A hypnotizing epic that exemplifies the highest art of filmmaking
There are epic adventure films, and then there is “Lawrence of Arabia”. A jaw-dropping, transformative journey through the Middle Eastern desert, this film is a premier example of the artistic peaks of just about every aspect of filmmaking – so much so, that this British made, American distributed historical drama won seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) out of ten nominations, and remains one of the most visually arresting films ever made. Often topping film lists, it is ranked by the American Film Institute as the #1 Greatest Epic of All-Time and the 7th Greatest American Film of All-Time, and the British Film Institute chose it as the 3rd Greatest British Film of All-Time. It has influenced countless directors including George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (the latter two of whom helped restore the film for a 2000 DVD release). With a seamless blending of story, cinematography, music, editing, and performances all guided by impeccable direction, "Lawrence of Arabia" is required viewing for anyone serious about classic films or even cinema in general.
Described by its director David Lean as “a sort of movie opera”, "Lawrence of Arabia" is a ravishing depiction of how against all odds, one man led the Arabs against the Turks during WWI. The historical epic centers around the highly educated British officer and eccentric free spirit “T. E. Lawrence”, and his assignment to travel to the Middle East to assess the situation between the Arabs and the Turks. Smitten by Arabia and wanting to help the Arabs gain independence, he finds himself caught between two cultures, not quite fitting into either.
His treks through unforgiving deserts, leading Arabs into battle, and clashes with both British and Arab peers and superiors bring to light many interesting themes such as cultural differences and priorities, the dark side of politics, the psychological effects of brutality, and how difficult the world can be for a nonconformist. Most of the film takes place in the desert, and the wondrous beauty of the land itself serves as absolute proof as to how "Lawrence" can be swept up by this new world. This film truly transports its viewer to another place. Distracted by its mind-blowing grandeur, it took me several screenings over the years to fully digest its story. That said, should you not get fully lost in its plot the first time, I promise that the visuals alone are enough to keep you mesmerized for the film's entire 227 minutes (which include an overture and intermission).
"Lawrence of Arabia" is very loosely based on an autobiographical account of the Arab Revolt by Colonel Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence titled, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. The enigmatic T.E. Lawrence became famous and almost mythic just after WWI, largely due to the photographs and films taken of him during the Revolt by American war correspondent Lowell Thomas (portrayed in the film as "Jackson Bentley"). This film poetically glorifies his time in the desert, and plays like a visual diary of a man trying to find himself and hold onto his humanity while nearing the edge of insanity. The majority of characters are based on actual people, though a few were created solely for the film.
One of the things "Lawrence of Arabia" can loudly boast is that it is undoubtedly one of the most visually striking films in all of cinema. Its 70mm frames are filled with awe-inspiring landscapes, often containing people no larger than a dot on the horizon, in a mirage, or in some way enveloped by the terrain. Director Lean chose to film in many of the actual locations where Lawrence roamed – including the completely off-the-map middle of the Jordanian desert, 150 miles from the nearest water well.
Everything you see in the film was actually photographed. If actors looked like they were a half a mile away, they were a half a mile away (and communicated with the use of walkie-talkies). If there were 600 people in the shot and 300 camels, there were 600 people and 300 camels. "Lawrence of Arabia" was made pre-digital effects, and there is something to be said for filming completely live. One can intuitively tell by the light and atmosphere that what we see is authentic, which grounds the film in the real world in ways digital effects don't. Because of cost and effort, epics like this will most likely never be made again. That's not to say it was an easy shoot. The cast and crew endured sand storms, camel flies, sickness, and temperatures that rose to 130 degrees in the (non-existent) shade. After each take the sand would have to be brushed to clear away all foot and camel prints to make the desert once again look untouched (no matter how far in the distance the prints went). At one point, plastic cups were banned as they kept flying into the frame having to be retrieved, making even more footprints to remove. Sometimes only one take would be completed in a day.
An exception to the use of authentic locations was the town of Aqaba, which was constructed in southern Spain in order for Lean to get the exact look he wanted for that sequence. Also shot in Spain were the scenes at the Cairo British Intelligence Building. Those sequences were shot in Seville, Spain at the Plaza de España (a location used in many films, including the 2002 film “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”). Everything was captured by British cinematographer Freddie Young who won an Academy Award for his efforts. Known for his stunning framing and exquisite lighting, Young is among the most influential cinematographers in history, and one look at the images in this film are all the proof needed as to why. He was nominated for five Best Cinematography Academy Awards, winning three (all for David Lean films,"Lawrence of Arabia", "Doctor Zhivago", "Ryan's Daughter"), was nominated for four Best British Cinematography BAFTA Awards, and awarded a BAFTA Academy Fellowship in 1972 for his body of work. Young shot 130 films and TV shows (including the classics "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", "49th Parallel", "Ivanhoe", "Mogambo", "Lust for Life", "Indiscreet", "You Only Live Twice", "Caesar and Cleopatra”), and was the first British cinematographer to film in CinemaScope (with 1953's "Knights of the Round Table"). His final film was 1985's "Invitation to the Wedding". Freddie Young died in 1998 at the age of 96.
“Lawrence of Arabia” was the vision of the inimitable David Lean, one of cinema's truly great film directors. His work in “Lawrence of Arabia” is so vivid it leaves an indelible imprint long after being viewed. Working his way up through the film industry (from clapperboy, to third assistant director, to editor, to director), he became a consummate technician, and this film is about as technically masterful as cinema can get. He knew exactly which lenses to use, what shots he wanted, how to compose exceptional images, what colors were needed and where to place them, how to edit the sequences, and pretty much everything involved in telling a good story and making it excitingly beautiful. The fact that he built the entire town of Aqaba to his specifications to get the exact shots he wanted speaks volumes about his precise artistry. Though Lean directed many great classic films (including "Brief Encounter", "Great Expectations", "A Passage to India", and "Doctor Zhivago"), “Lawrence of Arabia” is largely considered his greatest masterpiece and contains perhaps the prime example of a recurring theme in his work – a person on a physical and mental journey moving through expansive landscapes. He collaborated with American producer Sam Spiegel on this film, and both took home Oscars (Lean for Best Director and Spiegel for Best Picture). The two previously collaborated on Lean's prior film, another classic, "The Bridge on the River Kwai", which already appears on this blog and you can read more about both David Lean and Sam Spiegel in that film's post.
Peter O’Toole went from unknown actor to international star with his performance as “T. E. Lawrence”. In a spirited and forthright portrayal, O’Toole shows us an idealist caught between two worlds, neither of which he accurately sees. O'Toole brilliantly accomplishes the difficult feat of keeping "Lawrence" mysterious while making him an interesting person to watch. We first see him as an awkward, offbeat, adventure-loving man who plays by his own rules. He then almost invisibly begins to think himself godlike, loses all innocence, and develops a taste for killing. But through it all, O'Toole sustains an almost childlike purity which makes it ever so poignant when he pleads with his commanding officers to give him an ordinary job so he can be an ordinary man. He also carries a sensitivity, highlighted in the wonderful scene when he first meets "General Allenby". Images of O'Toole's piercing blue eyes, outstretched arms, and white robes flapping in the desert have become iconic. His arduous two-year shoot (including having to learn how to ride a camel) was worth it, as this star-making portrayal forever changed his life and career, and earned him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
A British actor of Irish descent, Peter O’Toole began his acting career by accident. While covering the arts as an apprentice journalist, with no aspirations of becoming a thespian, he was asked to replace an actor in a play who had just broken his leg. Filled with doubt, O'Toole took the part and was instantly hooked. With a natural gift for acting, he was given a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, soon joined the prestigious repertory company at Bristol Old Vic, and performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He began appearing on television in 1955, and in 1960 appeared in his first three films. One of them, "The Day They Robbed the Bank of England”, was the film in which Lean discovered him for “Lawrence”. O’Toole amassed just shy of 100 film and TV credits in a six decade career, all while maintaining an illustrious stage career. An esteemed actor, primarily thought of as playing kings and other distinguished characters, O’Toole has the dubious distinction of holding the record for having the most Oscar acting nominations (eight) but never competitively winning the award (Glenn Close now ties him as of 2021). However, in 2003, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded O'Toole their Honorary Award for his body of work. His additional seven Oscar nominations were for “Becket”, “The Lion in Winter”, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, “The Ruling Class”, “The Stunt Man”, “My Favorite Year”, and “Venus”. His other classic films include "Casino Royale", "Man of La Mancha", "Caligula", "Supergirl", "Troy", and the voice of “Anton Ego” in the Walt Disney/Pixar 2007 animated film “Ratatouille”. He won an Emmy Award for his work in the 1999 miniseries “Joan of Arc”. I don’t think O’Toole has ever given a bad performance. He was married and divorced once to actress Siân Phillips, with whom he had two children (including actress Kate O’Toole). Peter O’Toole died in 2013 at the age of 81.
Politically incorrect by today's standards, "Lawrence of Arabia" has several non-Arab actors playing Arabs. As I've stated many times, classic films must be viewed with a historic perspective, for what may be deemed unacceptable today was often common practice when these films were made. One such example is English actor Alec Guinness playing “Prince Faisal”, Prince of the Arab lands. Guinness is one of those masterful actors whose inner workings can be seen in their performances, and his portrayal is subtle, yet filled with detail. As "Prince Faisal" continually tries to be diplomatic, Guinness brings an unspoken weary quality to the character as if he's seen it all before. As such, "Faisal" seems to be sizing up everyone, including trying to figure out on which side "Lawrence" truly belongs. Guinness is one of the very few movie stars with no real screen persona, as he would disappear into his characters leaving no trace of his personality (as in this film). This was his fourth time appearing in a David Lean film, the previous three being "Great Expectations", "Oliver Twist" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (which earned him Best Actor Oscar and BAFTA Awards). Lean thought of Guinness as his lucky charm, and Guinness appeared in two more Lean films ("Doctor Zhivago" and "A Passage to India"). He was knighted in 1959. Many today might recognize him as "Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi” in the early "Star Wars" films. You can read more about the life and career of Sir Alec Guinness in my post on "The Bridge on the River Kwai". Please check it out.
Mexican actor Anthony Quinn plays “Auda abu Tayi”, the leader the Huwaytat tribe of Bedouin Arabs. Quinn was cast as star power of the film, being the only international movie star in the cast at the time. He met Lean for the first time on the set while in full make-up and costume. Mistaking Quinn for a Middle Eastern extra who looked like the real Auda abu Tayi, Lean asked his assistant to fire Quinn and replace him with this extra – a sort of backhanded compliment I guess. Quinn is perfect in the part, as he brings his trademark fiery passion and some danger to the role. A fine example is when "Lawrence" challenges him during their feast, accusing him of being a servant to the Turks, to which "Auda abu Tayi" responds by rattling off his battle accomplishments and adding that "the Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor because I am a river to my people!". In his speech he shows his appetite for combat and his strong sense of pride. This film came on the heels of Quinn finding international fame, having won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars (for 1952's "Viva Zapata!"and 1956's "Lust for Life") international hits such as Federico Fellini's Italian classic"La Strada" and Jean Delannoy's French/Italian hit "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and Hollywood films like "The Guns of Navarone" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight". His performance in "Lawrence of Arabia" earned him a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination, and two years later he would play "Alexis Zorba", arguably his most iconic role, in the Greek/American classic "Zorba the Greek". You can read about the life and career of Anthony Quinn in my post on "La Strada".Just click on the films's title.
Jack Hawkins is outstanding as the stern but likable “General Allenby”, the head of the British Empire's Egyptian Expeditionary Force. "Allenby" is strictly a military man, but Hawkins infuses him with so much detail that he elevates even the most technical dialogue into enthralling drama. He is effortless and completely natural as the manipulative General who will do whatever it takes to get the job done without blinking an eye. His interplay with "Lawrence" and “Mr. Dryden" are both a joy to watch. Hawkins shaved his head for the role. He was one of Britain's top stars of the 1950s, and by the end of the decade had found international fame appearing in Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and the 1959 Hollywood epic "Ben-Hur" (both already on this blog). By the time of "Lawrence of Arabia", Hawkins was suffering from vocal problems and had begun to take smaller roles. He lost his voice to throat cancer in 1966, after which he appeared in roles often with little dialogue, with his voice being dubbed by another actor. You can read more about the life and career of Jack Hawkins in "Ben-Hur" and (in particular) "The Bridge on the River Kwai".
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif gives an impressive performance as “Sherif Ali”, one of “Prince Feisal’s” men who joins and befriends “Lawrence”. The character of “Sherif Ali” was invented for the film and is the heart, soul, and voice of sanity in the story, as he follows, yet questions “Lawrence’s” choices. He shifts from toying with "Lawrence", to being argumentative and suspicious, to finding respect and even love for the man, and Sharif is superb every step of the way, always keeping "Serif Ali" dignified and ever so human. Lean was trying to find an English speaking Arab for the film, and eventually came across Sharif, who was already a star in Egyptian films. This was Sharif’s first English speaking role, introducing him to audiences outside the Middle East, immediately making him an international star. His screen entrance in this film is iconic and I’ll talk more about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section. For his role as “Sherif Ali”, Sharif earned his one and only Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, and it is one of his three most memorable roles. His most celebrated role came as the title character in Lean's 1965 classic, “Doctor Zhivago”. And in 1968 he appeared opposite Barbra Streisand in the classic musical, “Funny Girl” (film #29 on this blog), his third most memorable role. You can read more about Sharif’s life and career in my “Funny Girl” post. “Lawrence of Arabia” was the first film in which Sharif wore his trademark mustache.
José Ferrer is featured in a small but ominous role as the “Turkish Bey”. Reluctant to take the part because of its size, Ferrer later stated that he thought it was his best on-screen performance. With a vastly successful career as an actor and director both on stage and in films, he was known for his wonderful speaking voice. Born in Puerto Rico, José Ferrer began as a theater actor, making it to Broadway in 1935. He continued with a successful acting career, and directed his first Broadway show in 1942. In 1946, he appeared in the Broadway play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, for which he won his first of three Tony Awards. He made his film debut in the 1948 version of "Joan of Arc”, earning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In 1950, he starred in the film version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and won a Best Actor Academy Award, making him the first Latino actor to ever win the award. It is the role for which he is most remembered. Ferrer earned a third Oscar nomination for the 1962 film “Moulin Rouge”. He moved back and forth as actor and director between theater, films and TV during his entire career. With well over 100 film and TV acting credits, his other classic film include "The Caine Mutiny", "Ship of Fools", "The Greatest Story Ever Told", "Voyage of the Damned", “Dune", "Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", and "Miss Sadie Thompson”. He directed seven films, including “State Fair” and "Return to Peyton Place”. He married four times, including marriages to actress Uta Hagen and singer and actress Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney's aunt). José Ferrer died in 1992 at the age of 80.
Claude Rains brings his grand presence to the role of “Mr. Dryden”, the head of the British Arab Bureau and the man pulling all the strings. “Mr. Dryden” is another fictitious character, invented to represent the political side of the war. Rains has always excelled at playing characters whose morals are not quite clear, and here he is entrancing as the calm, collected, slimy man quietly maneuvering “Lawrence” and the Arabs to his own will. A consummate actor, Rains graced many classic films with his presence and has appeared in several films already on this blog (“Notorious”, “Casablanca”, “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, and "Now Voyager") where you can read more about him. He previously worked with Lean in the 1949 film “The Passionate Friends”.
There are so many talented and important people I haven’t mentioned that worked on “Lawrence of Arabia”, for it would be too lengthy to discuss them all. As a result, those I don’t mention I’ll write about as we see more of their work in upcoming posts.
But one last person I must mention is the film's French composer Maurice Jarre whose Oscar winning score is inextricably linked to the spectacle of this film. Highly regarded as one of the greatest film scores in history (and ranked by AFI as the 3rd Greatest Film Score Of All Time”), his majestic, haunting, memorable, and monumental music helps elevate the sand, rocks and even the characters to epic proportions. In a career beginning in 1952, with over 170 credits, this was the first time Jarre worked with Lean, and he would score all of Lean’s following films. Jarre’s Oscar win for “Lawrence of Arabia” would be followed by eight more Oscar nominations (one for Best Song), and he would win two more Best Score Academy Awards (for the Lean films "Doctor Zhivago" and "A Passage to India”). A top film composer for over three decades, a few of Jarre’s other notable film scores include "Witness", "Ghost", "Eyes Without a Face", "The Train", "The Tin Drum", and "Fatal Attraction". He was married four times. Maurice Jarre died in 2009 at the age of 84.
You may notice there are no women with speaking parts in the film, and women are only seen in passing in one or two scenes. The extras, who numbered close to 1000, were largely soldiers from an Arab Legion sent to work on the film by King Hussein of Jordan, who was very cooperative in the making of this film.
Immediately after its premiere, twenty minutes were cut from “Lawrence of Arabia”, and then it was trimmed again for television. Under Lean's supervision, the film was restored to its original length in the 1980s. The missing footage was found, but with no sound. Lean had all living actors return to re-dub their dialogue for scenes they filmed over two decades before. O’Toole reportedly joked that after so long, "Now I know how to read the lines”.
In addition to the previously mentioned Academy Award wins for Best Picture (Spiegel), Best Director (Lean), Best Cinematography (Young) and Best Score (Jarre), "Lawrence of Arabia" also earned Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (John Box, John Stoll, and Dario Simoni), Best Sound (John Cox), and Best Film Editing (Anne V. Coates). Along with O'Toole's Best Actor and Sharif's Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations, Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson shared a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The nomination for the blacklisted Wilson was granted in 1995 by the Academy Board of Directors after research at the Writers Guild of America found that he shared screenwriting credit with Bolt.
You are about to see a highly engrossing, visually breathtaking, and expertly made classic which will completely transport you to another time and place with images that will resonate for a long, long time. Enjoy “Lawrence of Arabia”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
With so many outstanding technical aspects to “Lawrence of Arabia”, it's no surprise there is an iconic edit in the film. It is the moment where “Lawrence” blows out a match and there is an immediate cut to the sunrise over the desert. At the time, that type of edit was highly unusual in a Hollywood film. “Lawrence of Arabia’s” Oscar winning editor Anne Coates, suggested the edit to Lean and credits the influence of the French New Wave (which I talk about in “The 400 Blows” post) with the idea.
A second iconic moment in the film is the entrance of “Sherif Ali”, played by Omar Sharif, who slowly materializes out of a mirage. It is quite startling and incredibly magical, and has become one of the most famous character entrances in cinema history.
Yet another iconic scene is when “Lawrence” first dons his Arab robes. For that scene, director Lean realized the film needed about a minute’s worth of “filler” and asked O’Toole to improvise. He told O’Toole to do whatever he thought a young man alone in the desert would do when wearing robes for the first time. At one point, O’Toole spontaneously looked at his own reflection in his knife. That moment was so powerful, Lean echoes it later in the film after "Lawrence" stabs someone to death, this time looking at the blood -stained knife and realizing he has been changed by the act of killing.