There’s an disturbing scene in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia showing Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence stripped bare to the waist submitting to repeated lashes administered by a whip-wielding Turkish soldier.
The sequence goes on for a bit, and O’Toole’s face registering the great pain his character is enduring is tough to watch. Finally, there’s a tight closeup on the face of the Ottoman Turk governor or Bey (played by Jose Ferrer), who had ordered the flogging, and has been silently observing its execution. The character ever so subtly licks his lips. End of scene.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to introduce our Books2Movies maven Larry Michie’s final Lawrence of Arabia installment which asks the question — was Lawrence gay?
That whipping scene is covered in the movie’s source material, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s 1926 historical recollection of his participation in the Arab rebellion against the Turks. In 1916, in fact, he was captured by Ottoman Turks and subjected to beatings and sexual assaults, prompting speculation ever since that Lawrence was both homosexual and sadomasochistic.
Our man Larry looked into this, poring yet again over his copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and quoting Lawrence’s hyper-rich period prose. Larry writes:
Here’s what Lawrence has to say about all those people in the desert and the matter of sex:
The Arab was by nature continent; and the use of universal marriage had nearly abolished irregular courses in his tribes. The public women of the rare settlement we encountered in our months of wandering would have been nothing to our numbers, even had their raddled meat been palatable to a man of healthy parts.
In horror of such sordid commerce our youths began indifferently to slake one another’s few needs in their own clean bodies — a cold convenience that, by comparison, seemed sexless and even pure.
Later, some began to justify this sterile process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort.
Several, thirsting to punish appetites they could not wholly prevent, took a savage pride in degrading the body, and offered themselves fiercely in any habit which promised physical pain or filth.”
Lawrence did more or less adopt a pair of scamps — that’s what Lawrence calls them in the book — and says they were innocent, but later became sexual like a marriage.
I’ll include the story of an astonished Arab woman who went gaga over Lawrence because she was dazzled by his white skin and blue eyes, something she had never seen before. Certainly many movie-goers furrowed their brows when the evil Bey (Turkish administrator) was just as impressed with the white flesh and blue eyes of Lawrence as was the woman previously mentioned.
As reported by Lawrence in his book, the movie version is on target. Lawrence foolishly, or unluckily, went into the town to get a sense of the Turkish strength there. He was captured and hauled before the Bey, who took him upstairs to his quarters. The Bey told Lawrence that if he would love him the Bey would give Lawrence money, protection, etc.
Lawrence refused the offer and, at the Bey’s command, was given a thoroughly cruel beating (as shown in the movie’s flogging scene described above).
In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence said that the Bey watched Lawrence’s beating for a bit, then beckoned to the most handsome young soldier present, and the two went upstairs while Lawrence was still being tortured.
Afterward, a couple of soldiers took him outside, and once they were out of sight of the Bey they treated him kindly and let Lawrence leave in peace.
But enough of Arab sexual habits — what people still wonder about is Lawrence himself and they’ll have to keep wondering because Lawrence isn’t telling.