David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia was both visually engaging and emotionally compelling as it told the story of T. E. Lawrence, the young British military officer who played a pivotal role in the Middle East during World War I. In the book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of theModern Middle East, author Scott Anderson both demythologizes Lawrence and attempts to place his actions within the larger context of history.
In order to do this, Anderson weaves Lawrence’s story with those of three spies from the era--German Curt Prüfer, American – and Standard Oil employee – William Yale, and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn. Each sought not only to further the goals of their countries but their own ambitions as well. The result is complex, interesting, and informative, and helps us to understand how we ended up with the Middle Eastern quagmire of today.
In many ways, this wartime period was a much simpler time when men in their twenties rose rapidly to places of immense influence and power. There was an almost naïve simplicity that extolled manly virtues and heroic deeds that seem a bit ridiculous in light of the warfare of today. Even the spycraft seems simplistic and unpretentious in light of modern methodologies.
All of this is played out against a background of trench warfare and frontal assaults that claimed millions of lives on both sides. We are repelled by the tragic indifference to human life. On the other hand, there is something a bit ridiculous about the major colonial powers of Europe dividing up their spoils of war in the Middle East with little understanding of the powerful forces at work there.
All of the men portrayed were heroic in their own way, but each ended up as a tragic failure. Lawrence himself carried an immense emotional burden for what he had done for King and country. He refused a knighthood and changed his identity more than once to escape his public notoriety and died at the age of 46 as the result of a traffic accident.
Lawrence in Arabia is history as tragedy. One comes away with a certain feeling of loss for what might have been.