HistoryCast 5000: Lawrence of Arabia

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Midmost Coast podcast episode 036 | HistoryCast 5000: Lawrence of Arabia | We pit this classic masterpiece of cinema against history

We wheel the HistoryCast 5000 machine back out to analyze a classic masterpiece of cinema for historical accuracy. Lawrence of Arabia is widely loved by critics, but how true is it to history? We make a quantifiable determination in this episode.

Show Summary

Intro

  • The premise of our HistoryCast 5000 episodes is that we examine a film for historical accuracy
  • The machine has been calibrated previously with Sink the Bismarck! and Oliver Stone’s JFK
  • A quick rundown of Midmost Coast’s other show topics: Non-Union Films, Very Local History and Script Bandits
  • Notably, this is the favorite film of director Steven Spielberg, android David from Prometheus, and android co-host Sean Gallagher
  • Over time the accuracy of this film has led to some hot debates
  • This film was almost made in 1953 starring John Wayne

A Very Short Film Summary

  • Lawrence dies in the beginning in a motorcycle accident and then we flashback to World War I
  • Lawrence is sent to the Middle East by Mr. Dryden of The Arab Bureau
  • His mission: Meet Prince Faisal and assess the viability of a planned revolt against the Ottomans
  • We meet Colonel Brighton and Sherif Ali, and there is trouble down at the local well
  • Lawrence convinces Faisal of his plan and is given 50 men under the command of Sherif Ali
  • They cross the desert, gather forces and take the port town of Aqaba
  • In Cairo, Lawrence is debriefed by Dryden and promoted by General Allenby
  • Later in Jerusalem, Allenby tells Lawrence to take Damascus
  • They hire mercenaries, slaughter a column of Ottoman forces, and Lawrence feels bad
  • They take Damascus, but the ruling council descends into bickering
  • Lawrence returns back home to Britain

Geography and Settings

  • The film makes a great effort to use the actual locales of the events
  • They take some license to make the desert more “iconic” looking
  • Spain and Wales are among a few alternate locations used

Arab Culture

  • Most ongoing criticisms concern negative portrayals of Arab locals and culture
  • The culture is at best overly simplified in the film
  • There are many liberties taken with the depiction of Prince Faisal’s role in the Arab Revolt

Thomas Edward Lawrence

  • He did live from 1888 to 1935, and was killed in a motorcycle accident as shown
  • The film is at least biased towards showing Lawrence’s importance over those of other intelligence officers
  • Biographer Richard Aldington, among others, argues that Lawrence’s accounts were aggrandizing
  • Lawrence could speak and write Arabic
  • He was also a cartographer
  • Friends and family take great issue with how Lawrence is depicted
  • Lawrence was described as ill suited for military culture
  • Lawrence did schedule a meeting with Allenby and show up dressed in robes

Geopolitics

  • Britain did overpromise to multiple parties for the sake of ending the war
  • Lawrence was clued in to this and took issue with it, but he did not resign over the matter
  • In broad terms the film gets much about the beginnings of the Arab Revolt wrong, as well as the immediate political fate of Damascus

“Not Quites”

  • Lawrence’s forces were not all untrained, and actually included uniformed and trained men, some former POWs
  • The actual battle of Aqaba did not take place in Aqaba, which was taken largely unopposed days later with naval support
  • Likewise Damascus was taken by Australian forces, not by Lawrence’s men
  • Colonel Brighton may be partially inspired by Lieutenant Colonel S.F. Newcombe
  • Dryden was also apparently a composite character of other political stakeholders
  • Farraj did die but not by explosion
  • There is some general timeline fuzziness
  • Auda ibu Tayi probably was not the mercenary the film portrayed, and became a true believer in Arab independence

Omissions

  • The film leaves out British specialist Gertrude Bell who would have made a good addition to the story
  • They don’t show Lawrence shooting his own camel in the head
  • Lawrence’s exploits in Yenbo and Wejh are omitted
  • Colonel Edouard BrĂ©mond, who led a French military mission in the Hejaz, is not mentioned in the film

“Nopes”

  • Ali didn’t kill the guide by the well
  • Lawrence received mockery, not praise, for saving someone’s life on the dunes
  • Quicksand did not claim Daud, and probably would not have been a hazard in the area
  • The Arab Council more or less maintained control of Syria until Faisal is deposed in 1920 by France
  • Lawrence’s army didn’t attempt to desert in the desert

“Yeps…?”

  • The charge on the Ottoman column is true
  • At least Lawrence says in his memoir he ordered the taking of no prisoners, and is seen in the film
  • There is some doubt Lawrence was captured and tortured, but the assertion is there in Lawrence’s memoir
  • The two servants were real

Digital Wristwatches

  • DH Tiger Moths were anachronistic
  • The large ship on the Suez Canal was too modern
  • There is a Browning M1919 machine gun which would not have existed at the time
  • The props used were close enough for us, however

Miscellaneous

  • Most traveling was shown as moving left to right across the frame
  • Lawrence and romance
  • Peter O’Toole drank and got injured a lot

Conclusion

  • Sean still loves the film, but is disappointed with the inaccuracies
  • A beautiful and ambitious film
  • We settle on a score of 50%
  • While a somewhat faithful biopic, it takes a lot of liberties with history
  • The biggest historical flaw relates to its treatment of the Arab Revolt
  • We plan the next Non-Union Films with a local live showing event
  • A new Historic Darts is also on the production calendar
  • Watch our animations on the YouTube channel
  • Tweet at us on the Twitter

Links

PRI asks if Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia is fact or fiction.

Signature Reads tells us what’s right and wrong in Lawrence of Arabia.

IMDb has a well populated entry on the movie

Wikipedia also has a lovingly cultivated article on the film.

Richard Aldington published his revisionist biography in 1955.

Heavy hitter Basil Liddell Hart also tackles the subject.

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