Written by Dr Steven Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History, Kingston University
Many people with an interest in imperial history are familiar with the life and wartime career of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), mainly through the famous epic feature film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The smash-hit and critically acclaimed movie starred the late Peter O’Toole as the enigmatic British officer who helped create and organise the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War One. Character actor Jack Hawkins was equally memorable as his tough but fair-minded commanding officer, General Allenby, who had strongly supported Lawrence’s campaign, despite initial reservations.
Although wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly accurate in some key ways, the film – directed by David Lean and with a screenplay by the famous playwright Robert Bolt – inevitably cut corners and embellished aspects of T.E. Lawrence’s wartime story, mainly in order to synthesise and convey the main events of the Arab revolt on the big screen for the entertainment of 1960s cinemagoers.
Importantly, one can argue that the 1962 movie in turn was clearly influenced by the powerful image of Lawrence (see photo) that had been developed during the 1920s and 1930s by the American journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981), who had spent some time with the quiet and mysterious Englishman in the desert, and had witnessed some of the daring ‘hit and run’ guerilla warfare employed behind Turkish lines by Lawrence and his small army of Arab fighters.
In fact, in many ways, Thomas was instrumental in crafting all the eye-catching and glamorous iconography that came to be associated with Lawrence: indeed, the American helped launch and build the Lawrence ‘legend’ when he personally presented a post-war show called With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which some commentators have termed the first ‘multi-media’ show. This show was seen by many thousands of people in New York and London in 1919-20 and, when it went ‘on the road’, it was estimated that the show was eventually seen by up to 3 million people in the English-speaking world between 1919-1924. According to his biographers, it was also seen by Lawrence himself at least five times, who sat in anonymously with London audiences, unrecognised by the public in the dark auditorium. Lawrence grew increasingly uneasy about the show, however, and began to complain to his friends that Thomas had ‘made me a kind of matinee idol’.
Thomas (pictured here with Lawrence in a post-war pose) combined cinefilm with photos and orchestral music, and his personal narrative was expertly synchronised with the imagery and live music. He started the show with the words ‘Come with me to the lands of mystery, history and romance’, and audiences were evidently entranced by the ‘glamour’ and sheer scale of the Lawrence story, especially compared to the bleak imagery that had emerged from the recent bloody fighting on the Western Front. In a Britain thirsty for individual heroes, Lawrence appeared to meet all the criteria. The show made Thomas almost as famous as Lawrence; it also made Thomas large sums of money, and versions of the show, hosted by other speakers and using the cinefilm Thomas had shot of Lawrence during the wartime desert campaign, were taken on tour around Britain in the early 1920s, including in the Thames Valley area.
Interestingly, Kingston had already had a taste of the Lawrence ‘legend’ when, in February, 1921, Captain Laurence M. Gotch, who had served as a Topographical Officer on General Allenby’s staff in Egypt and Palestine (and had met Lawrence in the war), gave what the local press called ‘a thrilling narrative’ of the achievements of Lawrence in an illustrated lecture given to members of the Kingston Congregational Church Guild. According to the Surrey Comet, Captain Gotch ‘painted a fine picture’ of Lawrence as ‘a man of exceptional abilities’.
This enthusiastic version of Lawrence as the great ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ was reinforced a few months later, in October, 1921, when a version of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia ran for three days at Surbiton Assembly Rooms at the bottom of Surbiton Hill (see recent photo). Lowell Thomas’s cinefilm was combined with a special travel talk, called ‘The Lowell Thomas Travelogues’, presented by William A. Courtney, who had served in the war with the RAF in the Middle East.
This event at the Assembly Rooms proved to be very popular with local people in Surbiton and Kingston, and the show was taken to other parts of south-west London, where it also attracted large numbers of people and saw high ticket sales. The local newspapers in the suburbs of London were extremely complimentary about the show and about the details of the life of Lawrence, who was presented as a great ‘imperial’ hero. Ironically, this greatly troubled Lawrence himself, who felt that both Britain and France had actually reneged on the original promises Lawrence had made to the Arabs in 1917.
Thomas also allowed versions of his show to be put on in many other towns and cities across Britain. For Lawrence himself, however, this was more and more of a problem, to the point where he simply wanted to retreat from public life and ‘disappear’ into the background.