Before the First World War, the empire of the Ottoman Turks governed most of Arabia.The Ottomans made the mistake of taking the side of Germany during the war. The British and French stimulated revolts against the Ottomans by promising the Arabs independence after the war. As a British operative, Lawrence helped carry out this policy. He and Prince Faisal mounted guerilla attacks against Turkish installations, including rail lines. Lawrence was present when the Arabs conquered the city of Damascus in 1918.
Unknown to Lawerence, the British and French governments never intended to grant independence to the Arabs. When hostilities ended, Lawrence tried to persuade the British government to fulfill their commitments to the Arabs. He even attended the peace conference at Versailles in an unsuccessful effort to get the Allies to grant Arab independence. All of Lawerence’s efforts were to no avail. After WWI, the Middle East was divided between the French and the British empires.
One of Lawrence’s brothers, Arnold Lawrence, a professor of archeology at Cambridge University in England, viewed this film’s portrayal of his brother as “pretentious and false.” According to Arnold Lawrence, T.E. Lawrence was nice and kind and “one of the most exhilarating people I’ve known.” Lawrence of Arabia, a Hero’s Journey, by Don Belt, National Geographic, Vol. 195, No. 1, January, 1989, pages 47.
T.E. Lawrence was a student and archaeologist before World War I. At college, Lawrence was an oddball ascetic; a serious minded student who did not participate in sports and who ate bread and water for lunch. He wrote his senior thesis on Crusader forts in the Middle East, gathering information by walking more than a thousand miles in what was then the Ottoman Empire. On this trip he became acquainted with the area, learned Arabic, and came to love the Arabian culture. After graduation he supervised Arab workers on several archaeological digs in the Middle East, further immersing himself in the local culture and forming strong friendships with some of the workers. When Britain needed Intelligence officers for the Middle East during the First World War, T.E. Lawrence was an ideal choice.
Many incidents in the film are taken from actual events. Lawrence was forced to personally execute a Bedouin who had killed another man. If he had not, the expedition he was on would have disintegrated into a round of revenge killings. After killing the man by shooting him three times, Lawrence was so upset that he had to be carried onto his camel. While on a reconnaissance patrol, Lawrence was captured, and then flogged and raped by the Turks. Lawrence was made famous by an American newspaper reporter, Lowell Thomas, who accompanied Lawrence and his Bedouin soldiers for eight days. After the war, Lawrence could have used his popularity to run for office but he refused all of the honors offered to him. He lobbied vigorously for the British to keep their promises to the Arabs for their independence.
Lawrence was a deeply private man who distrusted his own “passion for distinction.” For this reason and, perhaps, because of his disgust at his own role in the British betrayal of the Arabs, he retired from public life, joining the Royal Tank Corps and the Royal Air Force under assumed names. He served from 1923 to 1935, never accepting any promotion and avoiding the press, but keeping up a correspondence with many distinguished friends. He translated the The Odyssey for an American publishing company and wrote a critically acclaimed book about his experiences in the RAF, The Mint. Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.
Lawrence’s book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) describes his wartime experiences and his personal philosophy. He was a neurotic and lonely man but a legendary figure due to his wartime exploits and his efforts on behalf of the Arabs.
The Arabian camel was first domesticated in Babylonia in about 1100 B.C.E. Camels can carry huge loads and withstand the loss of about 1/3rd of their body fluids. They do not carry water in their humps. Arabian camels can walk more than 100 miles in a day.
Many characters in the movie are historical. The character of Faisal is a combination of Emir Hussein and his son, Prince Faisal. It was Lawrence’s close relationship with Faisal that facilitated British/Arab cooperation during WWI. Edmund Allenby was a British General who led a brilliant campaign against the Turks in the First World War and captured Palestine and Syria.
Arabia is a peninsula in Southwest Asia bounded by the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The people who populated the area in the early 20th century were primarily nomadic and not familiar with modern technology or methods of social organization. According to the movie, the concept of Arab unity was something advocated by Lawrence which had to be learned by most Arabs. As the Lawrence character states in the film: “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe they will be a little people.”