T.E. Lawrence had conflicting feelings about his own fame. In the 1930s, film producer Alexander Korda owned the movie rights to Lawrence’s popular book Revolt in the Desert, about the Arab fight for independence from Turkey during World War I. But “Lawrence of Arabia” persuaded Korda not to make the movie during his own lifetime; ultimately, Korda sold the rights to Sam Spiegel. Now best-selling author Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew, has returned to the subject that his uncle put aside, and it’s still a great yarn, no matter how many times it’s been told. Hero is a portrait of Lawrence in all his complexity that is worth its 700-plus pages.

Korda regards Lawrence as a self-created hero. He rose like a rocket in the esteem of both British generals and Arab sheiks because he was just so incredibly talented; his guerrilla strategy against the Turks, his pioneering mechanized warfare and his post-war work on military rescue vessels have had huge influence ever since. Korda rejects the debunkers who consider Lawrence a fraud, showing him instead as a man with a genius for friendship who presented different aspects of his complicated psychology to different people. The personas “all coexisted within him and fought for dominance,” Korda writes.

Even as Lawrence became world-famous as the Englishman in Arab garb who had led the Bedouin to Damascus, he was overwhelmed with internal guilt at his failure to obtain what his Arab friends really wanted: a unified Greater Syria, free of French and British control. Korda is particularly adept at explaining the British government’s propensity for contradictory promises to the Arabs, Jews and French, and how it undercut Lawrence’s best efforts. In one of the great might-have-beens of history, Lawrence brokered an agreement between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Prince Feisal of the Hashemite dynasty that called for, among other things, a Palestine under joint Arab-Jewish control. As Korda notes, it was ignored by British and French leaders, who carved up the region between themselves.

 

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