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Lawrence of Arabia

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

One of the greatest movies of all time is a story about frame alignment. It is the Oscar-winning account of how British Colonel T. E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, helped to turn divided Arab tribes into a united movement for national independence from Turkey.

The Arabs had fallen under Turkish rule in the 1500s and subsequently endured a deep political and cultural decline. However, in World War I (1914–8), Turkey fought against Britain, and Britain recognized in the Arabs a potential ally against the Turks. In the movie, the British use Lawrence to unite the Arabs against their Turkish overlords.

At first, the British military dismisses the squabbling Arab tribes as “a nation of sheep stealers.” Enter Lawrence. He sees in them a real people and a potentially valuable ally against the Turks. As a result, he sets out to align the beliefs of the Arabs with his own thinking. He accomplishes this task by word and example. By force of personality he convinces tribal leaders that disunity will only ensure Arab status as a petty people, unable to gain its freedom and recapture the scientific, architectural, and literary glories it had achieved centuries earlier. Conversely, he argues, unity will ensure political freedom and cultural flowering.


Words, however, are not enough to galvanize any more than a few tribes. Lawrence understands he can effectively align the beliefs of the Arabs with his own ambitions only by showing in practice how unity creates power. And so, in the movie, he proposes a land attack on the Turkish-controlled port of Aqaba. It is an outlandish idea because a land attack requires the nearly impossible crossing of a long stretch of barren desert known as “The Sun’s Anvil.” It is, however, an idea that is strategically dazzling, for the Turkish guns at Aqaba are stationary and they point out to the Red Sea, not inland. Fighting thirst, hunger, and fatigue, Lawrence leads his supporters across The Sun’s Anvil. In Aqaba, the Turks, defenceless against the land attack, lose hundreds in battle and quickly capitulate. It is a turning point. The British military, now convinced that Lawrence can unite the Arabs, gives him guns and artillery to continue his campaign against the Turks. Arabs throughout the Middle East take pride in their military accomplishments. They emerge at the end of the war by no means a fully united national independence movement, but at least able to see the possibility of Arab unity.


Lawrence of Arabia is a great movie, but it is flawed because it gives too much credence to Lawrence’s own, self-promoting account of events and not enough to other credible historical sources that emphasize the native origins of Arab nationalism. Thus, the roots of the Arab national movement lay deeper than the movie allows. The movement first began to stir more than 60 years before Lawrence arrived in the Middle East, having sprung up among semi-Westernized Arab intellectuals in urban centers like Beirut and Damascus in the late 1840s. Similarly, Arabs alone conceived and executed the all-important raid on Aqaba. In the words of one historian, Lawrence participated merely as “a trusted friend and companion-in-arms” of Faisal, a tribal leader and later King of Iraq. Lawrence’s exercise in frame alignment certainly helped stimulate the Arab national movement, but, as these examples illustrate, by overstating and romanticizing Lawrence’s role, Lawrence of Arabia understates the Arabs’ part in fashioning their own destiny.

The movie does, however, accurately portray the duplicity of the British, and it shows how they helped to arouse a more militant Arab nationalism. The British promised the Arabs independence after World War I in exchange for their support against the Turks. In 1916, however, they made a secret deal with France to divide up much of the region. After the war, Britain ruled part of the Middle East, France another. Increasingly, the United States, too, exercised substantial influence over parts of the region. This fuelled anti-Western resentment on the part of the Arabs. Western support for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 further inflamed Arab nationalism and anti-Westernism. So did subsequent Western political and military intervention to ensure access to the region’s enormous oil reserves. Thus, what began as an exercise in frame alignment turned out to be the world’s most intractable political problem in the early 21st century.

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