Last year I took an online class called “Heroism of the Great War.” I didn’t do very well, though I did finish it. It was taught by a group of three or four women who insisted on pursuing a feminist and historical revisionist approach that I found dishonest and unfair. I suspect they thought I was a man in drag as they read my homework, but it’s difficult for me to deny that the world was not always the same as it is now (godwilling we progress, right?), and many of history’s players were good people.
One of the heroes about which I wrote was T. E. Lawrence (naturally). I chose him not only because of my memories of my pre-pubescent infatuation with him, but because he is arguably the first hero created (?) by the film media. That interested me because a couple of the students in my class were frustrated at how little they could find on Youtube of the war. One of them DID manage to realize that movies were new and there weren’t that many around. There were some, though. Along with the creation of T. E. Lawrence as the “Uncrowned King of Arabia” thanks to Lowell Thomas, there was D.W. Griffith’s propaganda film in 1918, “The Hearts of the World.”
I fell in love with T. E. Lawrence from David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia. I fell in love with his fierce individualism and passion for the Arab people and the romantic desert scenes as they appeared on a big screen in the Roxy Theater in Bellevue, Nebraska. It didn’t just change my life; it directed it for a long time. It led me to the REAL Lawrence, a far more interesting and complex character than Peter O’Toole’s screen rendering of Lawrence as a young hero. The real Lawrence lived on after the war to experience disillusionment, feelings of having betrayed himself and his friends, fears of having lost himself somewhere between the taking of Damascus and the Versailles Conference.
I have often wondered about him, what he would have been like with no “Arab front” and no war against the Turks. The first book I bought when I began my research into medieval Jerusalem for my novel Savior was Lawrence’s Masters Thesis on Crusader castles. As I read this lovely thing, looked at Lawrence’ drawings, considered how much he seemed to love what he was seeing, doing, writing, I wondered. What if he had been able to fulfill his dreams of life as an archaeologist instead of becoming an early media hero, created for the screen?