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Very few classic films from Hollywood have shaped how people in the U.S. see the Middle East more than Lawrence of Arabia. Is the movie historically accurate?

About the movie Lawrence of Arabia

The year was 1962.

The average home cost about $12,500. One of the cheapest new cars you can get today is the 2017 Nissan Versa S, which starts at $12,855.

In 1962, you could get a new car for about $3,125, just a little bit more than a brand new MacBook Pro today.

Of course, one dollar in 1962 wasn’t the same as a dollar today. In 1962, one dollar would have roughly the same buying power as eight dollars today.

For Hollywood, 1962 brought a burst of movies that we now consider to be classic films. The Longest Day, The Music Man and To Kill a Mockingbird were all released in 1962.

But none of those films won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That honor went to yet another classic film.

Lawrence of Arabia was made for about $15 million, the equivalent of $121 million today. No small sum, for sure, but that wouldn’t even land it on the top 50 most expensive films today. By comparison the most recent Ben Hur movie cost about $140 million to make in 2016. Of course, 2016’s Ben Hur was nothing like the original as it would go on to lose an estimated $120 million of that after an abysmal box office.

Lawrence of Arabia, on the other hand, was a smash hit as it has raked in over $70 million worldwide.

Unlike most modern movies, Lawrence of Arabia opens with the epic theme from composer Maurice Jarre set on top of a black screen for the first few minutes. That score would be one of seven Oscars the film would win at the 1963 Academy Awards. That’s out of an amazing ten nominations.

It’s a film that has single-handedly become a Hollywood classic while also having a major impact on how the Western world sees the Middle East. In fact, many people have a hard time telling a difference between the true story and the one portrayed on the screen.

Learn the true story behind Lawrence of Arabia

The movie begins at the end. Peter O’Toole’s character, T.E. Lawrence, is riding his motorcycle through country roads when he nearly has a head-on collision and is killed. At his funeral, a reporter, played by Jack Hedley, tries to learn more about his life.

There’s no time indicated in the movie, and while the details were made up for the film, T.E. Lawrence was a real person who died after being injured in a motorcycle accident in Dorset, England in 1935.

After this, in the movie, we’re taken back to Lawrence’s time in the British Army. But before we join back up with the movie’s timeline, let’s take a brief moment to learn a few things about Lawrence the movie doesn’t mention.

First, his name. While everyone may have called him Lawrence, that was his last name. His full name was Thomas Edward Lawrence, or T.E. Lawrence as Peter O’Toole’s character is officially billed in the movie.

The real Lawrence was born on August 16th, 1888 near the town of Tremadog in Wales. That’s about 200 miles, or 320 kilometers, to the northwest of London in the United Kingdom.

For about four years, from 1910 to 1914, Lawrence was introduced to the Middle East when he worked as an archaeologist at the ancient city of Karkemish.

If you’re not familiar with that name, Karkemish was an ancient city where the Bible mentions a battle taking place between the Babylonians and the Egyptians in the book of Jeremiah chapter 46 verse 2. Most historians believe that battle took place around 605 BC, but the location of the city wasn’t known until it was discovered by an archaeologist named George Smith in 1876. Today, it’s located in the country of Syria, to the north of Damascus.

Things would change for Lawrence, though, as it did for many others in the year 1914. That’s when, on July 28th, the Great War officially began. Soon after, Lawrence joined the British Army and was quickly stationed in Egypt.

We don’t have the official documentation to prove why he was stationed there, but most historians have speculated that with the onset of World War I, the British Army was moving a lot of troops around the world, including the Middle East region. Since Lawrence already had knowledge of the area, having spent the last few years as an archaeologist, it’d make sense for the British Army to leverage that and keep him in the area.

Back in the movie, there’s no dates displayed on-screen, but after the introduction at the funeral, we’re sent back in time to when Lawrence was in Egypt. The real Lawrence’s role was as an intelligence officer, so the movie is fairly accurate when it shows Peter O’Toole’s version of Lawrence working in a room painting a map.

According to the movie, his first assignment is to find Prince Feisal.

As he does, the movie takes its sweet time showing us the long distances Peter O’Toole’s version of Lawrence had to take to get there. Maybe that’s why the movie is almost four hours long.

Anyway, the length of the journey to travel the desert sands may be one of the most historically accurate parts of the film. On the trip, Lawrence’s guide, a man by the name of Tafas, is killed when he drinks from a well he’s not supposed to. Well, it’s not drinking that kills him. That was Sharif Ali who kills Tafas after shooting him for drinking from the well.

In the movie, Tafas is played by Zia Mohyeddin.

Once Sharif Ali and Lawrence meet, Ali offers to take Lawrence to meet Feisal.

Historically, the framework was correct but the details were all made up for the movie.

Let’s start with the character of Sharif Ali, who’s played by Omar Sharif in the film. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Sharif is a title meaning the bearer is high-born, or of noble blood.

The character of Sharif Ali isn’t a real person. Instead, he’s an amalgamation of multiple people that Lawrence mentioned in his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, one of whom was named Sharif Ali. However, the real Sharif Ali didn’t do most of the things we see the character of Sharif Ali do in the movie. The filmmakers took the name from one of the people in the book and tied that character to many of the actions from other people in the book.

It was the real Sharif Ali who found a guide for Lawrence on his quest to meet with Feisal. That guide? A tribesman named Tafas el Raashid and his son, Abdulla.

So as you can guess, the real Sharif Ali wouldn’t have killed Tafas, the guide he himself set Lawrence up with.

As Lawrence mentioned in his book, the desert had laws of its own that most people not familiar with its ways wouldn’t understand. The land itself was owned—each rock or patch of sand would have someone who laid claim to it. However, natural elements were allowed to be used by all. Anyone could drink water from a well, as long as it was for personal use and not profitable gain. No matter who’s land it was.

Many of the things we see Sharif Ali do on screen were things that Lawrence did with a man named Sharif Nasir—someone Lawrence met after he was at Feisal’s camp.

So the movie changed quite a bit, and the changes don’t stop there.

Another apparent liberty the filmmakers took was to imply that Lawrence was the sole British liaison to the Arab leaders. While the movie correctly showed Lawrence spent his fair share of time alone with the Arab leaders in an attempt to work with them, in truth there were others from the British Army there.

Men like Colonel Cyril Wilson, Colonel Pierce C. Joyce and Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe, to name a few. These three in particular were Lawrence’s superiors, and some of them, like Newcombe, often accompanied the expeditions Lawrence took part in. There were a number of British and French soldiers who helped, many of whom had been helping with the Arab Revolt before Lawrence was assigned to help on October 23rd, 1916.

In the movie, when Lawrence meets Feisal, who’s played by the legendary actor Alec Guinness, Feisal is intrigued by the young British officer.

The casting of Alec Guinness to play an Arab noble is an interesting bit here, but perhaps it’s typical for Hollywood. No, Alec Guinness isn’t Middle Eastern. He’s English. You might remember him as the original Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Oh, and while the movie doesn’t really mention this, the Ottoman Empire was on the Axis side of the war along with the Germans. That’s why they were the enemies of the British Empire on the Allied side of the war.

The Ottoman Empire isn’t around anymore, it was ended with World War I, but today the Ottoman Empire was out of modern-day Turkey. That’s why they’re referred to as the Turks in the movie.

Anyway, even though the movie doesn’t have dates, based on history the events we see on screen with Feisal and Lawrence probably happened early in 1917.

We don’t know exactly how the conversations went. What we see in the movie isn’t likely how it went down, but the end result was similar.

It was here that Lawrence met the real Feisal. Or, his full name being Feisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi. He was about the same age as Lawrence, being born on May 20th 1885, about three years before Lawrence. As his name implies, Feisal was the son of Hussein bin Ali who, in turn, was the Grand Sharif of Mecca.

In the movie, the British want to help Faisal’s attempt to revolt against the Turks. Anthony Quayle’s character, Colonel Brighton, is in the tent with Feisal and Lawrence. It’s Brighton who recommends to Feisal that he retreat to the city of Yenbo.

Quite the contrarian, Lawrence suggests he strike back at the Turks and take Aqaba so the British can use the port there to offload supplies.

The catch here is that the small town of Aqaba has massive guns pointing toward the bay, expecting an assault coming from there. But there’s little defense behind the town, because there’s a massive desert. Nature is the defense from a land attack.

The details and conversations were, of course, fictionalized for the film. But the overall plot here is pretty accurate. By that, what I mean is that Feisal did take a shining of sorts to Lawrence.

Maybe it was Lawrence’s charming personality. More likely, though, it was Lawrence’s history in the area that gave him extensive knowledge of the region. Much more than many of the other British and French officers.

Back in the movie, during the meeting with Alec Guinness’ version of Feisal, Lawrence brashly opposes Anthony Quayle’s version of the British Colonel Brighton.

Like many other characters in the movie, Colonel Brighton was made up for the film as an amalgamation of many of the British officers serving with Lawrence. If there was someone close to the Colonel’s character, it’d probably be Lt. Col. Newcombe. I’m mostly saying that because, well, in the original script for Lawrence of Arabia, the character that would become Colonel Brighton was actually named Colonel Newcombe.

However, even then, unlike the character we see in the movie, the real Newcombe was a good friend of Lawrence’s who, like Lawrence, was able to gain friendship from the Arab leaders.

Anyway, back in the movie, it’s Lawrence who suggests Feisal take Aqaba. The implication in the movie is that the British will be able to provide much-needed supplies through Aqaba to help with the Revolt.

Geographically, Aqaba is in modern-day Jordan, and serves as the only port city in the modern-day country of Jordan. It’s near the aptly-named Aqaba Gulf, which is on the northern side of the Red Sea.

So that’s certainly plausible, but historically the scenes we see in the movie here aren’t correct. It wasn’t Lawrence’s idea solely. Instead, it was a collective idea from the British officers there along with the Arab leaders who were working together to try to unseat the Turkish hold on the region.

For the British, it was as a part of World War I—weakening the Axis powers of which the Ottoman Empire was a part. For the Arabs, it was about being free from the Turks who had grown from servants in the region of Western Asia during medieval times to ruling their own country and controlling most of the region.

To give some historical context of the strife between the Arabs and Turks, in 1909, Sultan Abdul Hamid II lost power after the Young Turk Revolution began the previous year. He was the 34th and last of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, and the last to effectively rule with autocracy.

After his fall, a political party calling themselves the Young Turks took over. According to Lawrence, one of the primary cries for the Young Turk movement was to that “Turkey made Turkish for the Turks”—or, basically, kick anyone who’s not Turkish out of Turkey. This mentality would eventually lead to the Armenian genocide. But that’s a story for another day.

Another people who suffered, thankfully not to the extent of the Armenians, were the Arabs. One of the primary downsides to Turkey, according to the Turks in power at the time, was that there were Arabs there. So they tried to force them out.

This struggle was the seed for the Arab Revolt. Thanks to soldiers from France and Britain like Lawrence, who did indeed earn the nickname Lawrence of Arabia, collections of Arab tribes were able to learn from British and French military tactics. It was a common interest for the British and French to help the Arabs in their Revolt.

As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In the movie, it’s on their way to Aqaba when Sharif Ali gains respect for Lawrence. This happens when one of the men in the caravan falls off his camel at some point during the night. They don’t notice it until the next day when they see his empty camel, but Lawrence goes back to rescue the man—the character’s name was Gasim and he is played by I.S. Johar in the film.

This event happened, but it was quite different in reality than the movie shows.

In truth, and according to Lawrence’s recollection, at some point during the night, Gasim had to relieve himself so he got off of his camel to do so. After he did, he lost the rest of the caravan. That gives you an idea just how dark it was at night.

As best as Lawrence could estimate, Gasim probably passed out, too, most likely from heat exhaustion due to their travels over the previous few days. When Gasim awoke, he was alone.

Lawrence did go back to rescue Gasim, but he did so rather begrudgingly. Mostly because he felt he was responsible for Gasim. It wasn’t until after this that Lawrence was scolded for risking his own life and the lives of those who went with him by the Arab leaders in the caravan, Nasir and Auda abu Tayi.

We haven’t really mentioned Auda, but he was a real person. In the movie the character of Auda abu Tayi is portrayed by Anthony Quinn. In reality, Auda was noble and a highly respected leader of the region. While historically, Lawrence earned fame, Auda was a man who many historians consider to have been predominantly responsible for the success of the Arab Revolt.

Oh, and the scene we see in the movie after the rescue of Gasim where Omar Sharif’s version of Sharif Ali burns Lawrence’s clothes to give him Arab garments is completely fictional.

No one burned Lawrence’s British Army uniform. It was Feisal who offered the traditional Arab robes to Lawrence before they ever embarked on their trip to take Aqaba. Feisal suggested it to help the people in his camp take to Lawrence quicker—he wouldn’t stand out quite as much. Lawrence quickly agreed to wearing the robes because, as Lawrence put it, a British uniform isn’t very comfortable to wear while riding a camel.

Oh, and while we’re talking about standing out, a quick little side note here would be about Lawrence’s physical appearance. In the movie, Peter O’Toole is a tall, blond hair and blue-eyed man who is quite the Hollywood leading man—very fair looking.

In truth, Lawrence did actually look a bit like Peter O’Toole in the movie. The real Lawrence had blond hair and blue eyes. However, the actor Peter O’Toole was about 6′ 2″ and the real Lawrence was only about 5′ 5″. So he may have stood out, but not quite as much as Peter O’Toole did.

Anyway, back in the movie, the attack on Aqaba is a smashing success. After this, the movie’s first half comes to a close as it’s time for the intermission.

Yes, many movies back in the day used to have intermissions.

What we see on screen was made up for the movie, of course, but the overall gist is true. Aqaba was an important target for the Arab Revolt, something the movie also implies. However, the movie makes it seem like the attack was pretty much Lawrence, Sharif Ali, Auda and a few other men.

In truth, Feisal was there. He was there for much the revolt. And while the Arab force weren’t the British or French armies, they were supplied by both the British and the French. So they had guns, uniforms, mules, camels, and plenty of other supplies that they used.

If there’s one part the movie does get correct, it’s that Lawrence and the other Arab leaders did attack the coastal fort of Aqaba in the spring of 1917 after riding miles and miles across the desert. While the British and French may have been supplying the Revolt, this particular strategy was something Lawrence later would admit to keeping a secret from his superiors at the British Army.

The part in the movie where Lawrence leaves shortly after the attack at Aqaba is true. The real Lawrence left Aqaba after this victory to go to Cairo. It was here, as the movie implies, that Lawrence told his commanding officer, a man named General Allenby, of the victory.

Oh, and in the movie, General Allenby is played by Jack Hawkins.

So while we don’t really know exactly what the scenario was like after the capture of Aqaba, since Lawrence hadn’t told General Allenby, or any of his other commanding officers, of the attack it came as quite a surprise to hear that the Arab Revolt had taken a major stronghold from the Turks.

In the movie, there’s a moment where Peter O’Toole’s version of Lawrence is captured by the Turks. The officer in charge makes a mention of Lawrence’s fine skin in a moment that gets a little awkward.

The movie is inaccurate here in how it’s depicted, but the implication is sadly spot on. It happened on November 20th, 1917, and Lawrence was in the city of Dara’a, in the southern tip of modern-day Syria. Lawrence was in disguise, similar to what the movie shows, when he was captured by the local Bey—the title for a Turkish chieftain.

While in captivity, Lawrence was beaten quite heavily and sexually abused multiple times by the Bey and his guardsmen. This was an experience that most historians believe had a major psychological impact on Lawrence, and understandably so. According to Lawrence himself, “I lost all my innocence that night in Dara’a.”

It’s likely the Turks didn’t fully realize who Lawrence was, because after the physical and mental torture, he was eventually released.

Back in the movie, there’s a scene where Lawrence is shocked to hear about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It’s the politician, Mr. Dryden, played by Claude Rains, who mentions the agreement to Lawrence. Shaken, Lawrence starts to realize the British and French aren’t going to let the Arabs have their lands once they’re free of the Turks.

That’s not true.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was real, but the truth is Lawrence knew about it all along. In fact, there were moments where Lawrence recalled how bad he felt knowing he was helping the Arab Revolt and it was highly unlikely the British would let the Arabs keep the land they were winning. He had to have felt as if he was betraying his new friends—Nasir and Auda in particular. After all, he kind of was.

As the movie continues, the next big target in the Arab Revolt is Damascus. As they get closer we see Peter O’Toole’s version of Lawrence start to crack.

These scenes are all fictionalized for the film, but as we learned earlier, the real Lawrence was psychologically impacted by the abuse he suffered while held captive. So it’s very plausible that he could’ve begun to crack like the movie shows.

What is true is that the Arab Revolt was able to take Damascus. As with all of the military conquests so far it wasn’t because of Lawrence. It was mostly because of Auda, Nasir and the other Arab leaders. I don’t mean to imply Lawrence didn’t play an important part—but the movie certainly played it up quite a bit while simultaneously downplaying just how much impact the Arab leaders and soldiers had.

However, the result was the same. At about 9:00 AM on October 1st, 1918, Lawrence entered Damascus.

Oh, and as an example of things the movie changed things, by the time General Allenby arrives, Lawrence is already there. As viewers, we get the sense Lawrence was there first.

That’s not true.

Lawrence arrived after Major Harry Olden of the 10th Australian Light Horse Brigade. We haven’t even talked about the Australians, but that gives you an idea of how this was an Allied assistance to the Arab Revolt and not something Lawrence was doing on his own. It was Major Olden who formally accepted the surrender of the Turkish Governor Emir Said at Damascus.

The details are all made up, but the movie does correctly show that Lawrence helped set up the Arab government in Damascus. Although we already learned he knew about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, he grew increasingly displeased with it.

On October 30th, 1918, the Armistice of Mudros was signed on board a British ship just off the Mudros harbor near the island of Lemnos. That’s near Greece.

The Armistice put an immediate end to the conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied forces in World War I. Less than a month later, on November 11th, 1918, World War I officially came to an end. While the Great War had a lot of implications, for the sake of our story this was officially the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire, which would dissolve on November 1st, 1922 when the Sultanate was officially abolished. Then on October 29th, 1923, the country of Turkey was established in the place of the Ottoman Empire and, finally, on March 3rd, 1924, the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire—the last remaining piece of the empire which was established in the year 1299, was abolished.

For Lawrence, his fame started to spread after the Great War. The reporter we saw in the movie was based on something that did happen. The real reporter’s name was Lowell Thomas, and for a small time Lawrence let him follow along as they raided Turkish positions.

With the war ending, from this footage, Thomas put together a film that masses around the world couldn’t get enough of. It was a massive hit, and as the year 1919 rolled around, Thomas returned to the United States where he began a speaking tour displaying collections of photos and footage. It was a tour that would spread to London.

It was because of this when people started learning of the name T.E. Lawrence, or how he began to be known—Lawrence of Arabia.

The events in the movie may be over, but let’s continue for a moment to learn more about Lawrence after the war. It’s an interesting history, because like many soldiers, Lawrence had a hard time adjusting to home life after the war.

In 1919, Lawrence started using the vigorous notes he’d taken during his excursions. These formed the first draft of what would eventually become his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Sadly, Lawrence lost that first draft in his bag when he switched trains at the Reading railway station on the outskirts of Greater London.

Even more unfortunate, Lawrence had destroyed his original notes after writing that first draft.

Certainly a major setback, the next year Lawrence rewrote the book from scratch. Then it went through a massive amount of edits, and essentially was rewritten a third time. Lawrence would later say the book would be over 250,000 words long had he not lost his first draft. The second draft, though, was even longer at 400,000 words.

To give some context, Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace is widely considered one of the longest books ever published, and it comes in at about 580,000 words.

Of course, that’s Lawrence’s word count before editing, but still—no wonder why the movie was so long.

After completing his book, Lawrence searched for what to do with his life. He decided to go back to the military. But his fame was starting to grow, and he’d already served, so he enlisted in the Royal Air Force under the name John Hume Ross in August of 1922.

He was found out, and rejected because the recruiting officer didn’t believe that John Ross was his real name. He didn’t know this was Lawrence of Arabia, but the recruiting officer didn’t want to recruit people falsifying their identity. Ever the stubborn Englishman, Lawrence managed to get a written order for the recruiting officer to accept Lawrence’s enlisting.

That worked for about six months until, in February of 1923, his superiors in the RAF found out who he really was. We don’t really know how they found out, but once they did they forced him out of the RAF.

Still stubborn, he then enlisted in the British Army’s Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw, or Thomas Edward Shaw. This worked for a couple years. But Lawrence didn’t like it in the Tank Corps, so he petitioned to be transferred back to the RAF. They finally readmitted him in August of 1925.

This time we have to assume his superiors in the RAF knew who T.E. Shaw really was, because in 1926 he published a book called Revolt in the Desert. It was a hit, and the increased publicity forced the RAF to assign Lawrence to a rather remote base in British India. He stayed there until 1928.

We don’t have many details about what happened there, but what we do know is that some RAF officers caught whiff of Lawrence potentially being a spy. There’s never been any conclusive proof of this, but it was enough to force Lawrence’s superiors to order him home to Great Britain.

For the next seven years, a mentally tormented Lawrence finally started to find some peace. He remarked to many of his friends that he enjoyed his role in the RAF where he was earning a reputation as a high-speed boat expert. He loved the adrenaline rush.

His enlistment ended in March of 1935, and once again Lawrence was faced with what he was supposed to do with the rest of his life.

In May of the same year, as he was still pondering what his next role in life would be, Lawrence was taking a joy ride on one of his numerous motorcycles. This time it was a Brough Superior SS100, a bike that many considered to be one of the best motorcycles money could buy at the time. They cost the equivalent of about $11,000 in today’s U.S. dollars.

We see this event in the very beginning of the film, and we’ve already talked about it briefly at the beginning of this episode, so we already know what happens. The movie is pretty accurate in its depiction.

As Lawrence was riding along the countryside near Wareham in Dorset, there was a slight drop in the road that made it hard to see oncoming traffic. By the time he saw the two boys on their bicycles, it was too late. Lawrence jerked the motorcycle, narrowly missing the boys, but not their bicycles. His motorcycle clipped one of the bikes. Lawrence lost control and was thrown over the handlebars, causing substantial head wounds. Thomas Edward Lawrence died six days later from those injuries on May 19th, 1935 at the age of 46.

If you’re wondering, no, he was not wearing a helmet. But while he was in the hospital for those six days, one of the men who treated him was Dr. Hugh Cairns. Seeing Lawrence’s injuries and subsequent death, Dr. Cairns was motivated to do something about unnecessary deaths like Lawrence’s.

Dr. Hugh Cairns would go on to dedicate most of the rest of his own life in studying motorcycle injuries. It was this work that would lead to the modern-day use of helmets both by the military and by private citizens.

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