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The Battle for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

The Battle for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’


Part I: The Lawrence Bureau

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) ranks among the 20th Century’s oddest heroes. This short, smart, and mischievous British soldier helped organize the Arab Revolt against Turkey, a secondary front of the First World War. He became Emir Feisal’s trusted ally, painfully conscious that the Allies wouldn’t honor promises of independence. After the Paris Peace Conference, Lawrence retreated into the Royal Air Force and Tank Corps as a private soldier, T.E. Shaw.

Lawrence lived a curious double life, befriending both private soldiers and notables like Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. He wrote memoirs and translated Homer while repairing boats and seaplanes. His intellect, warmth, and puckish humor masked internal torment – guilt for failing to secure Arab freedom, regret for two brothers killed in the war, shame over an incident where Turkish soldiers sexually assaulted him.

In his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence conceded “a craving to be famous – and a horror of being known to like being known.” Both were satisfied by Lowell Thomas, an American journalist who turned two weeks with Lawrence into an illustrated lecture show. Thomas’s With Lawrence in Arabia made Lawrence internationally famous, to the latter’s chagrin. “I saw the show and thank God the lights were out,” he complained.

Yet Lawrence helped Thomas build his own legend. He posed for Thomas’s camera and provided exaggerated stories that Thomas embellished further. Thomas considered Lawrence’s resentment a pose, commenting “he had a genius for backing into the limelight.” But Lawrence drew the line at movies, rebuffing Herbert Wilcox and Rex Ingham’s proposed biopics.

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Lawrence had an intellectual’s contempt for cinema. He envisioned his biopic in cartoon terms: “A Turkish troop-train blown into the air in bits – reforms in space – and perfectly united, lands gracefully and proceeds merrily on its way.” More seriously, he told Robert Graves, novelist and biographer, that “I loathe the idea of being celluloided. So there won’t be a film of me.”

Neither Lawrence’s resistance, nor his death in May 1935, ended filmmakers’ interest. Alexander Korda spent the late ‘30s developing a biopic. In 1952 Columbia tentatively optioned Seven Pillars, asking Michael Powell, John Ford, and David Lean to direct. These projects came to naught – to the relief of Lawrence’s brother and literary executor, Professor Arnold W. (A.W.) Lawrence.

Dutiful Brother

Born in 1900, Arnold commented that T.E. “carefully implanted in me his own interests” in archaeology and travel. He also echoed Lawrence’s contrarian streak: he married Barbara Thompson against his mother’s wishes, dismissed “all religion [as] vermin,” and in 1920 posed nude for sculptress Lady Kathleen Scott. James Lee-Milne noted Arnold “answers abruptly, deliberately, as though to assert his disrespect for people and authority.”

Where T.E. found public notoriety, Arnold labored in academia. He lectured at Cambridge and the University College of the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) and published books on Greek sculpture and African coastal fortresses. Despite his achievements, Arnold never escaped T.E.’s shadow: John Mack wrote that Arnold “has borne the burden of having to live two lives.”

Professor Lawrence fiercely protected T.E.’s reputation. He commissioned volumes of Lawrence’s writings and published T.E. Lawrence by His Friends in 1937, a collection of reminiscences. He exercised strict control over T.E.’s work, limiting what biographers could read or quote. Those attempting to damage his brother’s reputation incurred a harsh response.

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The Aldington Affair

In 1955, novelist Richard Aldington published Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. Describing Lawrence as “the appropriate hero of his class and epoch,” Aldington exposed discrepancies in Lawrence’s accounts of the Arab Revolt, habitual exaggeration, and cooperation with biographers. Less creditably, Aldington labeled Lawrence an egomaniac, murderous psychopath, and latent homosexual.

Aldington’s cruel sarcasm alienated many: one critic likened reading his book to “standing under a waterfall of venom.” But outrage centered on Aldington revealing that Lawrence’s parents never married – hence, that Lawrence and his brothers were bastards. With Lawrence’s mother Sarah still living, this seemed gratuitously cruel. This aroused the ire of what Aldington called “the Lawrence Bureau.”

With Professor Lawrence in Ghana, Basil Liddell Hart led the counterattack. Britain’s foremost military strategist, he’d befriended T.E. and written a biography of him in 1935. Lawrence viewed Liddell Hart’s devotion warily: “He seems to have no critical sense with regards to me.” Well-connected in Britain’s political and military establishments, Liddell Hart was well-placed to impede an impertinent author.

Failing to block publication of Aldington’s book, Liddell Hart tried discrediting it. Near-identical essays appeared across England and America, answering the same points, and excerpting sections from Aldington’s proof manuscript – which differed drastically from the finished book. Liddell Hart pressured editors to deny Aldington space to rebut these reviews. “I wish I could sue the bastards for heavy damages,” Aldington snapped.

Liddell Hart received support from Lowell Thomas, now a renowned travel writer and CBS correspondent. Thomas excoriated Aldington on radio and in print for besmirching his discovery. Invoking Lawrence’s deceased colleagues (namely, Emir Feisal and Lawrence’s wartime commander, Lord Allenby) to bolster him, Thomas proclaimed “I’m not dead and will defend Lawrence until I am.”

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Terence Rattigan and Ross

Despite the Lawrence Bureau’s machinations, Aldington’s book sold well, and its critical portrait of Lawrence gripped the public imagination. Likewise, the controversy attracted filmmakers. In 1957, the Rank Organization commissioned Terence Rattigan to write a Lawrence screenplay: Anthony Asquith would direct, with Dirk Bogarde playing Lawrence. The project fell through, but Rattigan rewrote it as a stage play – Ross: A Dramatic Portrait.

Lawrence thought Ross made T.E. “a weakling with a compensatory blood-thirst and other uncontrolled neurotic impulses.” He threatened to have the Lord Chamberlain ban the play as defamatory. This time, Liddell Hart interceded: “I ought at least to make an effort to point out… where his portrayal of T.E. is misleading and wrong.”

Surprisingly, Rattigan welcomed Liddell Hart’s assistance, agreeing to elide troublesome passages. To mollify him further, Rattigan granted Liddell Hart a percentage of the play’s revenue. Ross ultimately opened in May 1960, running for 762 shows, with Alec Guinness playing Lawrence.

With T.E. under such intense scrutiny, a Lawrence film couldn’t come at a worse time for Professor Lawrence. Worse for the Lawrence Bureau, now they faced a more formidable opponent than Aldington or Rattigan.

Enter Sam Spiegel

One year younger than Professor Lawrence, Austrian-born Sam Spiegel fled Nazi Germany in the ‘30s, and toiled in Hollywood for twenty-five years. As “S.P. Eagle,” he founded Horizon Pictures with John Huston, producing The African Queen. After On the Waterfront won Best Picture, Spiegel assumed his real name. He embodied the piratical Hollywood producer: fast-talking, cunning and unscrupulous; possessing insatiable appetites for cars, money, and women; a well-honed nose for deals.

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In 1957, Spiegel collaborated with British director David Lean on The Bridge on the River Kwai, a critical and commercial smash. After considering a Gandhi biopic, they turned to Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, Lean and Spiegel tread carefully on a subject which had eluded so many others.

To avoid Aldington’s fate, Spiegel launched a charm offensive. He sent David Lean to meet Robert Graves, who was bowled over by the director’s enthusiasm. “The T.E. film… will be historical and heroic,” Graves assured Professor Lawrence. Next, Lean arranged a screening of Bridge on the River Kwai for the Professor. According to Kevin Brownlow, Lawrence “was suitably astonished…then asked to see a treatment by Michael Wilson.”

Lawrence read Wilson’s treatment, which focused on T.E.’s predicament balancing Arab and British interests. Wilson, a blacklisted American Communist, viewed Lawrence as an unwitting pawn for British imperial interests. This pleased the Professor, who praised Wilson’s work as “a straightforward, perfectly decent and well-reasoned construction.”

In February 1960, Spiegel met Professor Lawrence and his publisher G. Wren-Howard. Spiegel suggested £22,500 for the rights to Seven Pillars, with a £5,000 title option if Lawrence disapproved of the finished film; Lawrence immediately agreed. This astonished Wren-Howard: he’d suggested the Professor hold out for £100,000. Privately, Spiegel gloated that he bought Seven Pillars “for a song.” Then he publicly destroyed Lawrence’s goodwill.

Announcing the film shortly afterwards, Spiegel claimed that Professor Lawrence “gave us blanket approval to do Seven Pillars.” Twisting the knife, he added: “No further objections are expected…nor is he entitled to one.” Reporters scarcely noticed, more shocked that Spiegel suggested casting Marlon Brando as Lawrence. (Peter O’Toole, then known only to theatre aficionados, hadn’t yet entered the picture.)

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Professor Lawrence didn’t know who Brando was (“It’s been years since I last saw a film,” he admitted, barring the Kwai screening), but resented Spiegel’s pompous condescension. “I still have some hold over Spiegel,” he replied, overestimating the producer’s attachment to Seven Pillars’ title. Distrust sewn, filmmaker and hero’s brother warily parted.


Part II: Battle Joined

As Lawrence of Arabia started filming, history lost to cinema. Liddell Hart and Lowell Thomas both unsuccessfully tried to become consultants to Lawrence. Robert Graves and David Garnett, editor of Lawrence’s letters, latched onto the production, but contributed little. Professor Lawrence watched warily from the sidelines.

Lean’s main advisor became Anthony Nutting, a British diplomat who’d resigned during the Suez Crisis and negotiated filming rights in Jordan. “We evolved this concept of Lawrence as this twisted character,” Nutting recalled. His own Lawrence biography, The Man and the Motive, is Aldington-lite in its cynicism and psychosexual fixation. Another development cemented this characterization.

Early in production, Lean sacked screenwriter Michael Wilson, whose treatment so impressed Professor Lawrence. His replacement was Robert Bolt, playwright of A Man for All Seasons. Bolt was a schoolteacher-turned-dramatist, active in nuclear disarmament and other left-wing causes. Where Wilson projected anti-imperial politics onto the Arab Revolt, Bolt joined Lean and Nutting in complicating Lawrence.

Bolt depicted Lawrence as a “romantic fascist,” mixing idealism, megalomania and neuroses. He’s tormented less by British deceit than personal demons – sadomasochism, homosexuality and preening egomania. Hence Lawrence extinguishing a flame with his fingers: “The trick is not minding when it hurts!” Or playfully primping in Arab robes. Then boasting of the Arabs: “The best of them won’t come for money – they’ll come for me!”

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Professor Lawrence read Bolt’s screenplay in July 1962, with filming nearly completed. He wrote Spiegel that “to say that I am extremely disappointed is a gross understatement,” adding “I may eventually feel obliged to… make [my objections] public.” Privately he raged against Spiegel and labeled Bolt “Mr. ***t.”

On September 5th, Lawrence and his wife Barbara attended a rough cut of Lawrence. “There would have been no music, no effects tracks and no real narrative continuity,” writes Adrian Turner. Yet Peter O’Toole’s flamboyant, tortured Lawrence came across clearly enough. Professor Lawrence watched with slow-burning rage, finally unloading on Spiegel.

Lawrence was furious,” David Lean recalled. “He stood up and shouted at Sam, ‘I never should have trusted you!’ There was a horrendous row and he stormed out with his wife in pursuit.” His worst fears confirmed, Lawrence prepared the Lawrence Bureau for a counterattack. Withdrawing the Seven Pillars title was mere formality.

Opening Salvos: Liddell Hart and Lowell Thomas

First, Liddell Hart. The historian unloaded in a December 15th letter to the Times of London, five days after Lawrence’s premiere. “The film called Lawrence of Arabia raises in an acute form the question of how far history and personality can justifiably be twisted to serve a dramatic purpose,” Liddell Hart thundered. He praised the film’s photography and acting, calling it “a fascinating and striking work of fiction, with little relation to fact.” Unsurprisingly, he praised Rattigan’s Ross as more accurate!

During this time, Liddell Hart also exchanged acrimonious letters with Robert Bolt. He criticized Bolt’s portrayal of the Tafas Massacre, where Lawrence unleashed an Arab slaughter of Turks. Rejecting Bolt’s depiction of personal responsibility, Liddell Hart claimed that Lawrence “saddled himself with responsibility for what he could not prevent.”

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Bolt noted Lawrence’s admission of guilt in Seven Pillars (“By my orders, we took no prisoners”) and concluded “I’ll defend my interpretation… as being a dignified and responsible one, without denigration… or prevarication.” Liddell Hart responded by declining Bolt’s invitation to Lawrence’s premiere.

Next, Lowell Thomas joined the fray. After seeing Lawrence, he wrote Professor Lawrence “It is a brutal travesty” and “I would give a booby prize to Producer Spiegel for the way he has distorted one of the epic stories of all time.” Thomas repeated his Aldington performance, critiquing the film through his radio program and television appearances. “There were only two authentic things in the picture,” he commented: “The camels and the sand.”

Thomas always defended Lawrence, yet resented that Spiegel declined his advisory offer. Further, Lawrence portrays a vulgar American reporter named Jackson Bentley chronicling Lawrence’s exploits. Publicly, Thomas called Bentley “all good fun” but seethed at the caricature. Few missed the irony of Thomas, whose book called Lawrence “another Achilles, Siegfried or El Cid,” attacking the film’s “sensationalism.”

I Should Not Have Recognized My Own Brother”

On December 16th, 1962, the Sunday Observer published an article by Professor Lawrence himself. Lawrence carefully laid out his objections, noting “how widely and consistently the final script diverged from the book.” He denounced the film’s T.E. as having “more than any one man’s share of psychological aberrations… narcissism… fantastic chivalry… the crudest exhibitionism.”

Professor Lawrence most resented that “The real key to the hero is sadism,” highlighting the Tafas Massacre and execution of the Arab Gassim, which film Lawrence claims to have enjoyed. He concluded simply: “I need only say I should not have recognized my own brother.”

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Nor was the Observer article Lawrence’s only comment. He told the Daily Mail the film was “an unholy marriage between a Western and a psychological horror.” Interviewed by the New York Times in January 1963, Lawrence reiterated that the film used “a psychological recipe” to “completely misrepresent my brother.”

Lawrence also attacked Lord Allenby’s portrayal, echoing comments from the General’s widow. “Is there any way in which a film company can be stopped from portraying a character so inaccurately?” she asked. Lady Allenby resented seeing her husband, whom Lawrence described as a supportive superior with “confidence… like a wall,” portrayed as a manipulative bully drinking cocktails as Damascus burns.

Spiegel’s Checkmate

Sam Spiegel finally responded in a caustic New York Times letter on January 26th, 1963. “Professor Lawrence did not want family skeletons rattled,” Spiegel commented, pointedly invoking what troubled the Professor:

Anyone who dramatizes the life of Lawrence of Arabia cannot ignore that he was illegitimate or avoid the conflict of this man who was aware of homosexual tendencies but did not want to commit himself to homosexuality. This was a man who became involved in all sorts of masochism as a result of his conflicts.”

If anyone doubted Lawrence’s Lawrence was a gay, masochistic bastard, they couldn’t well now.

After calling T.E. narcissistic and dishonest, Spiegel ended with a cutting observation: “We did not try to resolve the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. We tried to perpetuate it.” Clearly, the cloistered Professor couldn’t appreciate the difference between history and art.

Game, set, match: Sam Spiegel.

Admitting Defeat

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For all Lawrence and Spiegel’s bluster, the film itself tipped the balance. If Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is historically suspect, he’s a compelling hero: flamboyantly likeable, yet arrogant and tortured. And the sweeping desert scenery and epic battle scenes overwhelm esoteric debates on accuracy. Next to Lean’s awe-inspiring spectacle, history seems beside the point.

Unable to dent Lawrence’s success, Professor Lawrence fought a face-saving rearguard action. Robert Bolt planned to publish his screenplay with Heinemann, complete with “Apologia” explaining his dramatic choices. Lawrence indignantly wrote Heinemann that they “may be unaware of the very strong feeling against… Mr. Bolt’s screenplay,” hinting at legal action. Bolt, embroiled in a credit dispute with Michael Wilson, dropped the project.

This minor victory only underscored the Lawrence Bureau’s failure. In April 1963, the Professor finally conceded defeat. He wrote Liddell Hart: “Unless there is further provocation I do not feel that a concerted attack on the film just now will serve any useful purpose.”




Why did the Lawrence Bureau react so viciously to Lawrence of Arabia? Undoubtedly, loyalty to a friend played its part. Yet their vehemence seems more than mere devotion.

Liddell Hart viewed Lawrence as exemplifying his strategic obsession of “indirect approach.” He called Lawrence “a strategist of genus” for employing guerrilla tactics against Turkish regulars, comparing him to Alexander and Napoleon. Lowell Thomas said “Lawrence changed the whole direction of my own life,” catapulting him from cub reporter to world-renowned journalist. Both viewed an attack on Lawrence as an attack on themselves.

Professor Lawrence felt betrayed by Sam Spiegel’s duplicity, but had other motives. Aldington’s revelation of illegitimacy, and imputations that T.E. was gay, shook him enough. The Professor knew his brother possessed other demons: in the ‘20s, T.E. paid a fellow soldier to flog him as punishment for imagined sins. The film’s focus on masochism came dangerously close to revealing this, which remained a secret until 1969.

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The Lawrence of Arabia experience made the Professor even more defensive than before. Lawrence “was much more successful with publishers and scholars than he had been with film producers and screenwriters,” wrote Fred Crawford. Even Lawrence’s authorized biographer, Jeremy Wilson, admitted to encountering “serious obstruction which forced me to take legal advice.” Professor Lawrence died in 1991, just shy of his 91st birthday.

Commentators endlessly debate art’s responsibility to historical accuracy. Professor Lawrence viewed Lawrence as sensationalized and inaccurate, which it undoubtedly is. Yet Spiegel, Lean, and Bolt’s T.E. Lawrence captures a contentious biographical debate: the traditional white-robed hero overlapping with Aldington’s neurotic trickster. Fifty years later, debates over Lawrence’s personality, motives and importance remain unresolved.

During the Lawrence mess, Robert Bolt commented that “I sympathize with Lawrence’s relatives, but no film could hope to satisfy them.” As recent debates over American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma demonstrate, this argument between art and history continues.

Sources and Acknowledgments

Sources include: Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography; Fred Crawford’s Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale; Joel C. Hodson’s Lawrence of Arabia and American Culture; L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin’s Lawrence of Arabia: The 30th Anniversary Pictorial History; Harold Orlans’ T.E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero; and Adrian Turner’s Robert Bolt: Scenes from Two Lives.

Additional thanks to Kevin Brownlow, Professor Mark Connelly and Professor Stephen E. Tabachnick for their help in preparing this article.

By Christopher Saunders