Director: David Lean |Script: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson | Score: Maurice Jarre | Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, Zia Mohyeddin | UK/USA 1962 227′ | Adventure Drama
Based upon the writings of T. E. Lawrence entitled Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, a diary never meant for open publication, but allowed by his estate after his death, the making of Lawrence Of Arabia is a drama of epic proportions spanning three decades and worthy of a film in itself.
Alexander Korda kicked it all off in the 30’s, wanting Leslie Howard and then Walter Hudd as lead, but this all collapsed when the British Governor of Palestine at the time forbade ‘any large gatherings of Arabs’. John Clements, Clifford Evans, Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier and even Cary Grant were also in the frame subsequently, as was Burgess Meredith in 1949 and then Alan Ladd. In 1952, Harry Cohn offered it to Powell and Pressburger, but they declined. Then, in 1955 Terrence Rattigan picked up the reins with Dirk Bogarde in mind and even got as far as location scouting in Iraq, only to have it all unravel as the King was assassinated and Iraq descended into revolution. When producer Sam Spiegel finally came aboard in 1959, he wanted Marlon Brando, but Brando backed out to go and do Mutiny On The Bounty…
Alec Guinness was great, but too old, even though he played Lawrence in Rattigan’s well-received 1960 play Ross. Then it was to be Albert Finney, who infact undertook extensive screen tests, but eventually also backed out, citing that he didn’t want to be a star; frightened of what it would do to him as a person. He also, it had to be said, hated signing multi-picture deals.
Peter O’Toole had meanwhile appeared as a mere cameo in an otherwise forgotten film called The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, which Lean saw, and knowing instantly that he had his man, even when Peter Hall refused to release him from his RSC contract in Stratford and Producer Sam Spiegel also initially rejected him.
As film commenced in Jordan, the script was in disarray, the original writer Michael Wilson, who had done such a fine job on Bridge On The River Kwai left the project, after a year working on the script in a state of high dudgeon. Robert Bolt was drafted in, at first purely to write only dialogue, on the back of his hit play A Man For All Seasons. But at one point, as the cameras rolled in the desert, with the script still incomplete, Bolt was gaoled for a month for marching in a CND demonstration and had to be extricated from gaol -against his own wishes- by Spiegel in order to complete the script (he wasn’t allowed to write it in prison).
There are legion stories emanating from the two-year(!) shoot, in Jordan, Spain and Morocco; of new talents cutting their teeth, like Freddie Young working with the new Super-Panavision camera with 70mm colour stock. The industrial kit needed to hold the massive cameras being lugged out into the desert, against the heat, the wind the sand and the flies… but, after all this, what we are left with is an extraordinary coming together of some amazing talent, from the writing to the design, the music, the costumes and the performances.
So, what of the new 4k digital formatted release? Well, It’s magnificent. One of the greatest films ever made, so crisp, clear and sharp, it could have been shot yesterday. Lawrence was nominated for ten Academy Awards and went on to win seven, including 1962 Best Picture and Best Director. Inexplicably, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole and writer Robert Bolt all failed to score. With Kwai, five years earlier also winning seven Oscars, David Lean really was at the top of his game and knew he wanted to capitalize on it. His next outing was called Dr Zhivago.
Bearing in mind he had come up through editing, having cut over 20 feature films prior to taking the helm as a Director, Lean later wanted to lose 40-minutes from Lawrence, but also knew he wouldn’t know where from- lest he lose the magic in the trimming.
So. What is Lawrence of Arabia all about? Seriously? Well, it’s about an eccentric Englishman who goes out into the desert, turns native, goes mad and then comes back home. All 227 glorious minutes of it. Go and see it for goodness sake and stop asking damn’ fool questions.
Is it any good? Well, I’ll leave you with several published quotes from the time of the original release: John Coleman, writing in the New Statesman- “none of it is good enough. Setting to one side the obligatory, contemptible music, the film never decisively makes its mind up what its after…”
Penelope Gilliatt “Two And A Half Pillars Of Wisdom…. A thoughtful picture with an intensely serious central performance, but it doesn’t hold together in great excitement.” New Yorker Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice- “Dull, overlong and coldly impersonal… hatefully calculating and condescending” The bottom line is, we all still remember David Lean.
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