#599) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
OR “[Citation Needed]: The Motion Picture”
Directed by David Lean
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. Based on the book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence.
Class of 1991
The Plot: While stationed in Cairo during World War I, British lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to the Arabian desert to locate Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and assess his revolt against the Turkish Empire for Arab independence. Upon arrival, Lawrence defies Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) and begins helping the Arabs, proposing a surprise attack on the Turks in Aqaba, Jordan. Lawrence enlists the help of two tribes – the Harith led by Sherif Ali iben el Kharish (Omar Sharif) and the Howeitat led by Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) – and leads them across the desert, ultimately earning their respect as a natural leader. When the raid on Aqaba is successful, Lawrence is promoted to Major and is encouraged by General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) to continue his guerrilla war, unaware that the British have plans to control Arabia once the war is over. But all this history and political drama takes a backseat to the cinematic grandeur of the Hollywood epic.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for its “remarkable beauty”, “sweeping wide shots”, and for Maurice Jarre’s “memorably rousing” score. The write-up does, however, point out that the film (as well as O’Toole’s performance) portray Lawrence with “marginal historical accuracy”. An essay by film critic Michael Wilmington is a detailed recap of the film and its production.
But Does It Really?: Even if you don’t like this movie, you have to admit you are in the presence of greatness. “Lawrence of Arabia” is David Lean at the height of his power, and the movie succeeds on every creative front (The editing! The cinematography! That score!). Yes, the movie plays fast and loose with some of the facts, but this movie clearly isn’t going for reportage. This is a film about an extraordinary man, played by an extraordinary actor giving one of the best film performances of all time, aided by an accomplished supporting cast. “Lawrence of Arabia” is classic filmmaking at its finest; the kind that can never be duplicated, only revered.
Everybody Gets One: Born in England to an Irish father and a Scottish mother, Peter O’Toole joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1952, and quickly found work in theatre and television. In 1959, O’Toole reached the West End playing a rebellious WWII private in the play “The Long and the Short and the Tall”. His performance here got him a few film roles, including the 1960 heist caper “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England”, which got him a screen test for “Lawrence” with David Lean. O’Toole won the role of T.E. Lawrence after Marlon Brando and Albert Finney turned it down. “Lawrence” was O’Toole’s fourth movie and first starring role.
Wow, That’s Dated: BROWNFACE WARNING: While “Lawrence” makes very progressive strides casting actual Middle-Eastern actors in several prominent roles, the film still casts British actor Alec Guinness as the Arabian Prince Faisal. I don’t care if Guinness does kinda look like the real-life Faisal, it’s still whitewashing!
Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “Lawrence of Arabia” received the most nominations at the 1963 Oscars (10) as well as the most wins (7). Among its wins: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Editing, and Score. Peter O’Toole lost Best Actor to Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird“, the first of an eventual eight losses O’Toole endured over the next 44 years (though he did win an Honorary Oscar in 2003).
- Several film adaptations of T.E. Lawrence’s time in Arabia had been attempted since his death in 1935, with such names as Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier attached at various times. Following their successful collaboration on “The Bridge on the River Kwai“, director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel considered making a film on the life of Gandhi before ultimately deciding on Lawrence. The rights to Lawrence’s life and work were owned by his younger brother Arnold Lawrence, who reluctantly sold Spiegel the film rights to “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Lawrence’s memoir about his years in Arabia. The initial screenplay by blacklisted writer Michael Wilson was deemed too political, and playwright Robert Bolt (“A Man For All Seasons”) was brought in to make the film more a character study of Lawrence rather than a summation of historical events. Only Bolt was credited for the screenplay when the film was first released, but an investigation by the WGA in 1995 led to Wilson receiving an on-screen credit, as well as a belated Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
- Filming took place in three different countries over a 17 month period (with a two month break while cast and crew recuperated from various illnesses). Initially, the film was to be shot entirely in Jordan (King Hussein assisted the crew immeasurably during production), but more crew illnesses took the film to the more hospitable climates of Morocco and Spain. According to an issue of Variety at the time, “Lawrence” was the first major movie without a fixed budget (!) with the final price tag estimated between 13-15 million dollars (about 120-140 million today).
- Yes, there are plenty of historical inaccuracies within this film: events are moved around and conflated, characters differ drastically from their real-life counterparts, and everyone disagrees over how the admittedly enigmatic Lawrence should have been portrayed. Such is the delicate balance of presenting world history within a dramatic art form (Side note: Sam Spiegel defended the film as faithful to Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which subsequent Lawrence biographers believe was embellished by the author). Regardless of the film’s historical foibles, I will advise that some prior knowledge of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt will help your movie experience. At the very least, keep the subtitles on to help keep track of the various people and places.
- Man that score just lures you in. You can’t think of Jarre’s main theme without immediately thinking of the desert. What surprised me was how much of the movie is scoreless, making its eventual appearances all the more special, magnifying the action to mythic proportions.
- As I previously gushed, Peter O’Toole is pretty darn great in this. He is more than up to the herculean task of carrying a four-hour movie, and delivers such a subtly brilliant performance you’d think he had been making movies his whole life.
- “Big things have small beginnings”. Not this movie. It has an overture for crissakes!
- It’s so odd to see Claude Rains as an old man, I’m used to seeing him in his heyday at Warner Bros. in the ’40s. Rains’ dry asides as the resident bureaucrat are the closest this movie gets to having comic relief.
- Ah, the match cut. Inspired by the French New Wave movement happening in the early 1960s, editor Anne V. Coates convinced David Lean (an accomplished editor himself) to cut directly from Lawrence blowing out the match to the sunrise in the desert, as opposed to a slow dissolve. In fact, most of this movie is straddling two eras of filmmaking: the film’s more conventional approach to the subject matter mixed with quick cuts and flashy camera pans. This juxtaposition of styles keeps the film watchable 60 years on.
- I first saw “Lawrence of Arabia” on the big screen for its 50th anniversary in 2012. Watching it again on a decently sized HD TV wasn’t as bad an experience as I thought. You still get the sense of scale in the big tracking shots (tiny figures trekking across an endless desert), but of course, nothing can compare to seeing “Lawrence” on the biggest movie screen.
- Besides the aforementioned brownface, my main gripe with this movie are all the “day-for-night” shots. Obviously, filming in the desert would have been too dangerous at night, so we’ll make do with a dark blue filter over these “night” shots and ignore everyone casting their shadows over the sand.
- Omar Sharif gets possibly the best entrance in film history, emerging as a mirage-like dot on the horizon, steadily approaching Lawrence on camelback. Easily one of the best artistic compositions in this or any movie. You can spend days dissecting this scene, and I found this video essay a good starting point.
- Sure, Omar Sharif is giving a marvelously disciplined performance in this movie, but can we also acknowledge how handsome he was? That’s the face of a bonafide movie star. No wonder there’s that song about him in “The Band’s Visit“.
- I can never hear Alec Guinness talk about The Brightness without hearing Peter Sellers’ impression of him.
- Gazim wandering through the desert is timed to correspond with the sunrise. Come on! You have to marvel at the coordination it must have taken to get that shot right, considering you’d have to wait 24 hours for take two.
- Tonight on “What Nationality Are They Making Anthony Quinn Play This Week?”: Mexico’s native son is playing an Arab sheik (again). And I’m pretty sure this HD transfer gives away that Quinn is wearing a prosthetic nose. Still, better than Guinness in brownface.
- The scenes with Auda Abu Tayi’s tribe offers something the rest of this movie doesn’t have: women. Like “River Kwai”, David Lean once again offers us an epic sausagefest. One of the best sausagefests ever made, but still…
- Easily my favorite scene in the movie is when Lawrence agrees to shoot one of Ali’s men to end a blood feud between the opposing tribes, only to discover it is the man he went back to save from dying in the desert. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the first crack in Lawrence’s overconfident, optimistic armor.
- Remarkably, there were long passages of this movie where I didn’t take notes; partially to make sure I kept track of all the moving parts, but also because I was sucked into it. I was glued to my TV for the entire attack on Aquba. Not bad for a four hour movie.
- If Act 1 is about Lawrence’s triumphs during the war, Act 2 is his internal war and downfall. Watching Lawrence crumble as he experiences the unavoidable hardships of the world around him is captivating. This is one of those instances where an Oscar tally can misrepresent a film’s value. Peter O’Toole and Gregory Peck are giving equally electrifying performances, but in 1963 it made more sense to reward a five time nominee over a newcomer who had plenty of years to, as O’Toole would later put it, “win the lovely bugger outright”.
- Character actor/Arthur Miller go-to Arthur Kennedy plays Jackson Bentley, a fictional representation of Lowell Thomas, the journalist whose articles about T.E. Lawrence gained him and his subject worldwide recognition. Thomas was later a film producer, and can be seen at the introduction of another NFR entry – “This Is Cinerama“.
- Like Joseph Cotten in “The Thin Man“, Arthur Kennedy sounds aggressively more American than usual in this British production. Speaking of, while “Lawrence” was produced by a British company (Horizon Pictures), it was distributed by Columbia Pictures, hence its designation as an American film. Call it a “dual-citizenship movie”.
- My eternal gratitude, as always, to Robert A. Harris, who supervised a 1988 restoration of “Lawrence”, which saw the film returned to its 227 minute roadshow presentation for the first time in 26 years. The subsequent 4K restoration is so good I could only tell which scenes had been reinstated after doing some deep-dive research. Bonus shoutout to the cast members who came back to rerecord their dialogue. Only Alec Guinness gives away that any reconstruction has been done (though in all fairness he was 74 when he re-dubbed his lines).
- What is it with David Lean and blowing up railroad tracks while a train is passing? Not every director’s trademark has to be so expensive, ya know.
- José Ferrer was already an Oscar winning actor and prolific stage director in 1962, and was hesitant to accept the small but pivotal role of the masochistic Turkish Bey who strips Lawrence down both literally and figuratively. Ferrer took the part after receiving a generous stipend (and a Porsche), and would eventually consider this performance as the best of his career. Also, is it just me or does he kinda look like Walt Disney in this?
- After three-plus hours of watching Lawrence slowly lose his confidence, the dam finally bursts with his unhinged cry of “No prisoners!” Lawrence’s vengeful slaughter of Turkish soldiers is another heart-wrenching sequence, and the character’s point of no return.
- I’ve always appreciated that despite its status as one of the great epics of all time, “Lawrence” ends with a close-up of our hero sitting quietly in a car as it drives him down a dirt road, contemplating everything that has transpired. You expect “The Sounds of Silence” to start playing in the background.
- “Lawrence of Arabia” was a hit, second only to “The Longest Day” at the U.S. box office. There was, however, a large amount of criticism reserved for this movie’s historical shortcomings, particularly regarding Lawrence himself (Arnold Lawrence publicly denounced the film as “pretentious and false”). Family and descendants of other characters filed lawsuits against Columbia, and most Middle Eastern countries refused to screen the film, although Omar Sharif was able to convince his native Egypt to reconsider.
- Following the success of “Lawrence”, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif became A-list movie stars; Sharif re-teaming with David Lean for his equally epic follow-up “Doctor Zhivago”.
- Practically every major filmmaker was influenced by “Lawrence of Arabia”, from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, the latter two even helping to get the 1988 restoration off the ground.
- As for lingering pop culture references, any movie that features characters traipsing through the desert has to evoke “Lawrence” by either its cinematography or score. From “Mad Max” to “Dune” to “Spaceballs” (“Nice dissolve.”)
- The closest this film has ever gotten to a sequel is the 1990 TV movie “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia”, with a young Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence. Apparently it was this movie that got Fiennes cast in “Schindler’s List“, so at least some good came out of it.
- And finally, I didn’t know where else to put this, but no “Lawrence of Arabia” overview would be complete without Noël Coward’s alleged quip to Peter O’Toole after the film’s premiere: “If you had been any prettier, it would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia’.” Zing!