Lawrence of Arabia
After discarding as unworkable the notion of depicting the life story of Mahatma Gandhi, Spiegel opted to indulge his lifelong fascination with Colonel T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), the once-obscure British military cartographer who came to orchestrate the Arab rebellion on the Turkish front in World War I. The film rights to Lawrence's 1926 memoir Seven Pillars Of Wisdom had long been in the hands of Alexander Korda, and the producer obtained them from Lawrence's brother for the sum of 30,000 pounds in 1959. To adapt Seven Pillars of Wisdom for the screen, Spiegel and Lean had initially engaged Michael Wilson, but by the eve of shooting had become disenchanted with his efforts as "too American." After seeing the London production of A Man For All Seasons, Spiegel tracked down playwright Robert Bolt and offered him the project.
After the near-universal derision that met his originally stated preference to cast Marlon Brando in the lead, Spiegel next considered a then-unknown British stage actor-Albert Finney-for his Lawrence. The producer was pleased with Finney's test, but the actor balked at Spiegel's offer of a five-year contract. Lean subsequently trolled the London cinemas, waiting for the onscreen presence that he had been searching for, and found him while screening The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England (1960). "On the screen, I saw this chap playing a sort of silly-assed Englishman, with a raincoat, casting for trout," Lean recalled in L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin's Lawrence Of Arabia: The 30th Anniversary Pictorial History (Doubleday). "And I said, 'That's it. I'm going to test him.'"
Lean, of course, was referencing Peter O'Toole, who at 27 was already a young veteran of the London stage, and who had enraged Sam Spiegel with his impertinence when he tested as a possible emergency replacement for Montgomery Clift in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). The actor's penchant for partying was not lost on Anthony Nutting, the onetime British diplomat whom Spiegel had retained as an advisor. As recounted by Morris and Raskin, the former envoy apprised the performer that "if you don't stay sober, you're going to leave Jordan on your ass...You're the only actor we've got, and if you get bundled home, then there's no film. That's the end of the film, and that's probably the end of you." O'Toole behaved himself, and rendered a charismatic performance that set his reputation for life.
The supporting players are no less memorable than O'Toole, such as Omar Sharif, who was likewise elevated to stardom for his efforts as the Bedouin sherif who became Lawrence's first ally. Alec Guinness, who had been one of the names considered by Korda for his Lawrence, and who had excelled on the West End in the Lawrence bioplay Ross, brought noble bearing to the role of Feisal, the prince who would one day rule the region. Other standouts include Claude Rains as the bureaucrat who sponsored Lawrence on his quest, Jack Hawkins as the calculating C.O. General Allenby, Arthur Kennedy as a cynical American reporter who feeds off of the Lawrence legend, and Jose Ferrer as the perversely sadistic Bey of Deraa.
Nutting's participation in the project gave the filmmakers entree to location scouting in Jordan, where Lean discovered remnants of the very Turkish trains and tracks that Lawrence had dynamited generations before. For five months in a locale sited 150 miles from the nearest water, Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young captured the fabulous desert vistas that became Lawrence of Arabia's hallmark. The production then shifted to Seville, Spain, where the settings that had in real life given way to modernization - Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus - had to be painstakingly recreated. Production spanned two years at a cost of $12 million, a formidable sum for the era.
The filmmakers' treatment of their protagonist is rife with much the same ambiguity that has marked history's regard for the real Lawrence; whether his central motivation was a genuine belief in Arab self-determination, or merely his own self-aggrandizement. "Lawrence of Arabia does not attempt to present or to explain the 'real' T.E. Lawrence (whoever he was)," wrote Michael A. Anderegg in his biography, David Lean (Twayne Publishers). "The person who was T.E. Lawrence does not and could not exist in the film. As soon as he appears on the screen, the Lean/Bolt/Peter O'Toole Lawrence takes on a life independent of historical fact."
As a result, various Lawrence scholars took issue with the filmmakers' efforts, as did Lawrence's brother, who rescinded his prior vote of confidence. The greater public, however, enthusiastically embraced Lawrence of Arabia upon its release. The film dominated the subsequent Oscar night, taking home the Best Picture Award and a total of seven of its ten nominations. Lean and Young won for their efforts, as did editor Anne Coates, the art direction and sound teams, and Maurice Jarre for his sweeping, unforgettable score.
Producer: Sam Spiegel, David Lean
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Michael Wilson, Robert Bolt
Art Direction: John Stoll
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Editing: Anne V. Coates
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Peter O'Toole (T.E. Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (Gen.Allenby), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish).
C-227m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning
by Jay Steinberg