Lives in Film no. 2: T.E. Lawrence

I am currently working on a project with Neil Brand to recreate, at least in part, a multimedia show of considerable importance to the popular understanding of one theatre of the First World War, and one man in particular. With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia was the creation of the American journalist Lowell Thomas, who journeyed to Europe on a propaganda mission to uncover stories that would encourage American support for the war. Not satisfied with what he found on the Western front, Thomas moved to Palestine, where General Allenby’s war against the Turks promised a less sullied, more symbolic conflict. And it was there, in Jersualem in March 1918 that Thomas met the man who was to make his fortune, and whose own fame he was to play a major part in securing.

Thomas famously said of Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) that he had “a genius for backing into the limelight”. The shy archaeologist working for British intelligence who was instrumental in organising the Arab revolt was simultaneously repelled by and fascinated by fame. This post will not attempt to tell the story of T.E. Lawrence, which is amply documented elsewhere, but it will cover the handful of occasions on which the man who shied away from publicity, to the point where he took on an assumed name and a humble occupation after the war, nevertheless appeared before motion picture cameras. By my calculation he was filmed on five occasions, each for a brief moment only, yet each iconic in its own way. Unlike the many photographs of Lawrence that exist, which seem filled with mystery and contradiction, the films of him capture his ordinariness in extraordinary circumstances.

General Allenby’s Entry into Jerusalem
The first two films of Lawrence to be made were two shots from the same newsreel film taken on 11 December 1917. On 9 December Jerusalem fell to the Allied forces led by General Edmund Allenby, the great hero of the hour. There was obviously huge symbolic significance for Western audiences in seeing Jerusalem being freed from centuries of occupation by the Ottoman Empire. Two days after the city’s capture, Allenby organised a march on foot into the city (intended as a humble gesture to contrast with the Kaiser’s earlier choice to drive into the city). A proclamation was then read out promising respect for all religions.

Taking part in the ceremonies was T.E. Lawrence. He was dressed in British uniform, and appears twice in the official film of the events. The film was made by Harold Jeapes, cameramen for the War Office Official Topical Budget – which changed its names to Pictorial News (Official) when the newsreel was released on 23 February 1918. Jeapes was assisted by a second cameraman, probably the official photographer George Westmoreland. Lawrence was, of course, quite unknown to the outside world at this point, and marches past anonymously as part of the column following Allenby into the city. (Unfortunately I’m not able to illustrate this)

Allenby and Lawrence shown in the newsreel film General Allenby’s Entry into Jerusalem; frame still taken from a compilation film British WWI Film on the Mideast and other Naval Operations, from www.realmilitaryflix.com/public/481.cfm

But the second shot of him in the film is more mysterious. It shows Allenby in conversation with someone, but the figures standing around part, and the small figure of Lawrence emerges, glancing coyly at the camera, almost as if to say you don’t know who I am – but one day you will do. So far as I have been able to tell (and it’s a film I have studied over many years), Lawrence does not appear in that part of the film where the proclamation is read, though it is very likely that he is somewhere among the crowd listening to Allenby’s significant words being read out.

With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia
It was just over two months later, in March 1918, when Lowell Thomas turned up in Jerusalem and asked to see the young officer whose exploits were the subject of marvelled rumour. Thomas was accompanied by Harry Chase, a seasoned photographer also equipped with a motion picture camera, with whom he had been recording Allenby’s campaign, mostly in retrospect.

Lawrence recognised Thomas as the journalist in search of a good story that he was, but also as a reasonable man. He saw that Thomas’ mission could be used to help promote the little-known Arab revolt, but also that he would need to keep Thomas at arms’ length to protect his much-valued privacy. This is borne out in the photographic and cinematographic record. Lawrence permitted Chase to take a number of photographs of himself in Arab dress, both in Jerusalem and outside his tent in Aqaba. Thomas had persuaded Lawrence of the need to have several photographs, on account of the illustrated show that he had in mind. But Thomas only spent a couple of days close to Lawrence, and the film record bears this out.

Emir Faisal (bearded) in centre, with Lowell Thomas to his right and a hunched Lawrence (in Arab dress) to his left, translating Thomas’ words. Filmed by Harry Chase. From www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1935/05/23/BGU407200219

Lawrence turns up just twice in the films that Chase took. In the first sequence, he is seen in Arab dress amongst a group of Bedouin warriors in an urban setting. Emir Faisal, the future King Faisal I of Iraq (the Alec Guinness character in David Lean’s film) is the central figure. Lawrence is barely visible to the side until Thomas himself walks and speaks to Faisal, at which point Lawrence comes forward to act as interpreter. In the second sequence, Lawrence and Faisal drives past the camera in an army truck, neither distinguishable unless one has prior knowledge. [Doubt has been cast on whether it is Lawrence and Faisal in this shot – see comments]

It is not much of a documentary record, but Lawrence could not have imagined how Thomas’ genius would turn his relatively slender material into a show that would be viewed by millions. Putting together all that he gathered from the various war fronts into a series of shows which he put on in New York in March 1919, Thomas found that his Arabia and Palestine material was easily the most popular. A British impresario, Percy Burton, saw the show, and brought Thomas and Chase (who served as projectionist) over to London, where With Allenby in Palestine opened at the Royal Opera House in the unpromising month of August.

Within days the show – which Thomas labelled a ‘travelogue’ – had become With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia and it was the talk of the town. Londoners were charmed by Thomas’ easy-going narrative style (he presented every screening, two a day of a two-hour show) and enthralled by the romance of Lawrence’s exploits. As Thomas told them, here was being “one of the most picturesque personalities of modern times, a man who will be blazoned on the romantic pages of history with Raleigh, Drake, Clive and Gordon”.

Lawrence (left) and Faisal in army truck, filmed by Harry Chase. From www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1935/05/23/BGU407200219 [See comments – this is not thought to show Lawrence]

It wasn’t exactly historical truth, but it was exactly what audiences wanted. An estimated one million people saw it during its London run (it also played at the Royal Albert Hall, the Philharmonic Hall and the Queen’s Hall) and four million world-wide. The show was a combination of prologue, musical interludes (organ music and the band of the Welsh guards), Thomas’ narration, photographic slides (many of them hand-coloured) and films. It established the romantic legend of Lawrence of Arabia, enshrined in Thomas’ book of that name published in 1924, in the short documentary film of the same title in 1927, and on to the David Lean film, which builds on the image of Lawrence created by Lowell Thomas (who is portrayed in the film as Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy).

Versailles peace treaty
This is a speculative one. Lawrence attended the Versailles peace conference negotiations as part of Faisal’s delegation between January and May 1919. Some twenty years ago I was watching a television programme on the First World War when an archive film sequence was shown of the Versailles conference. A group of men walked past the camera in the palace grounds, and one of them – I swear – was T.E. Lawrence. I’ve searched high and low for this sequence ever since and never found it (and I can’t remember what the programme was) but I’m certain I saw him. Perhaps someone out there could confirm this or otherwise for me.

Lawrence at a picnic with publisher Frank N. Doubleday, at some point in the late-1920s/early-30s. From www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_FoxMovietone/1930/01/01/X01013002

The Doubleday ‘home movie’
Following Versailles and a short period serving as an advisor to the Colonial Office, Lawrence turned his back on his growing fame by enlisting in the RAF under the name of John Hume Ross. This attempt as disguised was soon rumbled, but he tired against, this time enlisting in the Tank Corps as Private T.E. Shaw, later rejoining the RAF under this name. But while he was hiding from those who pursued him because of his fame, he was also worked to increase that fame by publishing an account of his experiences as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). The US publisher of this was Frank N. Doubleday, and the next film of Lawrence is a film taken at some point in the late 1920s (or possibly early 1930s) at a picnic and for a photo shoot outside Doubleday’s home (the first sequence feels like a home movie, but the latter looks professional). A somewhat world-weary-looking Lawrence eyes the camera with something that comes half-way between caution and amusement.

Lawrence (shown arrowed) when Aircraftsman Shaw, disembarking from a ship off Plymouth, from Gaumont Graphic newsreel. From www.itnsource.com/shotlist//BHC_RTV/1929/01/01/BGT407140571

Aircraftsman Shaw
Our final film of Lawrence is pure paparazzi. He was pursued by photographs and cameramen throughout the last years of his life, and finally in Feburary 1929 one newsreel cameraman got lucky. There is a Gaumont Graphic newsreel which shows some wobbly, long-distance shot of the then Aircraftsman Shaw disembarking at Plymouth from India, where he had been on a supposedly secret mission. “Despite all precautions Gaumont Graphic cameraman secures exclusive pictures of ‘elusive Lawrence'” boast the intertitles.

T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident in May 1935, and the several newsreel films on his funeral lauded his achievements and his legend with what little footage they could muster. The Doubleday picnic film, the Shaw footage and the Thomas footage were used (the latter without anyone pointing out which shots showed Lawrence), but not Lawrence’s appearance in the Jerusalem film. This was not spotted for many years thereafter.

Lawrence’s experience with the motion picture camera says a lot about the progress of twentieth-century fame. Lawrence’s time in the limelight came at just that point where cameras were becoming inescapable and the celebrated had to learn not to avoid them but how to live with them. Television made the game of escape impossible, but the newsreel camera was a little more cumbersome, and those who wanted to flee its gaze could do so for a while, or at least be caught only on the sly. Lawrence mastered photography (and still portraiture in general) because he could control the conditions under which still images of him were taken, but the motion picture camera was more dangerous. It showed more than the myth – it could capture the real man, which above all is what Lawrence wanted to hide.

Our partial recreation of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia features at the British Silent Film Festival at the Leicester Phoenix or Friday 16 April, at 11.15am. It’s being presented as a work in progress, and depending on how well it goes we’ll see if we can take the project further and devise a fuller recreation of Lowell Thomas’ travelogue.

General Allenby’s Entry into Jerusalem (the short newsreel versions – a longer, ten-minute version also exists) can be seen on the BFI’s Screenonline site, accessible to UK libraries, schools and colleges only. The film is held both by the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum.

Shortened versions of the Lawrence sequences filmed by Harry Chase in 1918 can be seen in a 1935 Gaumont-British News item available on the ITN Source site.

The Doubleday picnic film can be seen on ITN Source and used in a 1935 Fox Movietone memorial item with commentary by Lowell Thomas, included in the same clip.

The various Lowell Thomas films of Allenby and Lawrence, in unedited and edited form, are held by the Imperial War Museum.

An almost complete version of Lowell Thomas’ script for With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia is available on the web archives website of Marist College, USA, which holds the Lowell Thomas papers. The script comes from a presentation of the show in Ireland and has several local references. The Marist site also has a selection of Harry Chase’s photographs and a digitised copy of Thomas’ diary.

Lawrence’s official biographer Jeremy Wilson has an excellent blog on Lawrence, which includes this recent post on Lowell Thomas’ 1919-1920 shows. There is also a fascinating thread from the T.E. Lawrence Studies list, managed by Wilson, discussing the relationship between Lowell Thomas and Lawrence.