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Lawrence of Arabia
Remind Me

Behind the Camera on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

With his star and screenwriter in place, director David Lean still had one major battle left, the choice of a location. Producer Sam Spiegel wanted him to consider the cost-saving benefits of shooting in Southern California or the less volatile political climate in Israel. Lean, however, was determined to film the story where it had happened, in Jordan. One obvious problem was Spiegel's religion. Given the political situation in the Middle East, there was a good chance that a Jewish producer wouldn't even be allowed into the country. The production's British advisor, Anthony Nutting, who had been England's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the start of the Suez crisis, got around that problem by getting Spiegel a visa that listed his religion as Anglican. When the forthrightly Jewish producer protested, Nutting said, "Sam, just shut up! Here's your bloody visa."

Lean's instincts about shooting in Jordan proved right when he made his first location-scouting trip there. Along with breathtaking scenery, he discovered the remains of the Turkish locomotives and railroad tracks Lawrence had destroyed during the Arab Revolution. After 40 years in the sun, they hadn't even rusted.

To capture the location's grandeur, Lean decided to shoot the film in Super Panavision 70mm. He wanted the largest frame possible.

Nutting convinced King Hussein of Jordan that the film would boost tourism, thus bringing more money into the then-cash-starved nation. He also appealed to his sense of family. The king's great-grandfather, Sherif of Mecca, had launched the Arab Revolt with Lawrence in 1916. King Hussein quickly gave the film his blessing. Nutting even managed to talk down the original fee for the Jordanian Army's cooperation from one million pounds to 165,000.

Nutting also had to negotiate to hire the Bedouin tribesmen, who also wanted a million pounds. When he asked how they could ask so much, he learned that their representative, Sherif Nasser, had learned of a secret one million pound loan Spiegel had taken out from the Arab Bank there. The bank director, as it turned out, was Sherif Nasser's uncle. Spiegel got the price down by pulling a ploy his associates were used to. He had a heart attack, which so threatened the production's future that the Bedouin lowered their price.

In July 1961, the company moved to their first location, Jebel Tubeiq near the Saudi Arabian border. The spot was 150 miles away from the nearest water and had not been inhabited since a band of monks abandoned their monastery there in the seventh century A.D. Temperatures were so high in the summer sun that most thermometers couldn't even register them. In fact, the thermometers had to be cooled down.

To accommodate the cast and crew while they were filming in the desert, the production company set up a small city of tents and trailers, complete with air conditioning and refrigerators. The location company started with 75 members and eventually rose to more than 400, most of them Jordanians. The leading actors each had personal servants to see to their needs, from laundry to cold drinks. A master chef was flown in from London to set up the company kitchen. On Saturday nights, they showed movies outdoors. And every 28 days, they were flown to the nearest city for two days of recreation. Both Sharif and O'Toole separately enjoyed soaking in cold baths during their breaks, as they couldn't do that on location.

While assisting Robert Bolt with research, Nutting, who was working on his own biography of Lawrence, became convinced that the war hero had left something out of the final edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in his description of his capture and mistreatment by the Turkish police. He finally uncovered a rare 1922 edition of the manuscript and a letter to George Bernard Shaw's wife that strongly suggested that the Turkish Bey had actually raped Lawrence, a fact hinted at in the movie.

Spiegel's first choice to play Lawrence's closest friend, Sherif Ali, was French actor Alain Delon, but Lean wanted an actor with dark hair and eyes to contrast O'Toole's blond hair and blue eyes. Delon's jet-black hair was fine, but his eyes were blue. They tried putting him in brown contact lenses, but he couldn't tolerate them. With a month to go before shooting, Spiegel cast another French actor, Maurice Ronet, and had him flown to meet Lean in Jordan. When he arrived, Lean was shocked. This time he had an actor with green eyes. He put out a call for photos of every Arab actor the production company could locate. When they sent him Omar Sharif's picture, he said, "If this guy speaks English, send him out."

Sharif was already a big star in his native Egypt when he got the call to meet Spiegel in a hotel in Cairo. When he agreed to make a screen test, Spiegel flew him to Jordan. In his autobiography, The Eternal Male, Sharif would marvel that a Jew from Hollywood had gotten something from the Egyptian government the native-born Sharif had been trying to get for years - an exit visa.

Sharif played two scenes for his screen test, working with O'Toole and Ronet but not playing Ali. Lean sent the tests to Spiegel with a strong recommendation that they sign Sharif. A few days later, Ronet flew back to France, and Sharif was cast in the role of Ali.

Spiegel came out on top in Sharif's casting in more ways than one. Not only did he get the perfect actor for Ali, but he finally got someone to sign one of his five-year "slave" contracts. In later years Sharif would regret doing so, as the higher fees he commanded after his success in Lawrence of Arabia mostly went into Spiegel's pockets.

During the desert location shoot, 300 Bedouins wearing sandals muffled in wool were charged with smoothing out the desert sands with palm fronds after each rehearsal and take so there would be no extraneous footprints in the sand.

Throughout shooting, Spiegel continued to feign heart attacks whenever he wasn't happy with the way things were going. At one point, he had himself strapped to a stretcher and flown by Red Cross helicopter to the desert location. Attendants carried him to Lean, to whom he said, "Don't worry about anything, David -- not the budget, not the schedule, not my health. The picture -- the picture is all that counts!" Then he was flown back out.

After five months shooting in Jordan, Spiegel ran short on cash and moved the entire production to Spain, where he had frozen assets he could only spend in that country. Lean was so unhappy about the move that he stayed in Jordan on his own after everyone else had left for a rest in England. Surveying one of the last scenes there, a desert panorama complete with camels, he complained, "Bloody well match that somewhere else in the world."

Property manager Eddie Fowlie coordinated the move to Spain on a large tramp steamer. The strangest part of the cargo was 100 stuffed camels. He had bought the skins from a slaughterhouse in Jordan and had them stuffed in case they were needed for battle scenes, which they were.

The first Spanish location was in Seville, where the company actually got to stay in hotels. The production took advantage of the city's Moorish architecture to re-create early 20th century Damascus, Cairo and Jerusalem, which had become too modernized for use in the film. Two thousand local extras turned out to film General Allenby's entry into Damascus in front of Seville's Archeological Museum.

When the company moved to Spain they were joined by new principal players Claude Rains, who had been working in Rome; Jose Ferrer, who had been in India; and Arthur Kennedy, who replaced an ailing Edmond O'Brien at the last minute as an American war correspondent.

After three months shooting in the Seville area, the company moved again, 350 miles southeast to the port city Almeria. The area comes closer to desert terrain than any other part of Europe. A special train carried the company overnight from Seville. Another train carried the trailers in which they had lived in Jordan, while a 48-truck convoy brought the props, costumes and technical equipment.

Because Jordan had had no snow the year before, they had to film scenes of Lawrence's trek through the mountains in Spain's Sierra Nevadas. A special sledge with ski-type runners was used to move the camera.

In a dried riverbed, designers built the entire town of Aqaba, Jordan, circa 1916. Contemporary Aqaba had become too modernized to serve as a location. The set consisted of 300 separate building fronts and a quarter-mile-long sea wall. On a hillside behind that, they built a half-mile square Turkish Army camp and parade ground overlooking the town. Here they filmed the Arab charge of 150 camels and 450 horses through the Turkish camp.

One of the major scenes shot in southern Spain was the attack on the Turkish railroad. The crew laid tracks and brought in German and Belgian locomotives from the early 20th century rented from the Spanish national railway system. Each of the two trains included eight passenger cars, 14 horse cars, two luggage vans and a guards' van.

It took impeccable planning to prepare the railroad attack. They could only film the sequence once. After careful testing, they determined that it would take ten pounds of guncotton to cut the rails and another ten to send the train cars careening off the track. To control their motion through the desert, they had to plant steel plates under the sand. The engineer set the locomotive at full throttle, then jumped off before the tracks exploded.

The final location for the film was in Morocco, where they moved in July 1962 to shoot the massacre of the Turkish army. The scene required an Arab army of 800 mounted on horses and camels and a Turkish army of 1,200 on carts and mules. Lean started with long shots and moved to close-ups so they could gradually let people go throughout the day before they got too tired, a real danger shooting epic scenes of this nature.

Principal photography wrapped on August 17, 1962, more than a year after it had begun. The final production budget was about $12 million.

When Lawrence of Arabia was finally put together and shown to Lawrence's brother Professor A.W. Lawrence, he was horrified at what he considered liberties taken with history. He called it "an unholy marriage between a Western and a psychological horror," and refused to let them use the title Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He ended up donating most of the money he'd been paid for the rights to charity.

Lawrence of Arabia premiered in London as the Royal Command Performance for 1962 on Monday, December 10. Tickets for the charity performance cost between one and 25 guineas (the equivalent of $4 to $100).

Many who had known Lawrence and other real figures featured in the film were horrified by the picture. Lawrence biographer Basil Liddell Hart wrote to warn many of the man's former friends that they would be shocked by the depiction of the hero struggling with sadistic impulses. Lady Allenby, widow of General Allenby, wrote to The London Times: "Is there any way in which a film company can be stopped from portraying a character so inaccurately as that of the late Field Marshal Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia?...What can one do? What is the remedy? Or is there one?"

Lean had less than two months to prepare Lawrence of Arabia for its premiere after completing second unit work in the middle of October 1962. As a result, the version shown at premiere was a few minutes longer than he might have liked. He had hoped to go back and cut a few frames from some shots he thought ran too long, but after the premiere, distributor Columbia Pictures asked him to cut 20 minutes from it so that exhibitors could squeeze in an extra showing each day. So instead of trimming a few shots, he had to cut whole scenes. For a 1971 re-issue, another 15 minutes were cut. Many critics have complained that this later version renders the action incoherent, particularly in the film's second half, which sustained the largest cuts.

In 1986, film archivist Robert A. Harris approached Columbia about restoring the footage cut from Lawrence of Arabia. This proved a massive task, as the original camera negatives, shot in unstable Eastmancolor, had started to deteriorate and had to be restored first. The negatives were so unstable that they were self-destructing during the creation of the interpostive, the positive color print used to create negatives from which new prints would be struck. The project spanned two regimes at the studio, starting under David Puttnam's leadership and ending with Dawn Steel as studio head. Directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg used their influence to keep the thing going. Harris was fortunate enough to receive assistance from Lean and original editor Anne Coates in putting the material back together, which in many cases included using trims (pieces of film left over from the original editing) and outs (unused, alternative takes). Since some cut sequences no longer had soundtracks, he had to get Peter O'Toole, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness to re-dub their dialogue. Actor Charles Gray (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975, Diamonds Are Forever, 1971) imitated the late Jack Hawkins for some scenes. Harris got the film back to 223 minutes, then Lean made the trims he'd wanted to make in 1962, creating a director's cut that ran 216 minutes. The "Director's Cut" finally premiered in September 1988 and is now available on video and DVD.

In 1995, the Writers Guild decided that Michael Wilson had written enough material for Lawrence of Arabia to merit a screen credit. All versions of the film since then, including the DVD, credit the script to Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.

by Frank Miller