Comparison of the famous hospital scene in the movie 'Lawrence of Arabia' with
the actual account given by T.E. Lawrence in 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom':
The scene makes Lawrence seem to be callous, deranged and incompetent.
Contrast this with his personal account
from 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom':
At lunch an Australian doctor implored me, for the sake of humanity, to take
notice of the Turkish hospital. I ran over in my mind our three hospitals, the
military, the civil, the missionary, and told him they were cared for as well as
our means allowed. The Arabs could not invent drugs, nor could Chauvel give them
to us. He enlarged further; describing an enormous range of filthy buildings
without a single medical officer or orderly, packed with dead and dying; mainly
dysentery cases, but at least some typhoid; and, it was only to be hoped, no
typhus or cholera.
In his descriptions I recognized the Turkish barracks, occupied by two
Australian companies of town reserve. Were there sentries at the gates? Yes, he
said, that was the place, but: it was full of Turkish sick. I walked across and
parleyed with the guard, who distrusted my single appearance on foot. They had
orders to keep out all natives lest they massacre the patients--a
misapprehension of the Arab fashion of making war. At last my English speech got
me past the little lodge whose garden was filled with two hundred wretched
prisoners in exhaustion and despair.
Through the great door of the barrack I called, up the dusty echoing corridors.
No one answered. The huge, deserted, sun-trapping court was squalid with
rubbish. The guard told me that thousands of prisoners from here had yesterday
gone to a camp beyond the town. Since then no one had come in or out. I walked
over to the far thoroughfare, on whose left was a shuttered lobby, black after
the blazing sunlight of the plastered court.
I stepped in, to meet a sickening stench: and, as my eyes grew open, a sickening
sight. The stone floor was covered with dead bodies side by side, some in full
uniform, some in underclothing, some stark naked. There might be thirty there,
and they crept with rats, who had gnawed wet red galleries into them. A few were
corpses nearly fresh, perhaps only a day or two old: others must have been there
for long. Of some the flesh, going putrid, was yellow and blue and black. Many
were already swollen twice or thrice life-width, their fat heads laughing with
black mouth across jaws harsh with stubble. Of others the softer parts were
fallen in. A few had burst open, and were liquescent with decay.
Beyond was the vista of a great room, from which I thought there came a groan. I
trod over to it, across the soft mat of bodies, whose clothing, yellow with
dung, crackled dryly under me. Inside the ward the air was raw and still, and
the dressed battalion of filled beds so quiet that I thought these too were
dead, each man rigid on his stinking pallet, from which liquid muck had dripped
down to stiffen on the cemented floor.
I picked forward a little between their lines, holding my white skirts about me,
not to dip my bare feet in their puddled running: when suddenly I heard a sigh
and turned abruptly to meet the open beady eyes of an outstretched man, while
'AMAN, AMAN (pity, pity, pardon) rustled from the twisted lips. There was a
brown waver as several tried to lift their hands, and a thin fluttering like
withered leaves, as they vainly fell back again upon their beds.
No one of them had strength to speak, but there was something which made me
laugh at their whispering in unison, as if by command. No doubt occasion had
been given them to rehearse their appeal all the last two days, each time a
curious trooper had peered into their halls and gone away.
This is the point where the book and the film diverge - as Lawrence deals with the situation:
I ran through the arch into the garden, across which Australians were picketed
in lines, and asked them for a working-party. They refused. Tools? They had
none. Doctors? Busy. Kirkbride came; the Turkish doctors, we heard, were
upstairs. We broke open a door to find seven men in night-gowns sitting on
unmade beds in a great room, boiling toffee. We convinced them quickly that it
would be wise to sort out living and dead, and prepare me, in half an hour, a
tally of their numbers. Kirkbride's heavy frame and boots fitted him to oversee
this work: while I saw Ali Baza Pasha, and asked him to detail us one of the
four Arab army doctors.
When he came we pressed the fifty fittest prisoners in tie lodge as labour
party. We bought biscuits and fed them: then armed them with Turkish tools and
set them in the backyard to dig a common grave. The Australian officers
protested it was an unfit place, the smell arising from which might drive them
from their garden. My jerky reply was that I hoped to God it would.
It was cruelty to work men so tired and ill as our miserable Turks, but haste
gave us no choice. By the kicks and blows of their victor-serving
non-commissioned officers they were at last got obedient. We began operations on
a six-foot hole to one side of the garden. This hole we tried to deepen, but
beneath was a cement floor; so I said it would do if they enlarged the edges.
Near by was much quicklime, which would cover the bodies effectually.
The doctors told us of fifty-six dead, two hundred dying, seven hundred not
dangerously ill. We formed a stretcher party to carry down the corpses, of which
some were lifted easily, others had to be scraped up piecemeal with shovels. The
bearers were hardly strong enough to stand at their work: indeed, before the
end, we had added the bodies of two to the heap of dead men in the pit.
The trench was small for them, but so fluid was the mass that each newcomer,
when tipped in, fell softly, just jellying out the edges of the pile a little
with his weight. Before the work finished it was midnight, and I dismissed
myself to bed, exhausted, since I had not slept three hours since we left Deraa
four days ago. Kirkbride (a boy in years, doing two men's work these days)
stayed to finish the burying, and scatter earth and lime over the grave...
A few paragraphs describing the intervening problems of administering government in a war zone,
a day passes,
...Even the hospital was better. I had urged Chauvel to take it over,
but he would not...Still, the hospital was
improving of itself. Fifty prisoners had cleaned the courtyard, burning the
lousy rubbish. A second gang had dug another great grave-pit in the garden, and
were zealously filling it as opportunity offered. Others had gone through the
wards, washing every patient, putting them into cleaner shirts, and reversing
their mattresses to have a tolerably decent side up. We had found food suitable
for all but critical cases, and each ward had some Turkish-spoken orderly within
hearing, if a sick man called. One room we had cleared, brushed out and
disinfected, meaning to transfer into it the less ill cases, and do their room
And the movie now cuts back in, having ignored the context of the previous six chapters
- which completely alters the interpretation of what follows:
At this rate three days would have seen things very fit, and I was proudly
contemplating other benefits when a medical major strode up and asked me shortly
if I spoke English. With a brow of disgust for my skirts and sandals he said,
'You're in charge? Modestly I smirked that in a way I was, and then he burst
out, 'Scandalous, disgraceful, outrageous, ought to be shot . . .' At this
onslaught I cackled out like a chicken, with the wild laughter of strain; it did
feel extraordinarily funny to be so cursed just as I had been pluming myself on
having bettered the apparently hopeless.
The major had not entered the charnel house of yesterday, nor smelt it, nor seen
us burying those bodies of ultimate degradation, whose memory had started me up
in bed, sweating and trembling, a few hours since. He glared at me, muttering
'Bloody brute'. I hooted out again, and he smacked me over the face and stalked
off, leaving me more ashamed than angry, for in my heart I felt he was right,
and that anyone who pushed through to success a rebellion of the weak against
their masters must come out of it so stained in estimation that afterward
nothing in the world would make him feel clean. However, it was nearly over.
Historians argue to what extent Lawrence's book is fictional, as there are passages that are in conflict with known facts. That said, I'll side with the book's account of the hospital over that of the film, where it seems they took even greater dramatic license.
Incidentally, Lawrence gives his body weight following his arrival at Suez as
90lbs (you'll remember the scene where he walks into the officers' club and
orders drinks for his Arab boy). When an actor loses that much weight for a
movie today (e.g., Christian Bale in 'The Machinist', or Michael Fassbender in
'Hunger', we all nod in amazement at his bravery, stoicism, and dedication. But
Lawrence? What a crybaby. He should have taken up acting, dear boy. Now that's a
job for a real man.