Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Newcombe and Lawrence on film

Colonel Brighton, centre in uniform
While much is known about T.E. Lawrence, much is  also misunderstood. The film Lawrence of Arabia built upon the legend but also did much to create  that misunderstanding through a misrepresentation of the facts not soley confined to artistic limitations. In the forthcoming biography of Stewart Newcombe, In the Shadow of the Crescent,  I  consider the conflicting aspects of Lawrence’s screen and popular persona with the real Lawrence. One question that can be answered here is: if Newcombe played such a significant role in the life of the real Lawrence, then where was Colonel Newcombe in the film?

The following dialogue is based on a scene written by the screenwriter Michael Wilson from an early draft of the screenplay for the film Lawrence of Arabia. Although it differs in dialogue to the version that was actually filmed, the scene will be familiar to those who know the film. To set the scene, T.E. Lawrence, accompanied by his servant Farraj, has just arrived in Cairo after leading the Arab army into Aqaba. They are both exhausted and thirsty after crossing the Sinai and their Arab robes are caked with desert sand. Lawrence leads his young friend straight to the Officers’ Club where the presence of two disheveled Arabs naturally causes quite a stir.

When they reach the bar, Lawrence orders two ginger-beer shandies from a startled bartender who hastily informs them that the bar is reserved for British officers. Lawrence replies: Im well aware of that, and mores the pity. But we’ll have two shandies all the same. Colonel Newcombe enters to see what all the fuss is about. He approaches the two Arabs.
Excuse me…. he begins to ask, before recognising his friend. Good Lord. Its really you.
Lawrence turns. Good morning, Colonel, he replies. Would you tell the barman we’ve raised a mighty thirst? You got my telegram from Ismailia? Newcombe informs him that they have been scouring all of Egypt for him.
How the devil did you get here? he asks, incredulously.
Couldn’t get a train - too much red tape - no priority, no tickets. So I stole a motorbike. Newcombe indicates to the barman to pour their drinks and while they both gulp down the refreshingly cold liquid he informs Lawrence that General Allenby will want to see him at once.
Allenby? asks Lawrence.
The new C-in-C. General Murrays no longer with us.
Thats a step in the right direction. Then Lawrence looks into Newcombes eyes. Or is it? Whats Allenby like?
Youll find out soon enough. Hes known as The Bull.’’
Another man steps up to the bar and introduces himself as Lowell Thomas. Newcombe informs Lawrence that he is an American journalist.
Sensing a scoop, Thomas states bluntly: Youre the man who took Aqaba.
The Arabs took it, Lawrence corrected him. I went along for the ride.
Newcombe, anxious not to disclose this important military success, explodes: The story has not been confirmed!
But Thomas has his story. It has been now, he announces triumphantly. With notepad and pen in hand he probes for more information. How many men were with you?
Newcombe is enraged. He can give no interview until he has reported to General Allenby.' He turns to Lawrence: 'Lets go. You can change in my digs.
Lawrence examines his dirty garments. Change, why? They are a bit soiled but I have no other uniform.
Exasperated, Newcombe takes him by the elbow. Come along, then.
Lawrence and Farraj are led off through the crowd of curious onlookers.
In 1961, Robert Bolt took over the task of rewriting the screenplay for director David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia from Michael Wilson, a Hollywood writer blacklisted during the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts. Bolt, himself an ex-member of the Communist Party and with strong anti-war leanings, kept a fair proportion of Wilson’s dramatic structure but made significant dialogue alterations which slimmed down the original script. In the scene shown above, Bolt changed its emphasis to include evidence of what he saw as Lawrences egomania. Bolts Lawrence was clearly neurotic and this key scene would eventually contain dialogue that emphasised this side of Lawrences character.

Another important change was made to the final version of the screenplay whereby Colonel Newcombe became Colonel Harry Brighton (played by Anthony Quayle), a composite caricature of a typical British officer, named after the archetypical British seaside town. A blunt professional soldier acting as a foil to Peter OTooles angst-ridden portrayal of Lawrence, Bolt saw him thus: ‘…Brighton has to stand for the half admiring, half appalled disturbance raised by Lawrence in minds quite wedded to the admirable and inadequate code of English decency.’ Here was a description of a character created to fulfill a dramatic device, a kind of man for all seasons who bore no relation to the real Colonel Newcombe. He was written out of history, as portrayed as drama, and therefore out of the popular misinterpretation of the Lawrence legend. Bolt wrote a scene, cut and then later restored in 1989, in which Allenby said to Lawrence: I believe your name will be a household name when youd have to go to the War Museum to find who Allenby was. It would also require determined research to find out who Newcombe was. 

Newcombe at TEL's funeral
Stewart Newcombe appears on a contemporary newsreel taken at the Dorset funeral of Lawrence, positioned to the right and in the middle of the wheeled bier, helping to steady the coffin with his left hand as it is pulled along the church path and out onto the country lane leading to the grave. On that crisp spring afternoon, 21 May 1935, surrounded by friends from all the periods of his life, Lawrence became once again Lawrence of Oxford, of Carchemish, of Cairo, and most famously and persistently, of Arabia - although as Sir Ronald Storrs once pointed out, ‘of any place for a little while’. For others gathered at the grave he was simply Shaw of the R.A.F.