I am an enormous fan of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean's classic 1962 movie. I had read T.E. Lawrence's Revolt in the Desert years ago and made a mental note to try to track down a good biography of this famously enigmatic figure. Lead to to this book by a positive review in The Economist I was not disappointed. The author, somewhat ironically, is the nephew of the legendary British film producer Sir Alexander Korda, who sold the film rights for Revolt in the Desert to Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia.
The film, of course, is only a semi-representative sliver of the life of T.E. Lawrence. What this biography brings is the sense that, with little effort, a dozen good films could be made from the material of this remarkable life. As mentioned in the film, Lawrence was illegitimate, his Irish gentry father having run-off with his first family's governess. That alone would give enough for a solid Edwardian potboiler. His otherwise conventional upper-class childhood built on a lie (there was no divorce from the first wife), the complex relationship with his siblings and his many precocious talents call out for Masterpiece Theatre.
Through his life Lawrence possessed a remarkable ability to enter into highest circles of academia, government and culture with little apparent effort. His youth and scandalous birth paled when compared to his obvious brilliance. Becoming an expert in half-a-dozen fields while meandering through Oxford, his greatest challenge seems to have been one of avoiding boredom. Personal connections allowed him to spend three years doing archaeological work in the then Ottoman Empire. A masterful work on crusader castles followed almost as an afterthought.
War took him to Cairo and a junior position in the Arab Bureau. His military status was always nebulous, technically spending most of the war as a temporary officer. The bureaucrats could never quite define him. Officially sent into the Arabian deserts as an observer he became, through force of will and natural strategic aptitude, the leader of a guerrilla army that helped destabilize the Ottoman Empire. A series of brilliant military victories and a mad dash for Damascus made him a legend in the region. The shrewd American reporter Lowell Thomas popularized the legend through out the world, making Lawrence an early media stars.
In the years immediately after the war he plotted with his friend Churchill, Lloyd George and a collection of Arab Princes the map of the modern Middle East. Through his charm and cunning he placed kings on the thrones of Iraq and Jordan, the latter of whose descendants still rule in one of the more civilized nations of the region. The historians have been apportioning their blame ever since on Lawrence's slender shoulders.
His talent for "backing into the limelight" was matched by his abhorrence of fame, which was in turn surpassed only by the militant suppression of his own sex drive. Korda, mercifully, keeps the psychological commentary to a minimum and leaves us with the strange facts. Nothing evil, really, just very, very odd. Did we mention he had a fraught relationship with his pious mother? The same mother who lived in sin for decades with her former employer? Make what you will of it.
After having literally shaped the destinies of nations and kings, while somehow becoming a sort of adopted son to G.B. Shaw and serving as the model for Private Meek in Too True To Be Good, Lawrence enlisted in the RAF and then the Army. Despite having been at one point a Lt. Colonel, the king maker choose to become an aircraftman, leaving the service when his identity was discovered. A stint in the Royal Tank Corp made him deeply unhappy and he, with the connivance of the highest authorities, rejoined the RAF. His fame would soon enough force his temporary relocation to a remote base in British India, then again force his return to Britain. His death at 46 in a freak motorcycle accident served as an unworthy end.
Michael Korda, who has a long list of bestselling historical works, handles the vast material with the expected deft of an old hand. The style is easy and at times elegant. Beyond the author, however, stands the subject and his amazing story, the ultimate Boy's Own adventure story combined with a fascinating history lesson.