Lawrence of Arabia Was Too Big for Just a Movie

Courtesy of Everett Collection

Early in 1923, the London Daily Express ran a front-page story under the headline:

Famous War Hero Becomes a Private
Seeking Peace

The story went on to say that Thomas Edward Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I, had enlisted in the RAF as an ordinary airman under the name T. E. Ross. As his latest biographer, Michael Korda, points out in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, "It was as if Princess Diana had vanished from her home and had been discovered by the press enlisted in the ranks of the RAF as Aircraftwoman Spencer doing drill, washing her own undies, and living in a hut with a dozen or more other airwomen."

Lawrence was the most visible, and certainly the most romantic, hero to emerge from World War I. His daring exploits in the desert on the eastern front gained him not only the respect of his peers and commanding officers but the adulation of a public greedy for heroes in a war otherwise notable for its glaring lack of celebrated individuals. If he was not, as Korda argues, the very first media celebrity, his fame certainly has an eerily contemporary ring. Newsreel footage made him so famous around the world that he was ultimately known to millions who had no clear idea of what he had done. He was just famous for being famous. And like so many unwitting celebrities, he enjoyed the spotlight until he realized too late that he was not the one who got to decide when to turn it off.

With his chiseled features, his Bedouin robes, and his soft-spoken, self-deprecatory air, Lawrence was tailor-made fodder for the vultures of Fleet Street. The only thing wrong with this template of a legend was his height: he was only 5 feet 5 inches. (Hollywood would fix that when Peter O'Toole, topping out at 6 feet 2, was hired to play him.) Still, tall or short, no one ever looked more like a hero. So the harder he strove for anonymity after the war—indeed, because he tried so strenuously to protect his privacy—the more diligently the press pursued him. He never realized that his air of secrecy was what made him such catnip to reporters. The more he tried to disappear, the more they chased him, prompting his friend Winston Churchill to observe that Lawrence had a way of "backing into the limelight."

If Lawrence had been merely brave, or merely a splendid battlefield tactician, he might be forgotten outside the confines of war college textbooks. But he was much more accomplished than that, and much more complicated. He was a terrific writer. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt, is one of the greatest war chronicles ever written. He was also a skilled and visionary diplomat who was instrumental in—though certainly not solely responsible for—redrawing the map of the Middle East after World War I. Beyond that, his skill set included archeology, photography, and mapmaking (he pioneered the practice of using airmen to take overhead photographs of unexplored territory). He was also a more than decent novelist and a fine translator: his version of Homer's Odyssey is one of the best ever. In the bargain, he was an innovative mechanic. His modifications of the small boats used by the RAF to rescue downed fliers laid the groundwork for PT boats in World War II. He did all this by the age of 46, when he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

To call Lawrence a man of parts does not begin to convey the extraordinary breadth of his accomplishments. Nor does it do more than hint at the complications of his personality. He was so stricken by guilt during and after the war (he felt, justifiably, that he had betrayed the Arabs by trying to be loyal both to their cause and to the colonialist mindset of his English superiors) that he tried to refuse every honor and decoration that came his way. His adolescent fixation with testing his limits (he trained himself to go for days without food or sleep) curdled into a guilt-driven masochism by the time he was a post-war enlisted man. For several years he paid another soldier to beat him periodically, including once on the occasion of his book becoming a bestseller. On all other occasions, he could not bear to be touched. Rigorously celibate, he almost surely died a virgin. Does the savage beating and rape he suffered in a Turkish jail during the war explain all, or any, of this? All that's clear is that, as Churchill said, "he was not in complete harmony with the normal."

Reconciling these disparate elements would be enough to exasperate the most patient biographer, which makes it all the more remarkable that there have been more than 100 books written about Lawrence, including three biographies before his death. Or maybe writers just like the challenge. Korda, whose filmmaking uncle Alexander was the first producer to seriously ponder a movie about Lawrence, has been obsessed with him all his life. It was Lawrence's example that inspired the youthful Korda to buy his first motorcycle and enlist in the RAF in the early '50s. Hero, the ultimate result of his fixation, is a vividly told, fascinating book—part biography, part critical meditation on all the biographies that have come before, and part examination of what it means to be a hero, or rather what we look for in a hero. Is it bravery, accomplishment, charisma? Most important—and this is the thorniest lesson of Lawrence's life—what is the price of heroism to the hero?

Toward the end of this very long book (which, commendably, never feels that long), Korda records a meeting between Lawrence and Anthony West, the illegitimate son of Rebecca West and H. G. Wells, when Anthony was still a boy. The adult Anthony recalled not liking Lawrence much, thinking him "a name-dropper who blushed easily," according to Korda. When Anthony's more smitten aunt told him he should make allowances because Lawrence was an extraordinary man, Anthony said he "didn't want to have to make allowances for him … I wanted him to be a hero." His aunt said, yes, but that was Lawrence's great problem. "It's the problem all heroes have to cope with—when you've made your gesture you've got the rest of your life to live."

Lawrence himself was illegitimate, the son of Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who ran off with his children's nanny and adopted her last name. The parents never married, and never told Lawrence or his four brothers anything about the affair, although Lawrence, precocious as always, figured out most of it for himself. But what was it like, you have to wonder, growing up in a household where you never heard any talk about grandparents or cousins, never heard anyone say, Oh, that's the Chapman in you, or told you anything at all, for that matter, about your heritage?

It would be enough, certainly, to make the issue of identity more fluid than it is for most people. Over the course of his not very long life, Lawrence made and remade himself repeatedly. He was a scholar-soldier. He was an artist, a craftsman, an anonymous enlisted man who hobnobbed with celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor. Nearly everyone who met him fell for his charm, and that's still true, three quarters of a century after his death. In an age whose watchword is reinvention, he's the perfect hero—now one thing, now another, as desirable but elusive as a desert mirage.