Book review: ‘Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia’ by Michael Korda
There’s more than salesmanship at play in Michael Korda’s selection of his engrossing new book’s title, “Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.”
Korda, now 77, is one of the most successful editors of his generation and a bit of a legend himself as head of publisher Simon & Shuster, so calculation can’t be excluded from the choice. Still, heroism — its origins, true content and significance — has preoccupied Korda since he abandoned other genres for history, which he says always was his first love. In previous volumes, he’s extolled the heroism of Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain. In T.E. Lawrence, though, Korda has found a subject whose milieu and complexity are better-than-well-suited to his own experience and tastes.
The result is an unexpectedly fresh, engagingly written biography that adds substantially to our understanding of this strange, contradictory, curiously admirable and compelling subject’s life and contribution. That’s no small feat, since Lawrence published two accounts of his crucial years with the Bedouin in the Desert War — “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “Revolt in the Desert” — and has been the subject of close to 60 biographies of varying quality, an epic film, documentaries, television series and even stage plays. Korda ranges over all the familiar material with a judicious and tactful eye, and arranges it all with a well-paced narrative flair. (No surprise, really, as this is the guy who made Jackie Susann rich.)
What Korda accomplishes, beyond delivering a fascinating story well told, is to make the case for Lawrence not only as a protean figure in what we’ve come to call “asymmetrical warfare” — the phrase was actually employed by British strategists of his era — but also as a shrewd, quite humane diplomat..
No need to belabor the now-familiar dramatic arc of Lawrence’s melodramatic life here, but Korda makes clear how extraordinarily well-suited he was for the genuinely heroic role he played in World War I; superbly prepared, in fact, by formal education, scholarly pursuits and by the persona he willed and shaped for himself. That’s where Korda’s project of reclaiming a more traditional, even classical notion of the heroic comes into play — and rather convincingly so.
The author is particularly good at demonstrating how Lawrence’s apparently instinctive anti-colonial sentiment, along with his genuine regard for the Bedouin spirit, made possible his successful leadership. At the battle of Deraa, for example, the regular British officers commanding the Indian troops who fought with Lawrence’s Arab “army” were horrified at the way their allies despoiled and cut the throats of the captured Turkish wounded. When they demanded that Lawrence intervene with his men, he replied that “it was their idea of war.” Later, he confessed to sharing the Arabs’ contempt for the Indian troops: “At least my mind seemed to feel,” he wrote, “in the Indian troops something puny and confined ... so unlike the abrupt, wholesome Bedouin of our joyous Army.” However, as Korda notes, “what Lawrence dismissed as ‘subservience’ may merely have been the behavior of trained, professional troops, who knew the meaning of the phrase ‘good order and discipline.’”
Lawrence’s reputation — or at least, his legend — was secured for future generations by Peter O'Toole’s performance in David Lean’s wildly honored 1962 film epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” something of a landmark in an era of monumental films and one that Steven Spielberg has called “a miracle.” Korda tells a particularly engaging anecdote about how his uncle, filmmaker Alexander Korda, came to sell the rights to Lawrence’s story, along with years of work that he’d put into the project, to Sam Spiegel “over luncheon at Anabelle’s, the chic club next door to Korda’s offices at 144-146 Piccadilly. Spiegel bought the whole package: the book (Lawrence’s own ‘Revolt In the Desert’), the existing screenplay, all the preliminary sketches. (Over coffee, brandy and cigars, he also bought the film rights to ‘The African Queen,’ which prompted Korda, in a rare burst of poor judgment, to say, ‘My dear Sam, an old man and old woman go down an African river in an old boat — you will go bankrupt.’)”
Korda gives a clear, rather gripping account of Lawrence’s vision of what a postwar Middle East might look like—one with a viable Jewish homeland in Palestine, which he convinced his great ally, the Hashemite prince Feisal , to accept, and rational borders for new, independent Arab nations. The betrayal of legitimate Arab aspirations by the British and French was, Korda writes, “the primary guilt that Lawrence bore, and that explains much of his life from 1922 to his death in 1935,” a period in which he worked at literature and life as a private soldier and airman under assumed names.
Lawrence actually was responsible for the creation of three Arab states, though only one — Jordan — survives within the borders he envisioned. “As it turned out,” Korda concludes, “the brutal carving up of the Turkish empire was complicated by the fact that the great oil reserves were in the most backward areas, on the eastern fringe of the Middle East. These would have the effect of transforming remote desert ‘kingdoms’ and ‘principalities’ into oil-rich powers, while leaving the more highly developed, better educated and more populous parts of the area — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon — impoverished. British and French policy ... ensured that there would be no unitary Arab state as a major power in which oil revenues might be used to improve the lives of ordinary Arabs, and thwarted just those ambitions which Lawrence had been at such pains to arouse.”
Even heroism, Korda’s engaging biography suggests, has its tragic limits.