PBS probes T. E. Lawrence -- and the mystery remains

A master player in military strategy, a schemer for Arab destiny, a foil for the rulers of the fading British empire, ultimately a failure in his own eyes, T. E. Lawrence remains a figure of mystery. In searching for the reason, we need look no further than the face seen in grainy photographs and newsreel footage, peering out from under an Arab headdress. It is a face that could belong to Stan Laurel. Nearly expressionless, except for the quizzically sorrowful eyes, it is possessed of a certain Thurberesque emptiness. It projects neither power nor imagination. It shrinks within itself, as if not wanting to be seen. And there you have, every time you see it, the mystery of Lawrence of Arabia: the British child of Oxford, lonely and socially inept, who welded the ragtag clans of the Bedouin into a desert army that could confound the British and rout the Turks.

How did this unprepossessing figure become the stuff of history and legend?

Ever since Lowell Thomas mounted his personally enriching lecture-cum-pictures roadshow about Lawrence, somebody or other has been promising to fathom that mystery for us. And such is the business of Lawrence of Arabia: The Master Illusionist (PBS, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 9-10 p.m., check local listings), a documentary with dramatized scenes.

The hour spent with facts from Lawrence's life winds up being enriching, if only because that life presents so many puzzles. But the attempt to go beyond newsreel footage and photographs into a modern re-creation of various incidents fails, on several accounts. The most obvious of these lies in the poor dramatic conception of the scenes themselves and the strange decision to cast Steven Vidler, a handsome, almost Rudolph Valentino type, as Lawrence. What we get from this combination of melodrama and Hollywood good looks is totally out of character with the real Lawrence who peers hauntingly at us out of his pale, ghostly photographic image.

Having become inured to the playacting, however, one begins to find here some of the more tantalizing threads of Lawrence's tangled tale, especially in its twisted conclusion.

Still, behind all the drama and conjecture, we see T. E. Lawrence shrinking into the shadows, and remember his plea to Lowell Thomas, when the commentator brought his semifactual roadshow to England. Lawrence came to his dressing room at a crowded theater -- during a run that was the talk of England, making Lawrence's name once more a household world -- and said to him: ``Please stop.''

Thomas, of course, didn't stop. Neither has the small army of Lawrence biographers. But while they may go on, you get the feeling from watching this film that they still haven't solved the mystery of T. E. Lawrence.

Those who remember Life as just another magazine on the newsstand today, Remembering Life (PBS, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) will be something of an eye-opener. It will introduce them to the magazine that in many ways shaped the perceptions of the nation. Life was big, graphic, and unavoidable. It told in pictures, from the world's best photographers, the story of our wars, our racial strife, our small and large triumphs, and the trivial moments that characterized our national life.

This film tells, in pictures and reminiscences, the story of that magazine from its first issue in 1936 to its demise in 1972.

Such Life photographers as Nina Lean, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans, and Martha Holmes are interviewed, and their photographs are displayed; through it all we see with real affection a special phenomenon in American journalism. The magazine always perceived something large and important about the business of living. This film conveys in part the combination of care, arrogance, energy, happenstance, and enormous talent that made it all come together.

Far less memorable is National Geographic's second special of the year, Four Americans in China (PBS, Wednesday , Feb. 13, 8-9 p.m., check local listings). This basically wasted opportunity relates the experiences of an exchange student, a businessman, a journalist, and an English teacher who in various ways found their way into unexplored territory in China's culture. Because the film tries to cover too much ground, with four stories to tell, the territory will remain unexplored for the viewer. ``Four Americans in China'' seldom stops to dig into any of the questions it raises long enough to unearth much that is new or even particularly interesting. At this stage of the game, for instance, it comes as little surprise to learn about the country's one-couple, one-child program through the eyes of a journalist (whose affiliation is never, for some unusual reason, revealed). It is fun to see the English student being served a surprise delicacy: moose nose and bear paw. But for the most part, the special offers few delicacies or choice morsels to savor.

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