Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Mitchell Stephens's "The Voice of America"

Mitchell Stephens is a long-time professor of Journalism at New York University and the author of A History of News, a New York Times “notable book of the year.” Stephens also has written several other books on journalism and media, including Beyond News: The Future of Journalism and the rise of the image the fall of the word. He also published Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World.

Here Stephens dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism:
A compact, confident 27-year-old American walks onto the stage of the Royal Opera House in London in August of 1919. There is to be no opera. There will be no one else on stage. Lowell Thomas will be entertaining this audience merely with a collection of images he has shot and his voice.

He is played, let us say, by Alden Ehrenreich, who is currently 27 and also comely without being aggressively handsome; who has the right air of self-possession and, of most importance, a commanding voice.

“I would like to have you close your eyes for a moment,” Thomas intones, “and try and forget that you are here in this theater, and come with me on a magic carpet out to the land of history, mystery and romance.” Somewhere in front of him out in the darkened hall his cameraman – wearing an asbestos suit and holed up in a “big walk-in steel booth,” in case the film catches fire – is madly feeding and alternating projectors. We can see the desert; a blond, beardless man in Arab robes; some charging camels.

Lowell Thomas had set out to fill the hero vacuum left by the First World War’s sluggish and brutal trench warfare with an appreciation of “a mysterious young Englishman who freed Holy Arabia from the Turks.” His hero’s name is T. E. Lawrence. Thomas has dubbed him “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In the most over-the-top of the uniformly ecstatic reviews of Thomas’ show, the Daily Telegraph, concludes that “what is modestly and prosaically described as ‘an illustrated travelogue’ of the British campaigns in Palestine and Arabia is in reality an heroic epic capable of inspiring a dozen modern emulators of Homer or Plutarch.”

More than 2 million people around the world will eventually see Thomas’ “heroic epic,” including, in London, the Queen and the British and French prime ministers. But from the presenter’s perspective the most important individual to show up in his audience is the man with a hat pulled tightly over his head who is stumbling, apologetically to a seat in the Royal Opera House on that night in August of 1919 just as Thomas is introducing his “blue-eyed poet” hero.

In 1962 Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which won Best Picture. O’Toole was much too tall for the role, but well captured Lawrence’s manifold tangles, as does my choice for the role Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf is closer in height but will require contact lenses.

Lawrence watches the show, sneaks out at the end and then, Thomas’ wife Frances reports, “a note came from Col. Lawrence, the hero man.”
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T. E. Lawrence has been the subject of a few dozen biographies. Mine is the first of Lowell Thomas. But from a 21st-century perspective the tale of the storyteller is as interesting as that of the hero he created. Lowell Thomas would go on to become a great adventurer in his own right and the best known journalist of his day – often credited as the father of broadcast journalism, as a prime inventor of what is now disparagingly or reverently referred to as “traditional journalism.”

This film would be built around encounters between Lowell Thomas and T. E. Lawrence – in Jerusalem, in Arabia, and then in London during the Thomas show. It would not slight the complexities of that troubled Englishman. But its focus would be on the American journalist – and the journalism he was creating.
Visit Mitchell Stephens's website.

--Marshal Zeringue