Peter O’Toole, the legendary and renowned Irish actor who glittered for decades on screen and stage, has died at the age of 81 in London after a long illness.
O'Toole will undoubtedly be forever remembered for portraying Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence in the 1962 film classic “Lawrence of Arabia. Only 30 years old at the time – and, amazingly, in one of his earliest screen appearances, O’Toole’s everlasting fame was guaranteed by David Lean’s masterpiece, making it impossible for the thespian to ever come out of Lawrence’s considerable shadow. However, while "Lawrence of Arabia" is deservedly considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, it has many problems, including taking significant liberties with the truth and historical accuracy.
More importantly, the huge fame and popularity of the film has almost completely obliterated the life story of the real T.E. Lawrence, who was a complex and fascinating man who deserves to be remembered and admired for all time to come. In the public’s mind, "Lawrence of Arabia" is not T.E. Lawrence, the brave British soldier who helped the Arab tribes fight against their Ottoman Turkish overlords. but rather Peter O’Toole, who had little in common with the character he portrayed.
The inaccuracies with respect to the Arab campaign during World War I are too complex and numerous to discuss, so I will focus on just O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence. For one thing, O’Toole stood almost 10 inches taller than the real Lawrence, and his naturally dark brown curly hair had to be straightened and dyed blonde to match his doppelganger. (O’Toole was also much better looking than the rather ordinary-looking Lawrence, leading playwright and wit Noel Coward to comment that the movie should’ve been called “Florence of Arabia.”)
Aside from superficial physical differences, Lawrence was born in the Victorian era and maintained strict rules about public behavior and typically exercised great restraint and the well-known British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip. Lawrence shunned publicity and was greatly distressed by his enormous fame following the war and the publication of his classic book, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” In the film, however, considerable dramatic license is taken by making Lawrence act like an egotistical eccentric who hungers for publicity and notoriety. Such behavior would be anathema to the real Lawrence.
Then there is the not-insignificant matter of Lawrence’s sexual orientation. Many scholars and historians have determined that Lawrence was gay, although this was a subject Lawrence himself never discussed in public (quite understandably, given the climate of his times). The film, though, suggests in a whispering, catty manner that Lawrence is decidedly homosexual – in one scene, he declares, “Do you think I'm just anybody, Ali?” In another, after he puts on his flowing Arab robes in an empty desert, he sashays around as if he is parading in some fashion show. The film also strongly implies he engaged in (and enjoyed) masochism and flagellation.
Lawrence may indeed have been gay – but it’s doubtful he would ever try to flaunt it with such behavior, particularly among his ultra-conservative Arab hosts. In a particularly controversial scene in the film, it is suggested that Lawrence was beaten and perhaps anally raped by the local Turkish bey in the city of Deraa (portrayed by Jose Ferrer). The veracity of this sexual assault has never been (probably can never be) definitively verified.
Another grievous misrepresentation in the film has to do with Lawrence’s views of Arab nationalism – the Peter O’Toole version suggested that he favored independence of the Arabs from European powers. In reality, Lawrence was a fierce imperialist who wanted Britain to rule the Middle East (he categorically did not wish the French to have any influence in the region).
Thus, the immediacy and immense power of a visual media like film supersedes the subtleties and nuances of books – it’s guaranteed that more people have seen the film “Lawrence of Arabia” than actually have read “Seven Pillars” or any of the numerous biographies of Lawrence. (I would even venture to say that more folks have probably read O’Toole’s biography – he, too, has had a colorful and noteworthy life.) At this point, it may not even matter who the real T.E. Lawrence was – for even a distorted version of the truth serves the purpose of perpetuating his memory. But I can’t help but think that the real Lawrence (who died in a motorcycle accident in 1935) might be appalled and flabbergasted by the legacy he has unwittingly created.