Erasing Lowell Thomas

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Time to regale about Mr. Kennedy, although not as much as I would like to…

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IMDb

It’s hard to find a more legendary figure in Western history than T.E. Lawrence, and journalist, Lowell Thomas was instrumental in bringing him to the public’s attention. He was the first to give Lawrence the name, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Thomas was still alive in 1962 when the epic film about Lawrence’s life premiered, but his name never appears in it. Instead, Thomas was represented by the fictional Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy. Honestly, I was all set to write extensively about Kennedy’s character in this movie, but there isn’t much to go on. Like, barely anything.

Critics and film studies classes wax lyrical about Lawrence of Arabia, and the reasons are no-brainers. It’s a sprawling, epic tale that draws viewers in. The music is excellent, the visuals are beautiful, the cast is note-perfect, and the characters are well-drawn. I hadn’t seen it since high school, and going back to it about twenty-five years later, I was gripped by it. It flows easily and grabs the attention.

The film opens with Lawrence’s motorcycle accident and subsequent funeral. As the mourners pour out of St. Peter’s Church, journalists approach the more illustrious ones and ask for any words about Lawrence. The only one who can give real answers is Jackson Bentley. When Bentley says Lawrence was a shameless exhibitionist, another gentleman takes great umbrage.

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General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), Lawrence’s commanding officer, also has thoughts about Lawrence, but Bentley is the only one we’re interested in.

T.E. Lawrence always had an affinity for the Middle East. He’s working as a cartographer for the British Army in Cairo, and he can put matches out with his fingers. His coworkers all regard him with a mixture of awe and chagrin. Just in case we don’t already know he’s a rebel, he breezily leaves his job to play pool with one of his friends.

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Lawrence is sent to the Bedouins to see Prince Faisel and assess the Arab-Turk situation. He seems strange to the Arabs, but Prince Faisel (Alec Guinness) likes him and trusts him. One of the reasons he respects Lawrence is that he believes in Arab autonomy, as opposed to shoehorning the Arabs into Western ways.

Lawrence’s men accept him when they see his kindness and willingness to take in two orphans who have been cast off by society. They are bowled over by his ability to do things they declare impossible such as taking the Turkish-held port town of Aqaba from a desert they consider impassable. As far as Lawrence’s ego is concerned, he can practically walk on water.

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It doesn’t take long for the press to notice. Jackson Bentley of Chicago comes to see Prince Faisal and to write about Lawrence, who’s with Faisal’s army. The American press wants to drum up support for the Allies in the war, and, in Bentley’s words, “People need heroes.” Bentley not only finds Lawrence, but guerilla warfare. The Arabs are blowing up Turkish railroads to cripple their supply lines.

Bentley can see Lawrence is a star among his men, and it’s the kind of thing journalists lap up. At one of the derailments, Lawrence stands on the wrecked train and turns around slowly, smiling cheekily, white robes billowing, while the Arabs cheer and Bentley snaps away.

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Arthur Kennedy plays Jackson Bentley as a hard-boiled but not hard-hearted newspaperman. He doesn’t come barreling through and expecting his story to fall in his lap; he respects Lawrence and the Arabian people enough to know whether or not to pursue his next interview question or snap another photo.

The problem is that Kennedy wasn’t given much to work with in terms of his character, and he certainly played journalists very well. His presence in Lawrence of Arabia seems like an afterthought, which it is. As the script was revised, Bentley’s role became less and less. This was by design; director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel did not want Bentley to be a major character.

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On one level it was a natural assessment. In reality, Lawrence didn’t meet with Lowell Thomas until very late in the war, after he had moved on to Jerusalem with Allenby, and spent three weeks or a few days with him, depending on who one asks. Still, again, we are talking about the guy who brought Lawrence to the public’s attention.

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Lowell Thomas in 1918. (Clio)

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I have to be honest: I believe the filmmakers deliberately marginalized Thomas because they wanted to present their own version of Lawrence, and they didn’t want anyone telling them differently. When Lawrence of Arabia commenced production, Thomas approached Sam Spiegel about giving him access to his research, but Spiegel refused.

Thomas’s counterpart seems contrived. We see Jackson Bentley at the beginning of the film and he dangles possible insider information in front of us. Then…nothing until after intermission. The character didn’t even have Thomas’s personality–he’s just a journalist who spends most of his meager screen time chasing Lawrence down because he has a story to get out. In real life, though, Lowell Thomas was a big fan of Lawrence’s. The film could have shown their working relationship interspersed with flashbacks from Lawrence’s point of view. The obvious advantage of working this angle is that it would have let the audience inside Lawrence’s head a bit more.

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T.E. Lawrence, February 28, 1918. Thomas took this photo right after the two of them were introduced. (Clio)

It would have also been truer to the historical record. According to History.net, when Thomas met with Lawrence in Jerusalem, Lawrence didn’t just spew his life story. In fact, Thomas had trouble getting Lawrence to talk about himself, and instead had to ask Lawrence’s friends and colleagues about him. Where Thomas couldn’t piece together a linear narrative, he embellished, or in some cases, tweaked.

In 1919, Thomas embarked on a lecture tour. Along with his cameraman, Harry Chase, he developed a multimedia presentation, complete with Thomas’ narration, the footage they shot of Lawrence and his commanding officer, General Allenby, as well as colored slides and lighting effects. It got off to a slow start, but they soon turned a profit, giving their exhibition at Madison Square Garden, right next door to where Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was performing at the time. Thomas’s tales of Lawrence of Arabia captured the public’s imagination. Until 1928, he gave the lecture off and on in various locations in the United States and around the world, which brought in millions of dollars.

Lawrence didn’t like all the publicity he was getting. He and Thomas wrote each other regularly, but he thought Thomas was exploiting his image and called him a “vulgar man.” However, Lawrence couldn’t be too mad because he knew Thomas’ aim was honorable. Even when Thomas claimed to have been with Lawrence during some of his exploits (he wasn’t), Lawrence didn’t correct him. Still, his fame became a burden to him and he ran from it however he could.

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Given all this history, it appears that everyone was shortchanged. Arthur Kennedy might have had a much more substantial role than the measly bits he got, although he played his part wonderfully. Those who thrill to Lawrence of Arabia might have had more perspective on what launched Lawrence’s star in the first place. I feel very conflicted about the movie, because while I’m awed by it, learning its history makes me wish some things had been done differently. The sum total feels like the filmmakers were flipping a bird at Lowell Thomas. However, I would absolutely revisit it again and examine it from other angles.

For more of the Arthur Kennedy Blogathon, please visit Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Thanks for hosting, Virginie–it was fun! Sunday is our foray into the Angela Lansbury Blogathon. Hope to see you then…


Lawrence of Arabia is available to own on Blu-ray from Amazon.

12 thoughts on “Erasing Lowell Thomas

  1. “As far as Lawrence’s ego is concerned, he can practically walk on water.” LOL
    Great review Rebecca! I’m glad you finally decided to cover Lawrence of Arabia as I simply adore this film! I’ve always liked Arthur Kennedy’s character (and performance) especially the contrast between his very down to Earth personality and the one of T.E Lawrence. This can also make us think of his character in Elmer Gantry. Thanks a lot for your participation to my blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an insightful review! I agree with your assessment. I always felt that they made Lawrence into this mystical figure, and that he needed to be humanised more, which Kennedy’s character could’ve done. Really enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good point. Although I think David Lean was more focused on the sheer entertainment value of the picture, and the Kennedy’s character is a charming asset. I find all of Lean’s film cast a great spell over the audience, regardless of
    their historicity.

    Like

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