Movies That Everyone Should See: “Lawrence of Arabia”

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“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”

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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.

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lawrence - seven pillarsAfter the war, Lawrence moved back to England, where he worked for the Foreign Office, wrote, and toured with a photo exhibit prior to re-enlisting in the military.

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.

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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.

bridge-on-the-river-kwaiBut 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.

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lover-marlon-brando-lovers-4328Lean and Spiegel signed Marlon Brando for the part.

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.

albert-finney-267609lThe 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.

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“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.

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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.

lawrence-of-arabia-2jpegThe 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.

Lawrence of Arabia charge on Aqaba

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.

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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.

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Lawrence does, and along the way, becomes a cult figure.

Lawrence of Arabi on top of derailed trainLawrence 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 Lawrence-of-Arabia_whippedhim 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.

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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 screenshot-0125034-Ilooking 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.  

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“Lawrence of Arabia” became the highest grossing film of 1962, eventually ending its box office run with a domestic take of $37,495,385.

1963_iconic_presenter_crawford_director_leanAt 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”.

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LoAHUU

Daniel Fogarty

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73 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Lawrence of Arabia”

  1. Another fine addition sir! It’s been a while but I really got into this. That scene where it introduces Anthony Quinn (or is if Sharif) is a thing of class. Epic in the truest sense of the word.

  2. The true epitome of epics. This took me a while to get into but it’s an amazing movie altogether and I was really impressed how David Lean managed to beautify the desert. Nice review.

    • I didnt like it when I was young. I dont think I had the patience for it. LOL Watching it now with bloggers eyes, yeah, its impossible not to note all the beautiful, striking images Lean caught on film. :o

      Thanks CK!

      • Vinnie, I trashed this comment the last time you posted it. Replying now just to tell you that I’m cracking down on this kind of comment. It’s not pertinent to the article I worked so hard to write…

        I appreciate that you’re trying to gain readers to your blog, but I’m cracking down on people’s comments that serve only to plug their posts.

        Further comments of this nature will be trashed.

  3. Well then. I think I have to sit down and watch this finally. I need to carve out an entire day to get through it, but definitely seems worth it. Great write up, Fogs.

    • Thanks Nick. Yeah, it’s a long one, there’s no doubt. Its runtime is like 3 1/2 hours. But its totally worth it. It’s a great great story, and some gorgeous cinematography, without a doubt. Total classic.

  4. Excellent movie, a true classic in every sense of the word. One of those movies which prove how high people can reach.

    Also, Nice write up Dan!

    “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless THEY write it. “

    • Thanks Gelfster, thank you kindly.

      Definitely is a monumental achievement, isn’t it? Everything. The real story, the film, the whole thing. Its a movie that gets lofty praise, but it deserves every bit of it!

  5. Arab revolt. Arab revolt? Where have I heard that? Oh yeah! Everywhere!
    Nice timing there Daniel. Lawrence was quite a guy. A lot of publications had him as one of the top men of the 20th century. One of those do everything guys. Wrote a definitive translation of the “Iliad” and his desert tactics are still taught at Sandhurst. If only they had listened to him at the peace summit. He said independence for Arab nations was a good thing. A hundred years later, Arabs are still fighting for it!
    I loved this flik as a kid. Huge screen, great sound score. I was there in the desert with Lawrence. They don’t make em like this any more. Great MTESS!

    • Yeah, I wonder how the world would have been different if he had succeeded in building an Arab government out of the coalition of tribes. Things probably would have been different in the Middle East thats for sure.

      They definitely dont make them like this anymore. I found myself thinking a couple of times… if this was made today, they’d have shot greenscreen and CGI’ed the desert in the background :(

  6. I love this movie! One of my all time favorites. I’m still mad I missed it in theaters last October (grrrrr..) but anyway. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you liked it this time around though! I remember watching it with my family the first time and being totally into it while they were all in various states of sleepiness.
    I love the quote you used at the beginning there. I really need to read the book but I haven’t found the time yet. It says how Lawrence has this vision of himself, and then it contrasts with who he actually is, as he finds out when he is tortured. But then he is still able to put that aside and go back to lead the Arabs, even though the only way he can do it is convince himself that he is worthy by acting like a god or something. And then he fails but gets to go back home, which turns out to be a relief because he doesn’t have to worry anymore about how “extraordinary” a man he really is. That’s what I got out of it last time anyway. I seem to look at him differently ever time I see it. That contrast between who Lawrence wants to be/ thinks he should be and who he actually is is just so interesting.
    That’s cool how you pointed out the before and after of him looking at his knife. I never noticed that before. I saw somewhere that when he is looking at himself the first time and dancing around in his new clothes was improv by O’Toole.
    Brando’s my favorite actor, but I have a hard time imagining him playing Lawrence. I can’t really put my finger on why, but it just seems odd. Peter O’Toole is just perfect here. I also read that Anthony Perkins was considered as well, which may have been interesting.
    Aw man I love this movie. I kind of feel like watching it again.. though last time it took me three days with everything else I had going on :) Great write up, though, I found a lot of new information there!

    • Glad you enjoyed Hunter. Happy you approve!

      That first dagger scene was an improv by O’Toole. Lean asked him for some kind of moment of appreciation of his new garb, and while he was spinning, O’Toole realized he could look at himself in the dagger. They wrote the second shot in afterwards because Lean was such a fan of that moment. There’s another callback too I picked up on… at the end of the movie, there’s a motorcycle that races by as Lawrence is being driven home. It harkens back to the fact that he died at the beginning of the picture… Brando’s great, but I can NOT imagine him here. I can just picture that thick Brando rasp going “My friends, we have been foolish. Auda will not come to Aqaba. Not for money… ” LOL Eesh.

      It is a long one to get through, there’s no doubt. You know you’re not going to just be able to sit straight through for three and a half hours :( So it’ll be even longer than that!! **

  7. My pal Ted just told me he’s just bought the Blu-ray so I think I will finally see Lawrence of Arabia this year. Great write-up Fogs!

  8. It is odd to note that after the first release, the film was heavily edited for time constraints in non road show screenings. After that, the versions that played on television were inconsistent in time length and of course they were panned and scanned losing huge chunks of visual material. Barely ten years after it’s original release, there was not a complete print of the original roadshow production. It took fifteen more years of searching to find missing elements and then a huge job of restoration by a project housed in the UCLA film school.
    I saw the restored version on the big screen in Century City at an exclusive run for just a few weeks, I am pretty sure it was 1989 when the restoration was completed. This movie deserves a big screen viewing by every film lover. I treasure my DVD version, but even on a 55″ screen, it is not as compelling. The music is spectacular and O’Toole is amazing. His blue eyes penetrate through the darkness and show the intensity of his performance.
    The two miraculous desert expeditions, one to recover a lost man and the other with the two boys were both dramatic and memorable. When Lawrence has to execute a man who has breached the peace between the warring tribes, it kicks you in the stomach to see that it is the man he rescued from the desert earlier. I watched most of it just a few weeks ago, and it is always powerful. Good work and solid points in the details of the background story.

    • Thanks Richard!

      Yeah, I saw a lot about the vicious cutting and the restoration work during my research here. A lot of the footage they found had no audio, so they had to call the actors back in to rerecord! Thats crazy…something like 15 years had passed!

      The music IS spectacular. I think I’m going to have the main theme stuck in my head for days now.

      I do disagree about the home theatre experience though. It looked great on my set on Blu, let me tell you. I was enthralled!

  9. The first time I saw this on the big screen, it was the restored version. But it showed in very few cities. Rochester and Buffalo were not among them. I had to go all the way up to Toronto to see it. It was worth it. Definitely a classic. (PS>It’s in my collection but only on DVD. I should get the BD)

    • You should get the Blu Ray, yes. Definitely better to see all of that gorgeous scenery in Hi Def!!

      I’ve never seen it in the theatre… so I believe the only version Ive ever seen was the restored version. :D

  10. Wonderful film, terrific write-up. It’s difficult to picture watching this a second time, simply because of the butt-crushing length, but it’s well worth at least one viewing, and under the right circumstances I could see watching it again. It’s absolutely enjoyable, despite the length.

    What strikes me so much about the character of Lawrence is that he’s this walking mass of contradictions. Great soldier, hates bloodshed, but has a taste for violence which he detests. Loves the Arabs, but has trouble respecting them. And even at the height of his megalomania, he seems just a little bit broken by his experiences, like the messiah complex is a self-defense mechanism of shorts. Fascinating character, brought to life brilliantly by O’Toole. Glad Brando didn’t get the role… that would not have worked.

    • Thanks buddy, appreciate the props. :D

      The trick to watching it a second time is to let some time pass. LOL. Its been years since I’ve seen it, prior to this. And this viewing, everything felt brand new. I had a much higher estimation of it.

      O’Toole did do a great job with the part, but it was an excellent character, too. The real TE Lawrence must have been something else. LOL

  11. Wow! Great selection; superb post.

    “There may be honor among thieves, but there is none among politicians.”
    – T.E. Lawrence

    • Thanks, man, appreciate that! Yeah, it’d be nice to see it on the big screen too. I think Fathom Events was showing in theatres last year, but I missed out.

      Indeed a great movie, though!

  12. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen this movie! Apparently the Blu-ray is the best Blu-ray of anything there is, so I might buy that…

    • I was pretty pleased with the blu ray, yeah. Looked and sounded awesome, some nice special features… definitely a good one. Check it out if you get the chance Ipod, worst case scenario, its a classic film you can scratch off your “must see” list!

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