Friday, January 19, 2018

Filming Lawrence of Arabia (USA, 1918)

In March 1918, American reporter Lowell Thomas turned up in Jerusalem and asked to see a young British officer whose exploits were the subject of marvelled rumour. Thomas was accompanied by Harry Chase, a seasoned photographer who also carried a motion picture camera. The meeting started the film legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Harry Chase, shooting war in Palestine. His movie camera is a Moy & Bastie

Colonel T. E. Lawrence and his role in the Arab revolt is well documented. Despite of all these sources myth has taken over from history. The man responsible for this was journalist, writer, broadcaster, traveler and film producer Lowell J. Thomas (1892-1981). In April 1917, when the United States entered the Great War,  the U.S. War Department asked Thomas to report on World War I under its auspices with authorization from President Wilson. He was to gather material and stories that would encourage the American people’s support for the war. With the financial backup by a group of business men from Chicago Thomas purchased the contract of crack cameraman Harry Chase, formed a company called Thomas Travelogues, got married, and set off for Europe with his new bride, Frances, and his cameraman to cover the war.

T. E. Lawrence (left) and Lowell Thomas in Aqaba, 1918

Upon arrival in France, Thomas soon discovered that the slaughter, the mud and the trenches at the Western Front were hardly suitable for a promotional campaign. So, he went to Palestine where the British forces had just conquered Jerusalem from the Turks, and this was where he met T. E. Lawrence. It should be noted that Thomas and Chase only met Lawrence briefly. Lawrence saw that Thomas’ mission could be used to help promote the little-known Arab revolt. But he wished to keep Thomas at arms’ length to protect his much-valued privacy. This is borne out in the photographic and cinematographic record. Lawrence permitted Chase to take a number of photographs of himself in Arab dress, both in Jerusalem and outside his tent in Aqaba. But Thomas only spent a couple of days close to Lawrence and never accompanied Lawrence on his campaigns. The film record also bears this out.

With Lawrence in Arabia (USA, 1927)

It was only after the Great War in 1919 when Thomas was showing his series of five films on the war that - much to his own surprise - he noticed the public interest was building up and more people wanted to see this strange, young British officer dressed in Arab oufit. In order to secure enough pictures Thomas organized a second photo shoot in London together with Lawrence. Then, after the publication of his book on Lawrence and the Arab revolt, Thomas edited his travelogue footage into the film With Lawrence in Arabia that was released in 1927. By then, the legend of Lawrence of Arabia had been fully established.

As an interesting sideline, in December 1934 Lowell Thomas hosted a radio show in New York City and a special guest for this show was Albert K. Dawson. Like Thomas, Dawson had been a film correspondent during World War I. He shot movies in 1915-1916 with the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Bulgarian army. Dawson was working in the tourist business then, and after the Second World War corresponded with Thomas. Here is one of his letters to Thomas. More information on Dawson can be found in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

A complete and original version of With Lawrence in Arabia (USA, 1927) is hard to find online. The Imperial War Museum has quite some scenes from this movie, running just over 15 minutes, as well as a collection of unsorted footage. We have uploaded segments from Thomas's original movie, together with a short introduction on how T. E. Lawrence was filmed, on our YouTube channel.



  1. Harry Chase's camera (top photo) is a Bioscope Model D, not a Moy & Bastie... that's a terrific period color photo