true source of the Nile, at the northern end of Lake Victoria.

      • Burton, like Lawrence, is a fascinating character. Another ‘desert-loving Englishman’ Wilfred Thesiger wrote the excellent Arabian Sands.

  3. Sarah Woodhead

    …I was trying to link directly to the book, but the bio of Suleiman Mousa is also worth a look. The book is: T.E. Lawrence, an Arab View.

  4. While I wish I had my copy of Seven Pillars on hand to be sure, I think that some of these criticisms of Lawrence seem to have been anticipated by the man himself and challenged by some biographers. Lawrence, if I remember correctly, tried to pass himself off not as an Arab but as a Circassian, (a Caucasus ethnic group) when captured.

    And the Deraa episode, while bizarre, isn’t necessarily implausible. The sadistic treatment at Deraa and the subsequent extreme masochism don’t seem out of character (the masochism was already there to an extent, in Lawrence’s school days, when he taught himself to live on bread and water for long periods, in emulation of some monastic ideal).

    Lastly, the Sykes-Picot treaty was known to the Arabs at least to some degree when Lawrence started working with them. Presumably, the Arabs expected that working with the Allies was worthwhile anyway; the Sharif clan obtained guns, money, loot, future political favours and vital food supplies for the Hejaz, after all. Lawrence I think at one point rationalises his role by arguing that he was helping to unite the tribes and build a viable Arab army – the essentials for an Arab state. Its a fairly egocentric view, to be sure, but again, one that has at least some basis in the facts. Faisal included Lawrence in the delegation that (unsuccessfully) lobbied for an Arab Syrian state in Paris soon after – this suggests that Lawrence’s loyalties can’t be dismissed as easily as the third last paragraph implies.

  5. “Faisal was an educated gentleman, having grown up and been schooled in cosmopolitan Istanbul, but the film makes him a primitive tribesman.”

    link to

    No, no. All of us who love the film especially when living in the Middle East, trying to understand “how they tick”, find this scene so fascinating. “No Arab loves the desert. We Arabs love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. “I long for the vanished gardens of Cordoba.” A very cultivated man.

    Islam is not even mentioned in the film. Also amazing.

  6. Bert Schlauch

    I learned in college that TE Lawrence was unknown in England after World War I and only became a part of history after Lowell Thomas showed movies he made of TE Lawrence and his desert exploits.

    • Arthur Kennedy did his usual top-notch supporting actor’s job playing the fictionalized version of Thomas.
      Thomas got the biggest journalistic scoop of that era, one that made his career.
      Lawrence got a lot of notoriety which he spent the rest of his life trying to live down.

    • Lawrence was one of those people who was lost for excitement after WWI ended so in the 1920s he joined the RAF under a pseudonym. However, every time he was introduced or introduced himself with his pseudonym, he would add, “But, really, I’m T.E. Lawrence.” I heard this from my father who was an RAF pilot in WW2 and got the story second hand from other “old hands.”

      • There is a book called letters of T E Lewrence which were compiled after his death in England. The letters were written by TE Lewrence to friends and acquaintences while working as a aircraft mechanic in the ranks under a pseudonym at the RAF Air Base close to Karachi for that time period in the thirties.
        However the book is suggestive of the fact that he did hold back his true identity and earlier prominence.

  7. “O’Toole understood Lawrence’s delusions of grandeur, playing him as a preening peacock. He understood that Lawrence had been Irish” Juan

    Er, no. Lawrence was born in Wales at Tremadog. His father was Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, 7th Baronet – a memner of tyhe Anglo-Irish aristocracy that held themselves apart from the real Catholic-Gaelic Irish people of the land. Whether Lawrence regarded himself as Welsh rather than English is not clear. But Irish he was not.

    Peter O’Toole may have been Irish. He certaily had an Irish name, was of Irish descent, may have been born in Connemara or Leeds Yorkshire, was educarted at a Catholic school in England, and did like to proclaim his Irish roots. But he was English in accent and upbringing. He cannot have had some empathy with Lawrtence as an Irishman, as Lawrence was not Irish and O’Toole was sort of Irish.

  8. I think you are mixing up Alec Guinness’s Faisal with Anthony Quinn’s Auda Abu Tayi. Faisal is clearly a sophisticated political operator, whether calling Lawrence aside for a private chat in his tent, advancing in the Arab cause in an interview with Arthur Kennedy (the movie’s version of Lowell Thomas), or haggling with Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and Dryden (Claude Rains). But the picture does not patronize Auda either, who gives a wonderful English version of what I take to be Arab oratory (“I am a river to my people”) that thrills both his own people and Lawrence, and all of us wonderful people sitting out there in the dark.

    Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) gets an extremely unusual treatment. When we first meet him, he kills a character the audience already likes, Lawrence’s Bedouin guide (“Today will be difficult, but tomorrow: good riding.”) for what seem to be arbitrary reasons to the audience. In a conventional movie, this would mark him as a villain and Lawrence’s enemy. But he’s one of the heroes and increasingly a voice of restraint and humane behavior as the story progresses. I think the point here is that Arab customs and priorities must to be seen on their own terms (which Ali explains briefly, noting that his victim knew he was doing wrong) and have their own validity, however much they seem to differ from English norms.

    • Gamil Ratib, an Egyptian actor, played Majid.

      link to

      There were also 2 actors fr/ the Indian subcontinent portraying Arabs! Also check out the story of Michael Ray, who played the bastard, Farraj.

  9. Don’t forget about Gertrude Bell. Who’s that? you say. She’s an Englishwoman who spent much of the decade prior to the onset of WWI mounted on a horse or camel traveling the deserts of Syria and Arabia before heading to Mesopotamia. She kept extensive records of the numerous tribes and sheikhs that she encountered, thoroughly absorbed the local cultural nuances of effective communication, made maps, took photos etc. Her connections back home were sufficient to position her as a high level adjunct in intelligence for the British military/political enterprise in Middle East during the war. She never engaged in battle as Lawrence did but her contribution to the unfolding of events in this arena was of major significance. I hope Professor Cole might have more to say about this.

    • There is a famous photograph taken at the Pyramids of Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, and others on camels. they were all attending the 1921 Cairo Conference.

  10. Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence in Arabia” is a gripping account of all this. I found the film unwatchable after reading it.

  11. … Winston Churchill knew TEL’s literary genius very well and set “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” next to Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” as a towering work of English literature. Cole should read the 1911 Oxford proof of his much larger and more honest history that was cut down by George Bernard Shaw and TEL to create the subscriber’s edition of SPoW.

  12. So much detailed and slightly competitive erudition. Kind of diverts from and obscures the bigger picture, the larger human-nature thingie of imperial overlords conquering and manipulating and stirring the pot to keep certain other things from happening. Much of that accomplished by sneaky-petes, including Lawrence and how many of “our” CIA dudes and dude-ettes, who figure out how to catalyze big events with little frauds and gifts and personality games.

    “The British, having destabilized Palestine and Syria, went on to leave Iraq with an untenable imperial legacy of Sunni rule over Shiites and Kurds, setting the stage for the current civil war.” And now “our” jackals and the tendrils of the Global Interoperabbable Dysnetwork-Centric We Run Everything Battlespace Management Consortium continue that tradition, having been at it pretty consistently and on increasingly grandiose scale since what, the 1920s? 1880s?

  13. “So much detailed and slightly competitive erudition. Kind of diverts from and obscures the bigger picture, the larger human-nature thingie of imperial overlords conquering and manipulating and stirring the pot to keep certain other things from happening.”

    No, Mr. McPhee, the erudition you perceive in some of the comments above is neither competitive nor does it “divert from and obscure the bigger picture.” It demonstrates that some of us have wider-ranging interests than just sounding the one-note call to alarm and painting the same monochromatic picture you constantly and repeatedly sound and paint.

    It is evident that nothing anyone does or says sets well with you, and instead of trying to do something about it or improving the situation as you see it, all you seem capable of doing is repeating the same rant over and over again. Ranting will not make the world a better place. Have you ever given thought to quietly attempting some good (even as you define it) in the world?

    • Just how do you know McPhee does or doesn’t do things to make the world better. A lot of his ‘rants’ come from direct experience in Vietnam. What good do you do, Bill?

      • Bill and Joe, from their separate anonymous perches, seem to be, along with a bunch of others in PolicySpace, standing bravely as rear guards fighting a sophisticated, sophistry-weighted holding action to allow the people, the relatively few, who “own” everything and structure the continued play of the Great Game and the “growth” of consumption, to escape consequence-free from any effective action to force or arrange any change in the gross and particular behaviors that have Dr. Cole putting up posts about planetary ecological collapse and the horrors of maybe-post-colonial conditions across so much of the planet.

        “For they are honorable men…”

  14. The rail line you mention (the Hejaz Railroad) extended only to Medina; it did not go all the way to Mecca.

    This is attested to by numerous books, maps, etc. of the World War I period, after which most of the line was abandoned.

    Wikipedia has an article on this railroad that does a decent job of covering the basics about it:
    link to

    Rest of the article was great!

  15. Juan, you nailed the strength and nuance of one of the great performances in the post-war era. Have u thought about going into film criticism as a hobby?

  16. BTW, I always thought the Turks knew who they supposedly captured and raped was Lawrence, and that’s why they did it.

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