The First Action Hero

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, November 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

The First Action Hero


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Hollywood mythologized him as 'Lawrence of Arabia,' but the real T. E. Lawrence was bigger than that. In fact, he may have been the original worldwide media celebrity.

Early in 1923, the London Daily Express ran a front-page story under the headline:

'UNCROWNED KING' AS PRIVATE SOLDIER

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Famous War Hero Becomes a Private Seeking Peace

The story went on to say that Thomas Edward Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I, had enlisted in the RAF as an ordinary airman under the name T. E. Ross. As his latest biographer, Michael Korda, points out in Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, "It was as if Princess Diana had vanished from her home and had been discovered by the press enlisted in the ranks of the RAF as Aircraftwoman Spencer doing drill, washing her own undies, and living in a hut with a dozen or more other airwomen."

Lawrence was the most visible, and certainly the most romantic, hero to emerge from World War I. His daring exploits in the desert on the eastern front gained him not only the respect of his peers and commanding officers but the adulation of a public greedy for heroes in a war otherwise notable for its glaring lack of celebrated individuals. If he was not, as Korda argues, the very first media celebrity, his fame certainly has an eerily contemporary ring. Newsreel footage made him so famous around the world that he was ultimately known to millions who had no clear idea of what he had done. He was just famous for being famous. And like so many unwitting celebrities, he enjoyed the spotlight until he realized too late that he was not the one who got to decide when to turn it off.

With his chiseled features, his Bedouin robes, and his soft-spoken, self-deprecatory air, Lawrence was tailor-made fodder for the vultures of Fleet Street. The only thing wrong with this template of a legend was his height: he was only 5 feet 5 inches. (Hollywood would fix that when Peter O'Toole, topping out at 6 feet 2, was hired to play him.) Still, tall or short, no one ever looked more like a hero. So the harder he strove for anonymity after the war--indeed, because he tried so strenuously to protect his privacy--the more diligently the press pursued him. He never realized that his air of secrecy was what made him such catnip to reporters. The more he tried to disappear, the more they chased him, prompting his friend Winston Churchill to observe that Lawrence had a way of "backing into the limelight."

If Lawrence had been merely brave, or merely a splendid battlefield tactician, he might be forgotten outside the confines of war college textbooks. But he was much more accomplished than that, and much more complicated. He was a terrific writer. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt, is one of the greatest war chronicles ever written. He was also a skilled and visionary diplomat who was instrumental in--though certainly not solely responsible for--redrawing the map of the Middle East after World War I. Beyond that, his skill set included archeology, photography, and mapmaking (he pioneered the practice of using airmen to take overhead photographs of unexplored territory). He was also a more than decent novelist and a fine translator: his version of Homer's Odyssey is one of the best ever. In the bargain, he was an innovative mechanic. His modifications of the small boats used by the RAF to rescue downed fliers laid the groundwork for PT boats in World War II. He did all this by the age of 46, when he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

To call Lawrence a man of parts does not begin to convey the extraordinary breadth of his accomplishments. Nor does it do more than hint at the complications of his personality. …

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