“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
― T.E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”
Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British Army officer who earned renown for his role during the Arab Revolt against Ottoman Empire during World War I.
He graduated Oxford University in 1910 and began practicing archaeology. He studied arabic and worked in Syria, excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites. In 1914, with World War I approaching, the British Army tasked him with making a military survey of the Negev Desert. In the event of war, the Ottoman army would have to cross the Negev in order to attack Egypt . Lawrence helped map the area, including points of military interest, such as water sources.
When World War I broke out, Lawrence reported for service and was stationed in Cairo in the Intelligence bureau. After a liaison mission with Arab tribal leaders, Lawrence became pivotal in coordinating insurgent campaigns against the sovereign Turks. He convinced rival Arab leaders to work in conjunction with the British, in order to maximize military success. His work resulted in diversion of Ottoman troops, guerilla style strikes on infrastructure, and victories at Aqaba, Tafileh and Damascus.
In 1922, he published his memoirs of his days in Arabia, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. Written with the help of George Bernard Shaw (who helped edit), “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” proved enormously popular, and served to further his legendary accomplishments.
Lawrence would die at the age of 46, in a motorcycle accident. He swerved to avoid hitting two boys riding bicycles, lost control of his motorcycle, and was thrown over the handlebars.
The restored Brough Superior motorcycle of T.E. Lawrence, on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
For years, various Hollywood figures had wanted to make a movie of Lawrence’s story. David Lean himself had been approached to direct a version in 1952 which ultimately failed to get off the ground.
But in 1957, Lean and Producer Sam Spiegel were coming off of an enormous success with “Bridge on the River Kwai”. “Kwai” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lean, and made more than ten times its budget at the box office ($33 million gross on a $3 million budget). It was the kind of success which allows people to freely choose their next projects, and Lean and Spiegel chose “Lawrence of Arabia”. After securing the rights to “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” from Lawrence’s brother (by giving him script approval), pre-production could commence.
Of course, the biggest decision they would have to make was who would play Lawrence.
Brando had five Oscar nominations to his name by that point in time, and had won one for “On the Waterfront” just five years earlier. He seemed like a very prudent choice for the role… he was talented, and popular. But Brando dropped out of the project, stating that he’d decided didn’t want to spend two years in the desert, and went on to play Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty”, instead.
The role was then offered to Albert Finney, who was an unknown at the time. Finney had been given an elaborate, costly screen test, and impressed everyone involved very much. However, he balked when asked to sign a seven-year deal. He also declined the part.
The search was forced to continue, focusing on finding an unknown actor. Fortune turned out to be smiling on the production, however, as they eventually discovered the perfect actor for the job.
“The first thing he (Lean) said to me, on the first day of shooting was, ‘Off we go Pete, on a great adventure.’ And that stayed with me. Every time I was feeling a bit down, or whatever… I would think of that. That we were on a great adventure. And it was.”
- Peter O’Toole
Peter O’Toole had been in a handful of films prior to “Lawrence”, but he was far from being a household name. He was doing Shakespeare on stage at the time he was offered the role. Per O’Toole, Lean’s wife at the time, Leila Matkar, was from India, and used to travel with a guru. The guru had gone to see “The Day They Robbed The Bank of England”, which O’Toole had a part in. Knowing Lean was looking to cast the role, the guru told him “I’ve just seen the man who must play Lawrence”. After which, Lean went to see the film.
O’Toole was given the chance to screen test, and was offered the part.
He was complimented by an incredible cast of supporting actors. Alec Guinness, who Lean had worked with previously, directing him to an Oscar for his work in “Bridge on the River Kwai”, initially coveted the role of Lawrence, himself. Lean and Spiegel told him he was too old, though. Instead, he was given the part of Prince Feisal when Laurence Olivier turned it down. Omar Sharif was chosen to test for the part of Sherif Ali after being selected out of a book of Arab actors. Anthony Quinn was given the role of Auda Abu Tayi. Together, they comprised a formidable company.
Of course, the production still had to contend with the challenges of shooting in the desert.
Filming was intended to be done entirely in Jordan, but certain scenes were shifted to Spain when costs began to overrun. Jordan’s King Hussein was supremely accommodating. He visited the production on several occasions, and offered the use of Jordanian soldiers as extras.
The film crew required a small regiment, itself. The equipment (including massive 70mm panavision cameras) was large and heavy, difficult to move around the desert. The nearest town was 150 miles away, so the cast and crew were forced to sleep in tents in the desert, their lone solace being a bar tent.
The desert provided difficulties in shooting, as well. The heat at times ran to 120 degrees. Wind and dust delayed shots. Windblown sand was always a threat to camera lenses. Initially they ran into troubled with the film returning spotted. It turns out the film was so hot within the camera that it was beginning to blister. They were forced to keep the cameras shaded and used wet cloths to keep them cool. The film itself needed to be kept in a refrigerated truck.
No suitable location could be found for the raid on Aqaba scene, so the crew recreated the town on a dried river bed in southern Spain. Over 300 buildings were built.
450 horses and 150 camels were used for the charge. It was a dangerous scene for the cast to film… In spite of going to Jordan early, prior to production, in order to learn to ride a camel, Peter O’Toole was nearly killed during the first take. His camel panicked when a gun went off prematurely, and O’Toole was thrown to the ground as extras on horseback began charging. Fortunately, his camel protected him by standing over him, saving him from being trampled.
The film took longer to make than the real T.E. Lawrence spent fighting against the Turks in World War I. It would cost $15 million dollars, more than five times the cost of Lean’s previous film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.
It was well worth it, however. “Lawrence of Arabia” features incomparable cinematography; incredible shots of the desert. Mirages, sunsets, dust storms, sand dunes, oases, canyons… an enormous variety of desert topography is showcased. The heat and dryness come through the screen at times. It’s an incredible film, visually. One that has few equals.
It’s also an epic story.
In the film, Lawrence (then stationed in Cairo) is assigned to make contact with Arabian Prince Feisal in order to feel out the Prince’s position in the current geopolitical climate. Once Lawrence succeeds in making contact, he quickly gains the ear of the Prince and impresses him with his knowledge of their culture. He also demonstrates a keen understanding of the local military situation, which leads to the Prince listening to his advice.
Lawrence’s first piece of advice is to take the Turkish garrison at Aqaba. The fortifications for the outpost were focused on assault from the sea. Lawrence suggests attacking it from the rear, by crossing the Nefud Desert, a feat considered impossible by the Bedouins. The Prince agrees to let him attempt it however, so Lawrence and a contingent of the Prince’s men travel day and night in order to cross the Nefud (and reach water). Along the way, they encounter another Arab tribe, and convince them to join in the overthrow of the Turkish garrison.
After successfully uniting two Arab clans to further a British military objective, without orders, he returns to the British military headquarters and receives a promotion. They also persuade him to return back to the Arabs and lead them in an insurgency campaign against the Turks.
Lawrence does, and along the way, becomes a cult figure.
Lawrence himself is an intriguing character. When first he gets his hands bloody, he struggles with guilt, and experiences discomfort over the feelings he experienced killing a man. He initially refuses reassignment to the Arabs after safely returning to the British base of operations. Once he does however, and begins successfully leading them in guerrilla raids, he basks in their adulation. He shows a suicidal level of nerve standing getting shot at by a wounded Turk.
Lawrence begins to believe his own infallibility though, boasting that he can get the Arabs to move mountains for him and joking that he can walk on water. It’s this bravado that leads him to walk directly into a Turkish town, unarmed and unprotected even though the Turks have a bounty on his head. Apprehended due to suspicion over his looks, he winds up whipped after standing up to the Captain of the guard.
After, he returns to the British, claiming to be an ordinary man and looking for an ordinary job. But he’s persuaded to return in order to help the cause. In order to help the Arabs achieve a free Arabia.
Of course, to do so requires him to accept the fact that he is, indeed, extraordinary.
As extraordinary as he may be, Lawrence is a man full of contradictions and dichotomies. At first he revels in his successes, but he becomes humbled after his hubris leads to being captured and beaten. Though he’s an inspiring leader and solid tactician, he never seems comfortable with war and its cost. He balks before entering a conflict, although, once caught up in it, he loses himself in bloodlust. Afterwards, he’s overcome with regret. After a vengeful retaliatory strike against a column of Turkish soldiers, we see him looking at his reflection in his bloody dagger. A call back to when he first admired himself in his Arab garb, reminding us of how much blood he’s spilled since then, what a cost he’s paid for the rebellion, and the weight he now carries in his soul.
He ends the film unable to ultimately achieve what he wished for. The government of Arab tribes falls apart, and Arabia ultimately trades a monarchy for a monarchy. But he sees with complete clarity the price in blood that was paid along the way.
“Lawrence of Arabia” became the highest grossing film of 1962, eventually ending its box office run with a domestic take of $37,495,385.
At the 35th annual Academy Awards, “Lawrence of Arabia” was nominated for 10 Oscars. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won a total of 7… all but Best Actor (O’Toole lost to Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
When AFI released its “100 Years… 100 Movies”, “Lawrence of Arabia” was listed at the lofty position of #5. The only four films ahead of it were “Citizen Kane”, “Casablanca”, “The Godfather” and “Gone With the Wind”. When the tenth anniversary edition was released, “Lawrence” held strong at #7. T.E. Lawrence cracked the top ten of their “100 Heroes and Villains”, coming in as their tenth greatest hero of all time. They also selected the film as the greatest “Epic” of all time.
In 1991, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
It’s a captivating biopic of a fascinating historical figure, filled with gorgeous cinematography, great acting and impeccable direction. It has an epic scope rarely found in today’s films. It’s widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.