T. E. Lawrence

Years ago I became very interested in films and started paying a lot of attention to certain directors, naturally David Lean was one of these. When I watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time, I fell in love with it. It’s a beautiful film, in fact it’s probably one of the most beautiful films ever shot, especially given the conditions it was being made in. Around the time I watched it a book came out about it, The Making of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia by Adrian Turner. It’s a large hardback book full of stunning pictures and lots of information about the shooting and script.

The script was eventually written by Robert Bolt, probably best known for the play, A Man for all Seasons. It had originally been drafted by Michael Wilson until Bolt was brought in to sort it out, eventually contributing most of the film’s dialogue. Even with a running time of 228 minutes, Lawrence still had cuts made to it, some of these from the script and Turner’s book notes a few of these omissions. The one that stuck with me was:

‘A similar incident occurred on 30 June 1962, when Lean filmed the scene when Lawrence is shot by the Turkish soldier after the train wreck. Bolt’s script had Lawrence clutch his wound and say ‘Good. Good. Good’ and then get to his feet and say ‘Oh dear, dear, oh poor Neddy Lawrence, oh poor Neddy.’ 

The only lines from this part of the script which remain in the film are ‘Good, Good. Good,’ which are said by Peter O’Toole very quickly and quietly as he lies on the floor.

I mis-remembered the omitted line as simply ‘poor, poor Neddy,’ but I never forgot the reason why it was removed from the script. Sam Spiegel feared that the line ‘revealed Lawrence’s homosexuality,’ it was also acknowledgement of Lawrence’s masochism, both subjects that were a little too delicate for 1962 to tackle overtly. They are in the film, but you’ll only really catch them if you know about the real T. E. Lawrence.

For years I’ve used ‘poor, poor Neddy’ as something self mocking, an admission that something painful is pleasurable, or something seemingly degrading was intended to be so. It’s a ‘poor Neddy’ moment and it’s echoed through an awful lot of the characters I’ve written over the years.

In the last year I’ve been revisiting Lawrence, the real T. E. Lawrence and found that as usual, the truth was much stranger than the fiction. Lawrence represents my research into masochism, there are other lines of enquiry into this but nothing fits what I’m trying to write in quite the same way as Thomas Edward Lawrence.

In the book, Biography of a Broken Hero by Harold Orlans, it states in Chapter 21:

‘When, in 1919, the plane in which he rode crashed in Rome, killing the two pilots, he suffered “a cracked shoulder-blade and . . . other minor injuries. To these he paid no attention while busying himself with the victims.” Out riding, he was asked to help start a car’s motor. As the motorist left the car in gear, the starting handle flew back and broke his right wrist. Without complaint, he asked the driver to put the gear in neutral and turned the handle with his left arm. Asking a bystander to start his motorcycle, he rode off steering with his left hand, “his right arm dangling.” The camp doctor ordered him to hospital for an operation; he refused, had the wrist bound, and returned to work.” David Garnett called this behaviour “ridiculous and a sign of abnormality.” Running with Lawrence to catch a London bus, H. S. Ede “noticed that [he] . . . was a little slow . . . [he] had broken three ribs; he was doing nothing about it, they would float into place in time.”

There are many examples of the unnecessary pain Lawrence inflicted upon himself; baring his face to sandstorms, making up relatives (Uncle R) who would request that he be subjected to demanding exercise and, should he protest to push him even harder. It’s strongly believed, and there appears to be much evidence to confirm that he paid to be flogged. The book recounts an incident in September 1930:

‘The Old Man asked Bruce to hire three horses and a groom and rent a cottage on the coast where Lawrence spent a week’s leave swimming in the sea and riding two hours each morning and afternoon. The week ended with a beating so severe that the groom, who witnessed it, became sick.’

What fascinates me with Lawrence is that there doesn’t seem to have been a ‘too far’. If the theory that he was seeking penance is correct, then he did it so devoutly that the obvious conclusion was his own end. It seemed like he punished himself at every available opportunity; whilst he may have been granted temporary pleasure, his actions were ultimately those of a man who sought to destroy himself. Lawrence is such a contradictory figure, he’s a man who desired punishment for his heroic actions rather than reward. And that’s just a little bit interesting.

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