How I Shall Play Lawrence (1937)
How I Shall Play Lawrence
Leslie Howard reveals in this exclusive interview with J. Danvers Williams that he will definitely play Lawrence of Arabia on the screen–and outlines his plans for handling this most discussed rôle of recent years
“I have played some interesting parts in my time,” said Howard. “Somerset Maugham’s club-footed introvert in Of Human Bondage, the idealistic hero of The Petrified Forest, Romeo (such as it was) and, on the stage, Hamlet–but I think the title role in Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest acting opportunity of my career.”
I had gone to see Leslie Howard in an effort to clear up the Lawrence mystery. Almost weekly one reads conflicting reports in the newspapers, that the Lawrence film is definitely to be made or that it has been postponed; that a unit is shortly to leave for Arabia, or that the unit has been prevented from starting.
“This film has been in the air so long,” said Howard, “that it isn’t surprising newspapers have become sceptical. The truth is, however, that I am already hard at work on the preliminaries of the picture. Everything is signed and sealed. We hope to start the actual shooting in ten or twelve weeks’ time, and have the film edited and ready for presentation by the end of six or eight months.
“I am particularly interested in this picture because I am co-producing it. Korda is at present busy in America, which means that I shall be virtually in control of the whole production.
“For the first time in my life I shall not be the mere puppet of another man’s imagination. I shall be able to place on the screen my own undiluted conception of Lawrence of Arabia, and if the final result does not measure up to expectations I shall, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that I have only myself to blame.
“At the moment, of course, I think we have a chance of making a first-class picture. Certainly, the story itself has all the aspects of a great drama.
“One of the chief reasons Korda has refrained so long from putting the picture into production is that he found it difficult to produce a scenario, a director and an actor whom he felt would do the subject justice.
“It is not the sort of film that anyone could make. You can rule out most of the ace directors–such as Capra, Lubitsch and Borzage–as types of mentalities who would be quite out of their depth in a picture of this sort. Off-hand, I can think of only two directors whom I would care to employ–John Ford, who made The Informer, and William K. Howard, who has actually been given the assignment.
Churchill — Scenarist
“When the film was first mooted two or three years ago, Korda offered me the chief part, but I declined it as I did not consider any of the directors he then had under contract suitable for the picture. If the film was to be made at all, I felt that it must be made imaginatively by a serious-minded and expert craftsman. The picture must be free altogether of the Bengal Lancer aspect; it must have no shrieking Arabs riding across the desert in the manner of cowboys.
“Bill Howard is the ideal person for the job. His American films like Transatlantic and Power and the Glory show that he can penetrate beyond the superficial actions of his characters and show an audience what is going on in their minds. I think that he is capable of capturing the drama and the mysticism in Lawrence’s Arabian adventure.
“He and I have been working together on this project for some time. A provisional scenario has been prepared, but as yet neither of us is satisfied. Our intention is to work it all out very carefully beforehand, so that when we arrive in Arabia he will only have to face the pure mechanical problem of photographing the film, and I shall be able to devote all my time to the characterisation.
“I hope to bring in Winston Churchill to complete the scenario. He is one of the few statesmen of the period who saw beyond Lawrence’s military importance into the real complexities of his nature.
“Already, in a number of informal conversations, Churchill has helped me considerably to round off my impression of Lawrence. A truly tragic figure, Lawrence is an absorbing character for an actor to recreate. One has only to read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to realise that Lawrence was a poet with great powers of perception; yet although he cultivated many literary men (like Shaw and Thomas Hardy) with whom he came into contact, he was himself too much of an ascetic to commit his more intimate musings to paper.
“His habit of motor-cycling was quite typical of him. He believed that luxury was bad for the soul and found virtue in discomfort.
“Despite the documentary value of ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and its penetrating flashes of poetry, it is written in the slightly self-conscious style of an undergraduate. In fact, when Lawrence first began to organise the Arabs he was little more than that–twenty-six to be exact. The influence of Oxford was still upon him. He was naïve, youthful and incredibly idealistic.
“An idealist he remained until his death, despite all that he saw and suffered. When France and Britain decided to divide up the administration of Arabia after the war, Lawrence felt that he had betrayed the trust placed in him by the Arab chieftains–that, all along, he had been merely the tool of a political machine. In order to atone for what he considered a grave political injustice, he retired to a country cottage, refusing the honours which the state wished to bestow upon him, refusing even to be known by his own name.
“It is Lawrence’s own personal drama–his enthusiasm, his strength of character, his endurance, his bravery, his fine perception and his moments of fear and resentment–which will form the basis of the picture.
“At the beginning we shall show him sent to Arabia because he happens to have spent a long vacation there and knows the language. His importance as yet unsuspected by the British authorities, he goes off to find an Arab ruler capable of bending together the many tribes and driving the Turks out of Palestine. He meets Abdulla and finds him too clever. Ali is too meticulous and Zied too callous. Then, at last, he meets Feisal, a man of great sagacity and enthusiasm, and in what should be a remarkably powerful sequence realises that this is the person he has been searching for.
“Almost against his will, Lawrence is drawn closely into the campaign. He sees the months of striving and privation which lie before him, yet a man such as he is needed to plan the war, to settle the internal squabbling of the Arab chiefs and to urge them on to victory. So, outwardly, he becomes one of them; wears their clothes and eats their food, is scorched by the midday sun and frozen by the cold winds of the night, until he himself becomes fired with the enterprise. Yet there are moments when he is unutterably miserable.
“In ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ he says: ‘The effort of these years to live in the dress of the Arabs and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time, I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other… with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by long physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near any man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.'”
The Tragedy of Lawrence
“But this pathetic, introspective Lawrence was never apparent to his Arab followers. During the day he remained the calm and ruthless man of action. He blew up train-loads of Turks, demolished towns, and on one occasion shot out the brains of a lieutenant because he feared that the man’s influence might demoralise the army. Only as he lay alone at night did the memory of the dead return to haunt him.
“All these things must be captured in the picture. I intend to show the working of Lawrence’s mind by the simple device of spoken thoughts. The camera will usually show him as the self-possessed leader, but sometimes, when he is quite alone, his innermost thoughts will rise to the surface.
“We shall have to be very careful with these soliloquies–they tend to become bathetic. But I think that, used economically and with great discretion, they should prove very effective and should give the picture just that touch of introspection which will make it something more than a mere adventure story.
“I want to avoid that above all else. I should like the picture, as it progresses, to take on the shape of a tragedy: the ultimate defeat of all Lawrence’s ideals by the well-meaning, uncompromising machine of British government.
“There is something essentially tragic about the situation in which Lawrence finds himself. Towards the end of the scenario there is a scene in which he meets the Arab leaders after the British Government has decided (against his advice) to mandate certain portions of Palestine. Lawrence himself is the only person who does not know their decision.
“The chiefs greet him with stony silence. They believe that he has betrayed them in the moment of victory. Resentful and powerless to alter the decision of the government, Lawrence returns home to do his great penance.
“In the final sequence I hope to show him riding to his death along a country lane on his powerful motor cycle. Then some sort of quick shot back to Palestine with its intrigues and insurrections–a tormented stretch of land which, if only Lawrence had had his way, might now have been a peaceful and united country.”
(Film Weekly, November 20, 1937)