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Youth 1888-1914

War service 1914-1918

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Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert?

David Lean's film reviewed by a historian

Talk given by Jeremy Wilson at the Imperial War Museum, London on 11 March 2006


Some persistent themes

From a historian's standpoint, composite characters are acceptable, provided their words and actions are broadly consistent with real people. Brighton, for example, is well-drawn.

The scriptwriter's dramatic themes and 'interpretation' are a different case. They are sometimes far less obvious and therefore - given the persuasiveness of the medium - more troubling.

There is no victory

  • A glorious and untarnished victory held no attraction for a scriptwriter with Robert Bolt's anti-war convictions

  • To avoid that, he made hubris/nemesis a key dramatic theme, using it on every level (e.g. the second part offsets the first)

  • This not only led to invention (e.g. Daud's death to offset the capture of Akaba) but also to serious historical misrepresentation. Both directly and by example, the Arab Revolt had lasting and positive effects, whereas the film represents it as a wholly empty victory

There is no hero because war is morally corrupting

  • The interpretation of the massacre at Tafas is Robert Bolt's. Doubtless it appealed to his personal anti-war agenda

  • He makes Lawrence responsible for the massacre, representing him as a person degraded to animal level by blood-lust

  • To prepare the audience for this, Bolt inserts disquieting dialogue earlier in the film, notably the invented confession by Lawrence that he had enjoyed executing Gasim

British imperialism was evil and manipulating

  • Both Wilson and Bolt held strong political views about British Imperialism. This is reflected in the final script, though Wilson's original treatment, written from an American viewpoint, may have been more extreme than Bolt's

  • The film suggests that Lawrence was an oddball, cynically exploited both by the British and by Feisal. Some post-film writers have echoed this interpretation, though it has little basis in historical records

Ambivalent sexuality

  • The screenplay was written 5-6 years after publication of Richard Aldington's Lawrence of Arabia, which claimed that Lawrence was homosexual

  • Richard Meinertzhagen had meanwhile inserted in his Middle East Diary (1959) a claim that when he first saw Lawrence, he had asked himself: 'Boy or girl?' This diary entry, almost certainly a post-Aldington invention, was widely reported at the time

  • Unsurprisingly, the film-makers were influenced by these claims - most obviously in the portrayal of Lawrence in Cairo in 1916

Deraa is the key

  • In Seven Pillars, Lawrence portrayed the Arab Revolt as a triumph for the Arabs, but a tragedy for himself

  • Lawrence clearly set out two elements that contributed to the personal tragedy: first and most important, the increasing dishonesty of his role vis--vis the Arabs, and secondly his reaction to male rape at Deraa. Bolt chose to use only one of these: Deraa

  • This distortion has influenced many subsequent writers


  • Robert Bolt felt that he was on sure ground in representing Lawrence as a masochist - and decided that this was the case even before the Arab Revolt

  • This interpretation - for which there is no convincing evidence - has subsequently appeared in numerous biographical articles as well as books

Egomania - "Who am I"

  • Given Bolt's pacifist convictions, one could hardly expect him to represent Lawrence as a nice person

  • Part of what A. W. Lawrence called a 'character assassination' was the portrayal of Lawrence's 'egomania'. This reaches its peak of absurdity when he declares the Revolt in Deraa

  • This dramatic theme completely reverses reality - Lawrence's deepening sense of personal responsibility for what he called the 'rankling fraudulence' of his role

Lawrence running out of men

  • A mistaken theme in the drama is that - because Arab tribesmen went home after raids - Lawrence's revolt was conducted with smaller and smaller Arab forces

  • At a very local level, this was occasionally true. In a larger sense, it was not. As the revolt moved northwards it called on tribal forces hitherto unused

  • Moreover, the Arab Regulars were, by 1918, an effective force

It is one thing to argue that historical fact may be sacrificed for the benefit of dramatic art. It is quite another to disregard historical fact altogether.

Lawrence of Arabia contains many errors in chronology and geography, often for no significant reason. The scriptwriters give the impression that they think their art is above such trivia.

Yet artistic freedom, like free speech or freedom of the press, can be abused.

All that said, if David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia had been a less successful film, I would not be giving this talk - and many of you might not be interested in Lawrence. In that sense, the film can be compared with the sensational 1919 lectures given by Lowell Thomas.

I will end where I began. How accurate do you think it is?

Smith in the Desert

I should not have recognised my brother

Like Seven Pillars of Wisdom, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia takes place during WWI, beginning in Cairo and ending in Damascus - passing by way of Akaba, Deraa and Tafas. As in Seven Pillars, the main protagonists are British (Allied), Arabs and Turks.

But there, despite four characters based on real people, the similarities end. If you bought a can labelled 'Baked Beans' and it turned out to contain tomatoes, you would criticise the labelling. Apparently, dramatic licence exempts 'historical' films from the consumer protection laws that apply to most other things sold to the public. Were that not the case, I doubt that this film could be titled Lawrence of Arabia.

The film purports to be about real historical events. It cashed-in handsomely on the popular reputation of a famous man. In my judgment, it is inexcusably and often pointlessly inaccurate. It is really no defence to argue that there are also historical mistakes in Shakespeare.

Jeremy Wilson
March 2006



I was asked recently whether I think Lawrence of Arabia is a good film. Considered only as a film, without reference to history, the answer is surely 'Yes'. That said, I also think that it is beginning to show its age.

The shame is that such magnificent landscapes, acting, direction, photography, editing, music - and all the other technical skills - were let down by a bad script. The drama that Robert Bolt created owed hardly anything to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and a great deal to Bolt's personal prejudices. It was almost entirely fiction - the drama of someone who never existed. There was drama enough in the life of the real T.E. Lawrence without that kind of meddling.

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