Lawrence, T. E. "Chapter XII: Palm-Gardens." Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph. New York: Penguin Books, 1962. 90-92.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, as the personal account of Thomas Edward Lawrence and his involvement in the Arab Revolt, acts as an invaluable resource for any paper written on the David Lean film, as it was originally intended as an adaptation of this written work. Reading Lawrence’s own version of this portion of his life provides a good source for evaluation of accuracy in plotline, detail, and even psychological portrayal of the characters.
The twelfth chapter in particular serves as a vital frame of reference when comparing the film adaptation with the original piece from which it sprung. In these few pages of text is contained the pivotal first meeting between T. E. Lawrence and Prince Fiesal, the Arabian leader in whom the idealistic Englishman immediately recognizes the heroic, traditional qualities for which he had been searching for so long. The tension of this moment as it is described by Lawrence himself, who confronts the imposing leader before a group of fellow tribesmen, is well-reflected by the corresponding scene in the film. Furthermore, the physical description of Fiesal is eerily close to the appearance of Sir Alec Guinness as he portrays this character in Lawrence of Arabia.This chapter also provides additional details as to setting, architecture, and the structures and hierarchies of Arabian society. It serves to firmly ground T. E. Lawrence’s story within the much vaster historical movement of which he was a part. Particularly when dealing with a film that falls into the genre of epic and spectacle, it is extremely important to have a grasp of the actual persons and events so as not to be deluded by the inevitable artistic license the directors and editors will utilize.
This is not the only point in which Wilson makes reference to the film he is writing. While Wilson’s notes are often simple descriptions of the themes in Lawrence’s life, at some times Wilson tries to figure out how best to make these themes work in a film. In the final ‘section’ of the article, Wilson comments in depth on the character S.A., who was very important to Lawrence, both as a friend and confidant, but whose identity remains a mystery. Wilson wrestles with this character’s imagined personality and how he should fit S.A. into the script, eventually decided that, “if it can be said that S.A. stands at Lawrence’s left hand, then our story requires a British character who stands at his right.” In this imaginary British character, we get an amazing look at the way in which Hollywood rewrites history in order to sell a film. Wilson notes, “Our British officer will inevitably be a composite character, with perhaps certain attributes not found in any of the actual men (Young, Newcombe, Joyce, etc.).” This character that Wilson wants to create is not a historical figure and is written in to serve as a foil for Lawrence. Wilson doesn’t describe why exactly he needs a British man to sit at Lawrence’s side, since he already has (an Arab) one in S.A., but perhaps Wilson has an assumption concerning the audience’s reaction to having an Arab as Lawrence’s sole confidant. Wilson further imagines the character to be “a man who (like our audience, we hope) would be baffled and intrigued by his mercurial companion-in-arms and through him we would try to fathom the enigma.” Wilson creates this imaginary, composite character is order to give the audience someone to relate to, subtly insinuating that the audience will not be able to relate to the Arab S.A. He may be correct in his assumption (we are dealing with early 1960’s America after all), but the film itself has no such character, so we will never know how audiences would have reacted.
Hodson dedicates much of the chapter on the film adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s life, Chapter 7, to describing the effect of the blacklist on the film. Sam Spiegel, the producer, originally chose Michael Wilson, a blacklisted writer, to write a film adaptation of the life of T.E. Lawrence. Spiegel had won an Oscar for On the Waterfront, a pro-blacklist film, while Wilson, although living in exile in France, had managed to keep writing films, even though he was blacklisted. In hindsight, it is ludicrously ironic that Spiegel, who made a film shunning ‘unfriendly witnesses,’ like Michael Wilson, would hire him and actively try to convince Hollywood executives to let Wilson write the script. Wilson wrote a few versions of the screenplay, but director David Lean, a Brit, believed Wilson’s script to be “”too American,” and failed to capture the complex character of Lawrence.” Lean found another writer, Robert Bolt, to write the screenplay, which eventually became Lawrence of Arabia. As it turns out, Bolt borrowed a lot from Wilson’s screenplay is crafting his screenplay, even though he denied it. Despite the fact that Bolt’s screenplay was basically co-written by Wilson, “his name was not listed in the screen credits for Lawrence of Arabia, presumably because he refused to sign a statement recanting his radical past.” The blacklist has an interesting relationship to the film, but Lawrence’s own history proved to be the most dubious element in the film’s production.
Hodson recounts the battle between Spiegel and Lawrence’s brother, A.W. Lawrence, over the film’s representation of T.E. Lawrence, which adds a new dimension to the film’s rewriting of history. Even though the film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s own autobiography, his brother still wanted to rewrite history and make Lawrence even more of a hero. Another problem with the film’s historical value comes from the information that was available. As Hodson describes, “England had not yet lifted an embargo on various government records pertaining to [T.E. Lawrence].” Lawrence’s story was altered, not only, by Hollywood, but by his own brother and the British government, so there was really no way that the film was going to have much historical accuracy.
Hodson further chronicles the film’s “license with history,” as well as its reception, but my favorite part of Hodson’s book is his description of the film’s manifestations in pop culture. The parallels this book shows, between 1960s America and today’s America, are uncanny, especially when it comes to the film’s marketing. As Hodson explains, “Fashion was another angle Columbia Pictures and American retailers worked in promoting “Lawrence mania” in the United States.” Product tie-ins are something I think of in relation to today’s idea of corporate synergy, but apparently the idea was alive in the 1960’s as well.
Lawrence’s life, as Crowdus explains, is still the subject of debate, so much of the ‘history,’ that the film is based on, may in fact be falsehood. Crowdus’s explanation for this is that, “Lawrence […] provided conflicting, ambiguous, or half-truthful accounts of the same incidents to biographers and friends.” As a result of this, Robert Bolt, who wrote the second (and final) screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, “base[d] his screenplay solely on Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence’s autobiography, “despite being convinced that the book contained considerable exaggeration and not a few outright lies.” This revelation serves to remove much of the blame for the film’s rewriting of history on Bolt, because Lawrence himself rewrote it.
The Hollywood system takes its toll on historical fact, because, “Many […] incidents have […] been dramatically simplified to comply with the genre requirements of big screen spectacle.” Although it was T.E. Lawrence who began the rewriting of his own history, the restrictions imposed by Hollywood further erode the validity of much of the story. Crowdus also singles out the casting as another reason for the film’s historical ‘falseness,’ explaining that the casting of (the tall and handsome) Peter O’Toole “immediately eliminates a key motive for the overcompensatory physical efforts of a pocket Hercules like the real life Lawrence.” There are other problems that Crowdus has with the film’s representation of history, but he does have some good words for the film.
The film gets some things right in its depiction of Lawrence, such as Lawrence’s “sado-masochistic [sic] tendencies,” which Lawrence discusses in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. O’Toole’s performance, especially in the torture scene, captures this side of Lawrence. The inclusion of this darker side of Lawrence is noteworthy, because it shows that although Sam Spiegel, the film’s producer, was intent on making a Hollywood ‘blockbuster,’ the film did have uncomfortable elements that certainly would not have appealled to every moviegoer. By including some historical facts, the film not only keeps true to history, but it takes risks that are uncharacteristic of a major Hollywood film.
Crowdus ends his analysis of the film, by critiquing the film’s depiction of Arabs. He uses the scene of the meeting between the Bedouin leaders in Damascus, as a key example of the film’s racist undertones and its colonial implications. The film has strengths and flaws, as noted by Crowdus, but in the early, praiseful paragraphs of the article, we see Crowdus’s true views on the film. Although Crowdus has many problems with the film’s rewriting of history, there is still a reason that it is one of the most beloved and respected Hollywood films.