Was Lawrence of Arabia a Hero?
Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence
AFI 100 Years
The American Film Institute is a non-for-profit national organization created to preserve the legacy of American films. This organization created a series of lists called the 100 Years Series and selected a jury of filmmakers, historians, scholars, and critics to select the 100 greatest films, or the 100 greatest of a number of other film subcategories.
One of the subcategories in the AFI's list is called 100 Years 100 Heroes and Villains which lists the 50 greatest heroes and villains from the movies. Coming in at number 10 was T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia. This was a striking a choice, Lawrence of Arabia a hero?
The film plot centers around or debates whether or not T.E. Lawrence was a great man, or was a hero who deserved the honors and awards that he received.
History may have deemed T.E. Lawrence a hero but the film is ambiguous about what type of man Lawrence really was. Many scenes support the claim that he is a hero, but there are scenes that depict him as a villain, too. Listed below are scenes that lean towards depicting Lawrence as a hero or Lawrence as a villain.
The word lean is used because a lot of the scenes depict both good and evil characterizations in Lawrence's himself. Lawrence is what you would call a grey character he is neither black nor white.
Should Lawrence of Arabia be on the AFI's top 50 Heroes list and is Lawrence of Arabia a hero?
Warning: Spoilers to the film Lawrence of Arabia are below.
Scenes That Depict Lawrence As A Hero
Some of these scenes mentioned below will depict Lawrence as hero with little debate, but some of them are more debatable. Here are the key scenes that have heroic elements in them.
Lawrence Stands Up To Authority Figures
Lawrence is depicted as rebellious person right from the get go. He annoys his superiors and he also has ambition. Upon first being introduced to Lawrence it's not surprising when he stands up for people or to people. There are two very notable scenes where Lawrence stands up to authority figures.
The first is when Lawrence first meets Sherif Ali who kills Tafas, Lawrence's friend and guide to Faisal, for drinking out of his well. This scene shows viewers Lawrence's courage as he stares down Ali who is armed and capable of killing him, and it shows his loyalty to his friend Tafas as Lawrence allows Ali to take the gun Lawrence had previously given to Tafas. Loyalty and courage are two qualities that are often associated with heroes.
The second is when Lawrence returns to the British base in Cairo with Farraj after they take Aqaba. Lawrence demands that the British who don't allow Arabs in their base to treat Farraj with respect, something they eventually but begrudgingly do. Lawrence standing up for the rights of all people as shown in this scene is another way in which Lawrence can be considered a hero.
Lawrence Tells The Truth To Faisal
Although this could fall under the category of Lawrence standing up to authority figures it, gets its own special mention. Lawrence disobeys the command of his superior officer, Colonel Brighton, who tells him to keep quiet while he tries to convince Faisal to retreat and to allow his men to receive British training. Lawrence disobeys this order and tell Faisal to attack Aqaba from land, a daring maneuver. He also supports Faisal's notion that the Arabs should unite.
Lawrence not only disobeys an order, and technically commits treason, he tells what he believes to be the truth to Faisal. Bravery and intelligence are demonstrated by Lawrence as he mentions the surprise attack on Aqaba, and more importantly his willingness to tell the truth prevails. All of these traits can be seen as heroic.
Lawrence Rescues Gasim From The Desert
As Lawrence and Sherif Ali lead Faisal's army across the desert one of the soldiers, Gasim, falls off of his camel and is left behind. Due to the extreme heat the army decides not to go back for him because the heat could potentially kill all of them. Lawrence refuses to accept this notion and instead goes back alone to get Gasim, which he ultimately succeeds in doing.
Lawrence's "leave no one behind," attitude is very heroic, this might be the single most purely heroic thing Lawrence does throughout the entire film.
Lawrence Takes Aqaba
Lawrence takes Aqaba with the Arabs, which helps both the British cause and in the process the Arab cause. Lawrence's taking of Aqaba with the Arabs helps solidify the relationship between the Arabs and the British, it provides the British a valuable sea port that is important to winning the war, and in the process Lawrence unites many opposing Arab tribes together.
Taking Aqaba shows Lawrence's leadership capabilities, his cunning, and his ability to use his power to help people. All of these aspects of Lawrence can be considered heroic.
Scenes That Depict Lawrence as a Villain
These are the key scenes in the film that tend to depict Lawrence as a villain. Again a lot of these scenes that tend to depict Lawrence as a villain can be debated.
Lawrence Confesses His Enjoyment For Killing Gasim
In order to avoid a blood feud between the various Arab tribes Lawrence has to kill Gasim, the man he saved from the desert, for stealing. Lawrence does this by shooting him many times, turning it into an excessive execution. Although you could argue the means justify the ends, it isn't until Lawrence gets to the British base where he confesses to his superior officers that he enjoyed killing Gasim.
Lawrence's twisted confession and the manner in which he kills Gasim show the more villainous traits in Lawrence. Heroes don't enjoy killing people or have an enjoyment for violence.
Lawrence's Divine Claims and His Ego
As the film progresses, Lawrence continues to imply that he is divine and invincible. Lawrence allows an assassin to shoot him once in the arm and then continue shooting him while he just stands there, because he believes he is invincible. He scouts the enemy city of Daraa by himself despite the warnings from Sherif Ali. This is very dangerous since he will easily be identified as British, and this ultimately leads to his capture
After his capture and a very humiliating encounter with the Turkish Bey, Lawrence stops declaring himself a God. This however only seems to be a temporary reprieve as Lawrence builds another Arab army to help the British take Damascus. He again declares that Arabs will come to him because it is him, a very egocentric claim.
Lawrence's ego, his behavior, and his belief that he is divine shows his how selfish he is. At numerous times he puts the Arab cause at great risk by nearly getting himself killed, and his divine claims put him at odds with the Arabs and their cause for unification. It also implies that Lawrence thinks he is better than everyone else. These egocentric qualities are often associated with villains.
Lawrence Avenges The Village of Tafas... No Prisoners
While Lawrence marches to Damascus with his new army, many whom are mercenaries who don't care about Arab unification. After finding the village of Tafas and its inhabitants killed by a wounded, weakened, and retreating Turkish army, Lawrence orders his army to attack them. During the attack Lawrence orders his army to take no prisoners, and they kill everyone in the Turkish Army.
Ordering his army to kill a large group of Turkish soldiers that have no strategic value to the war effort is just plain evil. This is arguably the single greatest villainous act committed by Lawrence during the film.
Lawrence Leaves P.O.W.'s in Terrible Condition at Damascus
After the Arabs take Damascus they are left to govern the city while the British army sits outside. The Arabs who have spent their whole lives being tribesman, and due to the various feuds between the groups of Arabs they are not able to successfully govern the city.
While the Arabs are arguing, Lawrence does very little to help them unite, and rather just sits and watches. Meanwhile utilities in Damascus like electricity and water are shut off, and the Turkish P.O.W.'s are left unattended for days without water or without proper medical supplies.
Since Lawrence is the leader of the Arabs and since he is the Arab's key contact with the British his lack of action here allows many Turkish P.O.W.'s to suffer and presumably die, while the Arabs fail to unite with one another. Lawrence's lack of responsibility leads to the suffering and presumable deaths of many people, again these are traits not associated with a hero.
Ambiguity in the Film
A lot of the above mentioned scenes are grey or ambiguous, though some less ambiguous than others. Here is a short list of the above mentioned heroic and villainous deeds of Lawrence with a brief description of possible ambiguities now thrown into the mix. Consider this a devil's advocate section.
Ambiguities as Lawrence Stands Up To Authority Figures
When Lawrence stands up to Sherif Ali, he also reveals the prejudice he has against the Arabs when he says this, "So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people - greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are"
Ambiguities when Lawrence Tells The Truth To Faisal
Lawrence may be telling the truth to Faisal, but he is committing treason against his own country. A mistake here could be detrimental to the British war effort, which already has more of the Arab's interests at heart than the Turks.
Ambiguities when Lawrence Rescues Gasim From The Desert
Lawrence does save Gasim from the desert, but he nearly convinces everyone to go with him. This could have easily ruined the plan to take Aqaba and killed many more people along the way.
Ambiguities as Lawrence Takes Aqaba
Although the move to take Aqaba is bold and brave, Lawrence's plan has designed the killing of many Turks.
Ambiguities as Lawrence Confesses His Enjoyment For Killing Gasim
Lawrence doesn't shoot Gasim once, he unloads the whole pistol on him. It's unnecessarily violent yes, but by killing Gasim he is able to keep the Arabs united long enough to take Aqaba. Do the ends justify the means?
Ambiguities with Lawrence's Divine Claims and His Ego
By portraying himself as a larger than life figure he is able to motivate the Arabs to follow him and to unite the various tribes into supporting British and Arab interests.
Ambiguities when Lawrence Avenges The Village of Tafas... No Prisoners
Presumably there were people killed at the village of Tafas that were friends and family of some of the members of Lawrence's army, wouldn't they want revenge?
Ambiguities when Lawrence Leaves P.O.W.'s in Terrible Condition at Damascus
It's unknown whether or not Lawrence knew about the P.O.W.'s while the Arabs were debating the unification of an Arab nation. What could Lawrence have done about the P.O.W.'s had he known about them? How much power over the Arabs did Lawrence really have?
Was Lawrence A Hero?
Considering the major events in the film at the very best Lawrence should be considered a flawed hero. He is certainly the central protagonist, and as far films go he is certainly one of the greatest characters ever depicted in film, but being the central protagonist and a great character in film doesn't make you a hero.
To answer the question however, should Lawrence be considered a true hero? No.
Lawrence does a number of heroic things throughout the film, but ultimately those heroic things come about showing his individual characteristics. His heroism never helps him to accomplish his goal of uniting the Arabs.
The ending of the film does the most to undo Lawrence's depiction as a hero. Consider the following questions:
At the end of the film, despite the Arabs parting ways with one another, does Lawrence try to continue to unite the Arabs? No.
Does he even try to do anything else to help the Arabs? No.
What does Lawrence do? He goes back to Great Britain as a tabloid hero where he lives until his untimely death in a motorcycle accident.
Lawrence gives up at the end of this film. Considering that, and factoring in a lot of the villainous things Lawrence did in Arabia he should not be considered a hero.
Then... should Lawrence be considered a villain? Lawrence takes Aqaba and Damascus and initially presents the idea of uniting the Arabs to them. Although he fails here, he does provide the idea and encouragement for the Arabs and their future leaders to at least attempt to unite the Arabs in the future. For this he cannot be necessarily considered a villain either.
Final Verdict: Lawrence should be considered a flawed hero for his efforts, but certainly not a true hero. If he is to be included in the AFI's list of 50 greatest heroes, then he should be included as one of the 50 greatest villains, or he should not be included at all.
See the AFI's 50 Greatest Heroes and Villains