Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 British epic historical drama film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence and his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
It was directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel, through his British company Horizon Pictures, and distributed by Columbia Pictures.
The film stars Peter O’Toole in the title role with Alec Guinness playing Prince Faisal.
The film, a British and American co-production, depicts Lawrence’s experiences in the Ottoman Empire’s provinces of Hejaz and Greater Syria during World War I, in particular his attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and his involvement in the Arab National Council. Its themes include Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the personal violence inherent in war, his own identity, and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army, and his new-found comrades within the Arabian desert tribes.
The film is presented in two parts, divided by an intermission.
The film opens in 1935 when Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter tries (with little success) to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him.
The story then moves back to the First World War, where Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant, notable for his insolence and education. Over the objections of General Murray, Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau sends him to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, his Bedouin guide, Tafas, is killed by Sherif Ali for drinking from his well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton, who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment, and leave. Lawrence ignores Brighton’s orders when he meets Faisal. His outspokenness piques the prince’s interest.
Brighton advises Faisal to retreat after a major defeat, but Lawrence proposes a daring surprise attack on Aqaba; its capture would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. The town is strongly fortified against a naval assault but only lightly defended on the landward side. He convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a sceptical Sherif Ali. Teenage orphans Daud and Farraj attach themselves to Lawrence as servants. They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. One of Ali’s men, Gasim, succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. When Lawrence discovers him missing, he turns back and rescues Gasim – and Sherif Ali is won over. He gives Lawrence Arab robes to wear.
Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence’s scheme is almost derailed when one of Ali’s men kills one of Auda’s because of a blood feud. Howeitat retaliation would shatter the fragile alliance, so Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. He is then stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, the very man he risked his own life to save in the desert, but he shoots him anyway.
The next morning, the Arabs overrun the Turkish garrison. Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby, of his victory. While crossing the Sinai Desert, Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money for the Arabs. He is deeply disturbed, confessing that he enjoyed executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs’ suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. When pressed, the general states that they do not.
Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley publicises Lawrence’s exploits, making him famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave him to be tortured by the enemy, Lawrence shoots him dead before fleeing.
When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Deraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey. Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. Then, for striking out at the Bey, he is severely flogged before being thrown into the street. The experience leaves Lawrence shaken. He returns to British headquarters in Cairo but does not fit in.
A short time later in Jerusalem, General Allenby urges him to support the “big push” on Damascus. Lawrence hesitates to return but finally relents.
Lawrence recruits an army that is motivated more by money than by the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just massacred the residents of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men is from Tafas; he demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man’s battle cry; the result is a slaughter in which Lawrence himself participates. Afterwards, he regrets his actions.
Lawrence’s men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but the desert tribesmen prove ill-suited for such a task. Despite Lawrence’s efforts, they bicker constantly. Unable to maintain the public utilities, the Arabs soon abandon most of the city to the British.
Lawrence is promoted to colonel and immediately ordered back to Britain, as his usefulness to both Faisal and the British is at an end. As he leaves the city, his automobile is passed by a motorcyclist who leaves a trail of dust in his wake.
- Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence. Albert Finney was a virtual unknown at the time, but he was Lean’s first choice to play Lawrence.
- Finney was cast and began principal photography but was fired after two days for reasons that are still unclear. Marlon Brando was also offered the part, and Anthony Perkins and Montgomery Clift were briefly considered before O’Toole was cast.
- Alec Guinness had previously played Lawrence in the play Ross and was briefly considered for the part, but David Lean and Sam Spiegel thought him too old.
- Lean had seen O’Toole in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and was bowled over by his screen test, proclaiming, “This is Lawrence!” Spiegel disliked Montgomery Clift, having worked with him on Suddenly, Last Summer.
- Spiegel eventually acceded to Lean’s choice, though he disliked O’Toole after seeing him in an unsuccessful screen test for Suddenly, Last Summer.
- Pictures of Lawrence suggest also that O’Toole bore some resemblance to him, in spite of their considerable height difference.
- O’Toole’s looks prompted a different reaction from Noël Coward, who quipped after seeing the première of the film, “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia”.
- Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal. Faisal was originally to be portrayed by Laurence Olivier.
- Guinness performed in other David Lean films, and he got the part when Olivier dropped out.
- Guinness was made up to look as much like the real Faisal as possible; he recorded in his diaries that, while shooting in Jordan, he met several people who had known Faisal who actually mistook him for the late prince.
- Guinness said in interviews that he developed his Arab accent from a conversation that he had with Omar Sharif.
- Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi.
- Quinn got very much into his role; he spent hours applying his own makeup, using a photograph of the real Auda to make himself look as much like him as he could.
- One anecdote has Quinn arriving on-set for the first time in full costume, whereupon Lean mistook him for a native and asked his assistant to ring Quinn and notify him that they were replacing him with the new arrival.
- Jack Hawkins as General Allenby.
- Sam Spiegel pushed Lean to cast Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier (who was engaged at the Chichester Festival Theatre and declined). Lean convinced him to choose Hawkins because of his work for them on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
- Hawkins shaved his head for the role and reportedly clashed with Lean several times during filming.
- Guinness recounted that Hawkins was reprimanded by Lean for celebrating the end of a day’s filming with an impromptu dance.
- Hawkins became close friends with O’Toole during filming, and the two often improvised dialogue during takes to Lean’s dismay.
- Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali.
- The role was offered to many actors before Sharif was cast.
- Horst Buchholz was the first choice, but had already signed on for the film One, Two, Three.
- Alain Delon had a successful screen test but ultimately declined because of the brown contact lenses he would have had to wear.
- Maurice Ronet and Dilip Kumar were also considered.
- Sharif, who was already a major star in the Middle East, was originally cast as Lawrence’s guide Tafas, but when the aforementioned actors proved unsuitable, Sharif was shifted to the part of Ali.
- José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey.
- Ferrer was initially unsatisfied with the small size of his part and accepted the role only on the condition of being paid $25,000 (more than O’Toole and Sharif combined) plus a Porsche.
- However, he afterwards considered this his best film performance, saying in an interview: “If I was to be judged by any one film performance, it would be my five minutes in Lawrence.”
- Peter O’Toole once said that he learned more about screen acting from Ferrer than he could in any acting class.
- Anthony Quayle as Colonel Harry Brighton.
- Quayle, a veteran of military roles, was cast after Jack Hawkins, the original choice, was shifted to the part of Allenby.
- Quayle and Lean argued over how to portray the character, with Lean feeling Brighton to be an honourable character, while Quayle thought him an idiot.
- Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden.
- Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley.
- In the early days of the production, when the Bentley character had a more prominent role in the film, Kirk Douglas was considered for the part; Douglas expressed interest but demanded a star salary and the highest billing after O’Toole and thus was turned down by Spiegel.
- Later, Edmond O’Brien was cast in the part.
- O’Brien filmed the Jerusalem scene, and (according to Omar Sharif) Bentley’s political discussion with Ali, but he suffered a heart attack on location and had to be replaced at the last moment by Kennedy, who was recommended to Lean by Anthony Quinn.
- Donald Wolfit as General Murray.
- I. S. Johar as Gasim. Johar was a well-known Indian actor who occasionally appeared in international productions.
- Gamil Ratib as Majid. Ratib was a veteran Egyptian actor.
- His English was not considered good enough, so he was dubbed by Robert Rietti (uncredited) in the final film.
- Michel Ray as Farraj.
- At the time, Ray was an up-and-coming Anglo-Brazilian actor who had previously appeared in several films, including Irving Rapper’s The Brave One and Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star.
- John Dimech as Daud.
- Zia Mohyeddin as Tafas.
- Mohyeddin was one of Pakistan’s best-known actors.
- Howard Marion-Crawford as the medical officer.
- He was cast at the last possible minute during the filming of the Damascus scenes in Seville.
- Jack Gwillim as the club secretary.
- Gwillim was recommended to Lean for the film by close friend Quayle.
- Hugh Miller as the RAMC colonel.
- He worked on several of Lean’s films as a dialogue coach and was one of several members of the film crew to be given bit parts.
- Peter Burton as a Damascus sheik (uncredited).
- Kenneth Fortescue as Allenby’s aide (uncredited).
- Harry Fowler as Corporal Potter (uncredited).
- Jack Hedley as a reporter (uncredited).
- Ian MacNaughton as Michael George Hartley, Lawrence’s companion in O’Toole’s first scene (uncredited).
- Henry Oscar as Silliam, Faisal’s servant (uncredited).
- Norman Rossington as Corporal Jenkins (uncredited).
- John Ruddock as Elder Harith (uncredited).
- Fernando Sancho as the Turkish sergeant (uncredited).
- Stuart Saunders as the regimental sergeant major (uncredited).
- Principal photography began on 15 May 1961 and ended on 21 September 1962.
- The crew consisted of over 200 people, with the cast and extras included this number would increase to over 1000 people working to make the film.
- Various members of the film’s crew portrayed minor characters.
- First assistant director Roy Stevens played the truck driver who transports Lawrence and Farraj to the Cairo HQ at the end of Act I; the Sergeant who stops Lawrence and Farraj (“Where do you think you’re going to, Mustapha?”) is construction assistant Fred Bennett, and screenwriter Robert Bolt has a wordless cameo as one of the officers watching Allenby and Lawrence confer in the courtyard (he is smoking a pipe).
- Steve Birtles, the film’s gaffer, plays the motorcyclist at the Suez Canal; Lean himself is rumoured to be the voice shouting “Who are you?” Continuity supervisor Barbara Cole appears as one of the nurses in the Damascus hospital scene.
- Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards in 1963; it won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
- It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Outstanding British Film.
- In the years since, it has been recognised as one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema.
- The dramatic score by Maurice Jarre and the Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Freddie Young are also highly acclaimed.
- In 1991, Lawrence of Arabia was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the US Library of Congress National Film Registry.
- In 1998, the American Film Institute placed it 5th on their 100 Years…100 Movies list of the greatest American films, and it ranked 7th on their 2007 updated list.
- In 1999, the British Film Institute named the film the third-greatest British film of all time.
- In 2004, it was voted the best British film of all time in a Sunday Telegraph poll of Britain’s leading filmmakers.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): David Lean.
- Producer(s): Sam Spiegel.
- Writer(s): Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.
- Music: Maurice Jarre.
- Cinematography: F.A. Young.
- Editor(s): Anne V. Coates.
- Production: Horizon Pictures.
- Distributor(s): Columbia Pictures.
- Release Date: 10 December 1962.
- Running time: 227 minutes.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.