The Big Idea Behind LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
Producer Sam Spiegel first became interested in T.E. Lawrence in 1926, when he got hold of the limited "subscriber's edition" of Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
After the success of their first collaboration, The Bridge on the River Kwai, in 1957, Spiegel and director David Lean were eager to do another film together. Their first choice was a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, but eventually they decided that simplifying the great man's life for a film would be presumptuous.
Spiegel then suggested an adaptation of Lawrence's memoir about the Arab Revolt during World War I, and they assigned blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, who had contributed anonymously to the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai, to write a treatment. Wilson and Spiegel consulted extensively while the producer was completing his next project, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).
When news that Spiegel had purchased the screen rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom from Lawrence's brother Professor A.W. Lawrence began to leak out, Spiegel called a gala press conference in 1959 to announce the project. Professor Lawrence explained that after years of withholding his approval of a film on his brother, he had finally agreed because he liked Wilson's script. He also informed the press that he had been paid 30,000 pounds for the book and that his only control over the production was the right to withhold the use of the book's title if he didn't like the finished film.
Spiegel's first choice to play Lawrence was Marlon Brando, who at the time was the same age Lawrence had been in 1917. When Spiegel announced his choice, one incredulous British reporter asked, "Will it be a speaking part?" referring to the Method actor's renowned mumbling. After the conference, Brando's management announced that he had yet to sign for the role. Eventually, he would decline the project because of his commitment to the re-make of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). As reports of his temperamental and disruptive behavior during that costly location shoot filtered out, Spiegel and director David Lean were relieved not to be working with him.
The next candidate to play Lawrence was Anthony Perkins, but when he scored a hit working with Alfred Hitchcock, Spiegel and Lean dropped the idea for fear their film would be labeled Psycho of Arabia.
Competing with Spiegel and Lean's film was a stage play by Terrence Rattigan called Ross, named for one of the aliases Lawrence had used in later years to escape notice. The play had a successful London run and was set for a film adaptation, with Laurence Harvey starring, but a threatened indictment from Spiegel made it impossible for producer Herbert Wilcox to attain financing, so the production was dropped at a loss of 100,000 pounds. In this case, turnabout was fair play. Wilcox had turned Lawrence down in 1926 when the hero was trying to sell the screen rights to his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
To guard against other Lawrence projects, Spiegel picked up the rights to Robert Graves' four books about T.E. Lawrence, written with the subject's approval, and Lowell Thomas' With Lawrence in Arabia, which had helped create the T.E. Lawrence legend.
Albert Finney became a serious contender for the role of Lawrence when word spread about his performance in the as yet unreleased Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). By this point, Spiegel and Lean had decided that the project was strong enough on its own not to need a star in the top role. Finney was given an unprecedented screen test, shot in widescreen color, with full costumes and sets and a fully costumed supporting cast. The 1,400-foot test cost 100,000 pounds. Spiegel was impressed; Lean wasn't. The director thought Finney too independent to submit to his direction. Finney proved his independence when he turned down the role rather than sign a five-year contract with Spiegel. Even Lean had to admit that it was a "slave contract."
The Finney screen test brought one valuable member of the production team into the fold. Film editor Anne Coates was out of a job when she bumped into a friend who was working on the test. When he told her about the extensive shooting, she asked if they needed someone to edit the footage. She called, got the job and so impressed Lean with her work that he hired her to edit the film itself. She would win an Oscar for her work.
At the time Spiegel announced Finney as the major contender to play Lawrence, he also announced plans to cast Cary Grant and Kirk Douglas in supporting parts eventually played by Jack Hawkins and Arthur Kennedy, respectively.
With Finney out of the picture, Lean watched every film he could find in search of another actor. Then he spotted the 27-year-old Peter O'Toole in 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. And I said, 'That's it. I'm going to test him.'"
Spiegel had first encountered O'Toole when he was considering a replacement for Montgomery Clift, whose erratic behavior was slowing production on Suddenly, Last Summer. During an improvised screen test, O'Toole ad-libbed, "It's all right, Mrs. Spiegel, your son will never play the violin again." Spiegel was so offended he swore he would never work with him. The question was academic at the time, as leading lady Elizabeth Taylor used her clout to keep good friend Clift on the picture.
O'Toole's screen test was more modest, taking only a day to shoot. He dyed his hair blond and shaved the beard he was wearing in a Stratford, England, production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Lean was impressed at the first sight of him in costume. Halfway through, he stopped the cameras and said, "No use shooting another foot of film. The boy is Lawrence." O'Toole signed for the film with the stipulation that his wife, actress Sian Phillips, be flown to the location once a month at the production's expense.
Before Spiegel could sign O'Toole, however, he had to get him out of a commitment to play King Henry II in Jean Anouilh's Becket at Stratford, England, which would have started rehearsals in the middle of the location shoot. When the festival's producer, Peter Hall, tried to file for an injunction, the judge ruled against him. Although O'Toole had shaken hands on the deal, he had never signed a contract. O'Toole would later play the role in the play's film version opposite Richard Burton.
O'Toole immediately set out to research Lawrence, almost memorizing Seven Pillars of Wisdom and interviewing anyone he could find who had known him. He had to move fast, as he was set to leave for the location shoot only five weeks after winning the role.
As the departure for location shooting neared, Lean still didn't have a final script. He had decided he didn't care for Michael Wilson's treatment and insisted they find someone to re-write it. Then he saw Robert Bolt's historical drama A Man for All Seasons in London and realized he'd found his writer. At first, they only asked the playwright to redo the dialogue, and he refused. Then Spiegel offered a large fee for a complete rewrite, but only if he could finish it in seven weeks. Bolt tried reading several books about Lawrence, but found them too contradictory, finally focusing on Lawrence's own Seven Pillars of Wisdom as his primary source.
Before filming even began, O'Toole traveled to Jordan to learn how to ride a camel and study the ways of the Bedouin. Eventually, he was as proficient as them at camel riding, though other principal cast members like Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn had to ride horses instead.
by Frank Miller