I think we all have heard of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922).
But we westerners don’t acknowledge how gifted the Turks were at maintaining their sprawling empire.
The Turks did it with competent governance and with remarkable humility. They never expected any of the peoples that they ruled to embrace their culture. Incredibly, none of the nations that were part of the Empire for centuries ever started speaking Turkish. Can you imagine? If the United States conquered Greece, the Greek language would be as dead as Latin within a few generations.
Most importantly, the Ottoman Empire – ruled almost entirely by Muslims – was a bastion of religious toleration and moderation. During the 17th Century, as Europe suffered through hideous wars of religion, the Middle East enjoyed multiculturalism and religious peace.
By the dawn of World War I, however, the Ottomans had fallen behind the Western Europeans in industrial might and military technology. The British saw an opportunity to gain more lands for their own growing empire. In 1914, the UK took the initiative and declared war on the Ottoman Empire.
The epic, four-hour film “Lawrence of Arabia” tells the extraordinary story of T E Lawrence – hero of the Ottoman campaign.
Peter O’Toole is timelessly magnificent as Lieutenant Lawrence. When we meet him, he is restless and hungry for adventure.
His commanding officer grants Lawrence’s odd wish to go to Ottoman Arabia to try to open another front against the Turks.
The first half of “Lawrence of Arabia” is slow but extraordinary. Director David Lean helps us understand how tough and daring Lawrence was to choose to take long camel rides through the desolate Arabian desert.
Lawrence’s achievement wasn’t just his many victories over the surprised Turks. It was his ability to unite the southern Arabs. When he arrived, the Bedouins only saw themselves as tribesmen – not Arabs. A member of the Howitat tribe hated a member of the neighboring Harith tribe infinitely more than they hated a Turk, a European, or even a Jew.
Through his superhuman bravery and visionary battlefield tactics, T E Lawrence united the Arab tribes into one army with one national identity. It isn’t completely far-fetched to call Lawrence the father of Saudi Arabia.
A pitfall of a film like this is that we won’t believe that the actor is really capable of this level of leadership and heroism. “Spartacus” fails because Kirk Douglas clearly isn’t tough or blood-thirsty enough to be a believable rebel leader.
Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is tough enough. And plenty blood thirsty. Like George C. Scott in “Patton,” O’Toole shows us that a great military leader needs to be vain, dramatic, flamboyant, and just a little crazy.
T E Lawrence and the British triumphed. The Ottoman Empire collapsed. And the world is a much worse place for it. After a half millennium of Muslim moderation, radical Islam rose and intolerance became the norm. It turns out that the Turks were much more competent Middle Eastern imperialists than the British or the Bush family could ever hope to be.
The ultimate lesson of “Lawrence of Arabia” is one that humanity will never learn. There are two types of wars: There are wars that you simply lose outright. And there are wars that you win, but lead to horrible unintended consequences down the road.