Speaking of Turks, the other night we rented David Lean’s 1962 movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” which neither of us had seen for, oh, maybe 40 years. It’s about how the Arabs got mobilized by the British to kill Turks during World War I, so that the British and French could divide up the Ottoman Empire for themselves – and how some of those Arabs got sick and tired of being used for other people’s empires and began to conceive of Arab nationalism. The young British Major T. E. Lawrence, as a catalyst for Arab raids and a deeply ambivalent and self-deceived promoter of Arab nationalism, was a useful tool of His Majesty’s government, and became an embarrassed hero after the war was over.
Well before the movie was released, I had already read T. E. Lawrence’s colorful memoirs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, plus every book I could find about his life. (If you want to do this today, check out the T. E. Lawrence –Lawrence of Arabia website.) I found Peter O'Toole’s portrayal of the doubts, confusions, outrageous exhibitionism and rash impulsiveness of the man just about perfect – except that the actor was about a foot taller than the real Lawrence, whose physical puniness no doubt contributed to his compensatory compulsion to one-up the other English officers, often by playing barbaric practical jokes.
I had started researching him because the girl I was then madly in love with said that I reminded her of Lawrence, which I mistook for a compliment. I now think what she meant was that I was moody and unsure of my identity – but then, I was only 17. Lawrence, or T. E. Shaw as he took to calling himself after his Arabian adventures (he tried to get George Bernard Shaw to adopt him), was still trying out different identities when he suffered that fatal crack-up on his motorcycle at age 47.
Mostly the movie is useful today as a reminder of the unintended consequences of Great Powers’ meddling in other people’s cultures. We in the West are still paying the price of the shortsighted interventions of British, French and later U.S. for their various strategic purposes.
Except for the sadistic colonel and his minions who administer a frightful beating to the disguised Lawrence, the Turks in that movie are all faceless and brutish khaki-clad conscripts whose only function is to be slaughtered by Lawrence’s Arab cavalry. In reality, most of those extras were Spanish farmers and fisherman of Carboneras, the little village on the Mediterranean coast of Almería where key battle scenes were filmed. A fake city of Akaba was built on Algorrobico beach, which is why the morning after the battle Lawrence (in the movie) looks eastward over a great expanse of water to the sunrise (the real Akaba’s water-view is to the south, over the narrow gulf – here’s a map). We know the Algorrobico beach well, in fact we just came back from there. And that was really why we rented the movie, just to see a familiar setting in its movie guise.