At a young age (i.e. long time ago) I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia and was fascinated by the man and the story. Over the years I’ve watched the movie many more times, and read all I could by T. E. Lawrence and about him.
What is it about him that pulls me in? I think it’s a combination of admiration for him as a person, but also a deep sadness at how misguided the motives were, of those he opposed, and his own.
If you’re not familiar with his story, he was an intellectual man, a misfit in his society, that through his service as a British army officer became embroiled in Arab/European politics in World War I. He played a influential role in Arab independence movements to try to avoid colonial powers simply dividing up the region.
At first glance, and certainly what the movie feeds on, he can be seen as an amazing individual. One man walking into oppressive chaos, and trying with some success, to shape a form of order, against the colonial powers. Even in that surface interpretation it is bitter sweet because he ends up marginalized and much of the changes he strove for evaporate.
But looking deeper the events have more significance. While he was driven by respect for the Arabs, and their culture, he was still trying to bring them a very European humanitarian solution to the European problem, in an Arab world. He was trying to fight the colonialists by making the Arabs their peer. Getting them to join them, rather then be beaten by them. His intentions were good, his commitment and achievements amazing, but it was misguided and ethnocentric, and doomed to fail.
He was a truly amazing man, instrumental in some epic adventures, and a prolific writer, so there is a lot of (obviously biased) material available.
It the end of the day, for me, his failings are perhaps more of interest then his successes. And trying to sort out the impact, if any, good and bad, and it’s legacy is challenging.