Filming T.E. Lawrence:
Korda's Lost Epics

by Nicholas J. Cull

It is a testament to the power of the legends around T.E. Lawrence that at the time of his death filmmakers of the calibre of Alexander Korda and Sergei Eisenstein, and industries as far apart as Britain, Hollywood, Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany should have contemplated films dealing with his life. In the event only the Nazi tale of resistance to Lawrence (Aufruhr in Damascus) and a thirty-six minute British documentary film called Lawrence of Arabia made it to screen. Korda's plan to film Lawrence's story has been one of the great 'what if's of British cinema ever since. This slim volume does much to answer that question. Here we have the story behind Korda's failure to make his Lawrence film, a contemporary interview with the proposed star, Leslie Howard, on how he intended to play Lawrence, and a copy of the final screenplay, which has hitherto languished in the bowels of the British Film Institute. What emerges is a first-rate case study of the British-way-of-censorship during the inter-war years. More importantly this book is a first class resource in the study of the development of the Lawrence myth, the cultural history of the Great War and, by implication, British attitudes to war, Empire, and even, as Graham Dawson argued in his Soldier Heroes (1994), masculinity. The authors do not comment on the wider cultural significance of the Lawrence of 1938 themselves. They are content to make the text available and allow it to speak for itself, and speak it certainly does.

As Kelly, Richards and Pepper begin by noting, the Lawrence legend was forged on the silver screen. They trace the development of that image from those first slide lectures by Lowell Thomas, through Lawrence's own version of events in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert to Korda's acquisition of the film rights of the later book in 1934. They chart the multiple transformations of the project as Korda twists and turns to please first Lawrence himself and, later, the British foreign office. Making excellent use of original documents the authors detail the slow war of attrition waged by Whitehall against the project. The principal problem was the depiction of Lawrence's enemy, the Turks. It seemed inconceivable that a film on this subject could avoid causing offense in Turkey, a country which was as politically unpredictable as it was strategically vital. The ensuing struggle to sanitize Korda's script involved some of the great names of British interwar propaganda policy: Rex Leeper, Lord Tyrell and Sir Robert Vansittart all played a part in the bid to remove scenes of Turkish brutality, cowardice and ineptitude. It would be interesting to know whether these considerations figured in the advice that Winston Churchill apparently proffered to Alexander Korda regarding the film. Unfortunately we are told nothing about Korda's use of Churchill as a historical consultant, beyond a tantalizing reference in the Howard interview.

By 1939 Korda was on the defensive. One official minuted that while not wishing to suppress the film altogether: 'it is important that we should do everything in our power to make it as anodyne as possible', and proposed accepting the opportunity to review the scenario and compose the prologue to the film. Korda for his part made a valiant effort to dilute the anti-Turkish content of the film and broaden the story to include Lawrence's life before and after Arabia. Moreover, he insisted that his film would help British foreign policy: "My associates and myself are fully convinced that the making of a picture about Lawrence's life today is very greatly in the National Interest, as nothing could have such good propaganda effect as the example of his life." In the end the project was lost in the more pressing priorities of World War II.

On the evidence presented in the screenplay it is not difficult to see why the Foreign Office had its doubts about Korda's Lawrence. The Turks are ignobly depicted in assorted floggings, hangings, massacres and despoiling. Howard, for his part, suggested in his interview that the film might be a tragedy, showing 'the ultimate defeat of Lawrence's ideals by the well meaning, uncompromising machine of British Government', and indeed the film ends with Lawrence leaving the Middle East in chaos. But the screenplay tells us much more than that.

The historical introduction concludes with the note that David Lean's Lawrence was 'a very different hero from the one envisaged by Korda'. At a superficial level this is true. Many scenes seem dated. A sequence in which Lawrence's recruits swear an 'Arab oath' seems like a lift straight from the Sherwood Forest of Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood of 1938. Yet the main thrust of the screenplay is astonishingly similar to that of Robert Bolt's screenplay for David Lean's version. Rather than immense disparities between Bolt and the treatment of 1938 by Miles Malleson, Brian Desmond Hurst and Duncan Guthrie, one is struck by amazing parallels.

There is no suggestion that Bolt or any one else had seen the 1938 version until it was rediscovered by John Pepper among a consignment of antiquarian books in California, yet, the writers made remarkably similar selections from Lawrence's original text. Whole scenes and much dialogue appear in both versions and serve similar functions in the structure of the final screenplay as Lawrence banters with his superiors, captures Aquaba, executes one of his own men, watches both his boy servants die and destroys a series of Turkish trains on the road to military success and personal defeat. The common approach is nowhere clearer that at the climax of the narrative. Both scripts conclude with Lawrence sinking into a pit of mercilessness and barbarity beyond that which has been earlier associated with his Arab comrades. He avenges the Turkish destruction of a village by attacking the enemy with the cry of 'No prisoners'. The divergences are equally interesting. Korda's Lawrence barks the bloodthirsty command: 'the best of you brings me the most Turkish dead' and in a florid piece of neo-homeric raving, lifted directly from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, confesses admiration for the Austrian and German contingent in the column: "For the first lime I am proud of the enemy who has killed my brothers. They are two thousand miles away from home, without hope and without guides. Yet their sections hold together in firm rank, shearing through the wrack of Turk and Arab like armoured ships, high-faced and silent, They halt, take position and the to order. They're glorious." The insubordinate archaeologist pictured in the films opening has been so warped by war that he is now spouting lines that would not have been out of place in the Nazi version of the battle of Palestine.

Both films end with images of squalor in the military hospital in Damascus, perfidious British political double dealing and a disillusioned Lawrence leaving Arabia having accepted promotion to Colonel only to facilitate a more comfortable journey home.

In the last analysis Bolt is able to make explicit nuances at which the Korda script could merely hint. Bolt drew a multi-dimensional portrait, alluding both to Lawrence's homosexuality and including moments of dark introversion that throw Lawrence's troubled nature into sharp relief. Bolt made excellent use of the psychologically pivotal scene from Seven Pillars of Wisdom in which Lawrence is captured by the Turks, mistaken for a Circassian boy, beaten (possibly raped) and then thrown into the street. His predecessors have no equivalent. Yet the underlying trajectories of both films remain astonishingly similar; both read the same profoundly pessimistic messages onto Lawrence's life and writing: racial identifies cannot be transcended, diplomats betray warriors, military victories are hollow, and violence corrupts. The essence of the Bolt/Lean Lawrence is the transformation of hero to anti-hero. That transformation is clearly prefigured in the 1938 screenplay. Korda's Lawrence does not anticipate the self possessed heroes of British wartime propaganda films, rather he retains the complexities of the disillusioned protagonists of the literature of the previous war. It is significant that Korda's original choice of director was Lewis Milestone, best known for All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and that one of the writers Miles Malleson (like Robert Bolt) had radical, pacifist politics. Korda's screenplay is clearly a document from the era when the Oxford Union voted not to fight for King and Country. It was simply inappropriate for the task facing Britain in 1939.

The editors do not speculate on the precise motives for Korda's decision to abandon this project. Given Korda's well known personal commitment to Britain and its political well-being, it is not difficult to see why he cut his losses and yielded to Foreign Office pressure. Indeed it is a testament to his tenacity as a businessman that he protected his investment in the project for so long. In the last analysis one is driven to conclude that the problem was not so much the British Government as the fundamentally ambiguous nature of Lawrence himself. His life and writing simply did not point where Korda needed to go in 1939. Korda was no fool and did well to seek his historical heroes elsewhere. Olivier's Nelson in That Hamilton Woman (1941) was an infinitely more pliable propaganda proxy than Leslie Howard's Lawrence of Arabia could ever have been.

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