Ah, Lawrence of Arabia… An illustrious man and the subject of one of movie history’s best films. It is British movie director David Lean who created this masterpiece. With movies like Lawrence of Arabia (of course), Great Expectations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Brief Encounter, he is considered to be one of England’s best filmmakers. So, that’s not without any reason that Maddy from Maddy Loves Her Classic Films has decided to host a blogathon in his honour. And I agree, it was about time! Lawrence of Arabia is without any doubt my favourite Lean film. So, why not take the occasion to visit the many wonders that compose this epic historical drama?
Released in 1962, Lawrence of Arabia is based on the life of Lieutenant T.E Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and tells his exploits in the Arabian territory during the First World War. His first mission is to find Prince Faisal and take note of the situation of the revolt against the Turks. Lawrence, who wants to help the Prince and the Arab people take the lead of an expedition to Aqaba, a Turkish territory. His plan is to do a surprise attack by passing by the Nefud Desert. The Turkish guns in Aqaba are facing the water because they don’t expect anybody to be able to cross the desert. But for Lawrence of Arabia, nothing is impossible.
Of course, in this almost four hours movie, a lot more happens but it would be too long to tell. But keep in mind that Lawrence of Arabia is a man who doesn’t give up, or almost not. That expedition to Aqaba is not the only one, but perhaps the most impressive one in the film.
Where do we start with Lawrence of Arabia? You see, this film was brilliantly directed by David Lean and everything about it is sensational. No wonder it won seven Oscars and was nominated for three others.
- Best Picture (Sam Spiegel)
- Best Director (David Lean)
- Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre)
- Best Cinematography (Frederick A. Young)
- Best Art Direction (John Box, John Stoll and Dario Simoni)
- Best Film Editing (Anne V. Coates)
- Best Sound (John Cox)
- Best Actor (Peter O’Toole)
- Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson)
Lawrence of Arabia was based on the autobiographical book Seven Pillars of Wisdom written by Thomas Edward Lawrence and published in December 1926. Despite being based on a true story, the film takes some liberties and some events or characters depicted are fictionalized. For example, Sherif Ali played by Omar Sharif is a combination of various Arab leaders. American Journalist Jackson Bentley played by Arthur Kennedy was based on American journalist Lowell Thomas who built fame around Lawrence of Arabia. Some scenes in the film are highly fictionnalized as well, such as the Battle of Aqaba.
But, this didn’t prevent the film to mark history.
Since I went to England, Lawrence of Arabia has taken even more significance for me. First, in Oxford, I visited the beautiful Magdalene College that the British Lieutenant attended between 1910 and 1914. Also, during my trip, I was reading the first volume of Peter O’Toole’s autobiography. I also felt as if I was in the movie when I visited Seville in Spain last year. Scenes from the film were shot there, including at the majestic Plaza de España and at the Alfonso XIII hotel. That hotel is probably one of my most favourite places ever in the world. I went there, an ordinary tourist, in this very chic place just to have a coffee and read. The waiters were so nice and NOT SNUBBISH AT ALL. Ah, Spain…
Hotel Alfonso XIII (Seville)
Plaza de España (Seville)
The film was also shot in other places in Spain (Playa del Algarrobico, Cabo de Gata, Desierto de Tabernas, Genovese Beach in San José, Tabernas, Almería, and Carboneras), in Morroco (Ait Benhaddou and Desert South of Ouarzazate), in Jordan (Wadi Rum, Al Jafr, Jebel Tubeiq, and Ma’an), in UK (Chobham Common in Surrey, Merthyr Mawr, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Englan, and Shepperton Studios), and in the USA (Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area in California).
With a lot of on-location shooting, David Lean’s film is one that makes you travel a lot. Well, after all, the characters are constantly moving from one place to another. What an adventure! We guess it was a long shooting, especially for Peter O’Toole who appears in almost all the scenes!
An image worths a thousand words:
This is something David Lean understood perfectly. Despite being a long film, Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t contain a ton of unnecessary dialogues. It’s a movie of contemplation. The director, along with his editor and cinematographer, perfectly knew how to use the power of editing or create very strong images to let us know what’s happening. For example, one of my favourite moment is when, at the beginning of the film, Lawrence blows a match and it cuts to a desert scene. It’s just one of my most favourite transitions ever.
There are some scenes with no lines that are quite long, but so mesmerizing. I can think of the scene where Lawrence rescues Gasim. The various transition between the sun shining, Gasim walking, Daud (one of Lawrence’s servants) waiting, and Lawrence looking for Daud make us realise that there’s no time to lose.
At university, I had a class called Landscape Paintings and Films and, for my final essay, I wrote about desert landscapes and discuss Lawrence of Arabia and The Ten Commandments (interestingly, at one point in the film, Lawrence compares himself to Moses). I compared both the films to the landscape paintings of Charles-Théodore Frère (for Lawrence of Arabia) and Frederick Goodall (for The Ten Commandments). Even if David Lean’s true inspiration for the cinematography of his film was John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) it was still interesting to make the comparison.
Paintings by Charles-Théodore Frère
Scenes from Lawrence of Arabia
Scenes from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
I had the chance, I think it was last year, to see the film on the big screen. And this was one of my best cinematic experiences ever. For the beauty of its landscapes, the film is meant to be seen on big screen. I was in awe during the whole viewing. The majestic scenes become even more majestic, Peter O’Toole blue eyes and Omar Sharif’s dark eyes were even more beautiful, and everything became more powerful. If you ever have the chance to see this film in a movie theatre, don’t hesitate a second.
Marlon Brando, Albert Finney, Anthony Perkins and Montgomery Clift were all choices for the role of T.E Lawrence. But, with all due respect (as they are all brilliant performers), I honestly think they would have been all wrong for the role. Finally, it’s the one and only Katharine Hepburn who insisted on producer Sam Spiegel to cast Peter O’Toole for the role. And she was so right! Peter O’Toole’s performance in this film is one of my favourite ever. I am always amazed by it. The way he talks, the way he moves, the way he delivers his lines are the work of a true genius. A relatively unknown actor at the time (having no major films to his credits), Peter O’Toole found his most iconic role with Lawrence of Arabia. He was 30 when the film was released.
Peter O’Toole as Thomas Edward Lawrence
Fun fact: You know that I’m a fan of David Bowie. Well, his character, Jack Celliers, in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983) shares resemblance to T. E Lawrence according to Nick Nobel of the Austin Film Society. And we agree! Interestingly, the film that takes place in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War was compared to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
For the role of Prince Faisal, Laurence Olivier was the original choice, but the part went to Alec Guinness instead. This was not his first film under the direction of David Lean, nor his last. He also appeared in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India. Guinness plays the role with a beautiful humbleness. His chemistry with some of the actors such as Peter O’Toole and Arthur Kennedy make his scenes some of the best. While he was not Arab like the real Prince Faisal, he reminded convincing for the roles and, during the shooting, he was even mistaken for the real prince by locals in Jordan!
Egyptian actor Omar Sharif had already several movies to his credits in the Egyptian movie industry, but it’s with Lawrence of Arabia that he made his big break to Hollywood. In the fictional role of Sherif Ali, he creates an amazing contrast with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia. With an Oscar nomination, he was immediately noticed. He became a close friend of Peter O’Toole. His entrance in the film is pretty unforgettable. [SPOILER] ok, he kind of kills Lawrence’s Bedu guide [END OF SPOILER], but what will be the film without him? His role is considered to be one of the most difficult supporting roles in movie history. Is it due to the fact that Sherif Ali is a very ambiguous character?
Mexican actor Anthony Quinn had already an established career in Hollywood when he made Lawrence of Arabia. His character, Auda Abu Tayi is one we don’t forget! A dynamic role that was played with a lot of cleverness.
Arthur Kennedy was one of the rare American actors to appear in this film. His very down to Earth role (journalist Jackson Bentley) adds a lot to the film. Faithful to his amazing talent, he doesn’t need to do too much to be convincing. According to IMDB, Edmond O’Brien was initially supposed to play the role (this could have been interesting) but suffered from a heart attack. It’s Anthony Quinn who suggested to cast Kennedy in the role. As he is my favourite character actor, I obviously always wait with impatience for the Kennedy scenes in Lawrence of Arabia.
Anthony Quayle thought his character, Colonel Harry Brighton, was a stupid one. Yes, he kind of is (well, he’s not a very optimistic one) but, being used to military roles, Quayle gave a convincing performance.
Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer appears in a very short but unforgettable scene of the film. His acting is very calculated (in the good sense) and Peter O’Toole claimed he learned a lot from it. Ferrer wasn’t too happy his part was so small but he later recognized it was one of his best performances and said: “If I was to be judged by any one film performance, it would be my five minutes in Lawrence.”
Claude Rains well, is Claude Rains. He can do anything, it will always be great. Just like Peter O’Toole, he had this amazing voice, very smooth and comforting. Mr. Dryden was among his last roles.
Finally, we cannot talk about Lawrence of Arabia‘s cast without discussing the duo formed by British actor Michael Ray and John Dimech who play Farraj and Daud, Lawrence’s servants. The young friendly duo works wonder and both are among the best characters of the film. [SPOILER] Their loss create a big emptiness in the film [END OF SPOILER]
Nothing is written…
If Lawrence of Arabia is a very visual movie, this didn’t prevent screenwriters Robert Bold and Michael Wilson to write some of the best lines of movie history. Those accentuate the film’s majesty and give us perfectly the essence of each character. Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia is a man who speaks only if he has great things to say.
Here are some examples of my favourite lines and dialogues:
1- [Lawrence has just extinguished a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter surreptitiously attempts the same]
William Potter : Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T. E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
2- Sherif Ali: Truly, for some men nothing is written unless THEY write it.
3- Sherif Ali: Have you no fear, English?
T. E. Lawrence: My fear is my concern
4- T.E. Lawrence: Nothing is written
Sherif Ali: You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer… but you will not be in Aqaba.
T. E. Lawrence: I shall be at Aqaba. That, IS written.
5- Jackson Bentley [To Sherif Ali]: You answered without saying anything. That’s politics.
6- Auda abu Tayi: I am a river to my people!
7- Colone Brighton: Are you badly hurt?
T.E. Lawrence: I’m not hurt at all. Didn’t you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet.
8- Sherif Ali: What is your name?
T.E. Lawrence: My name is for my friends. None of my friends is a murderer!
9- Mr. Dryden: Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it’s a burning, fiery furnace.
T.E. Lawrence: No, Dryden, it’s going to be fun.
Mr. Dryden: It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.
10- Jackson Bentley: Never saw a man killed with a sword before.
T.E. Lawrence: [contemptuously] Why don’t you take a picture?
Jackson Bentley: Wish I had.
11- T.E. Lawrence: I know I’m not ordinary.
General Allenby: That’s not what I’m saying…
T.E. Lawrence: All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?
12- Jackson Bentley: Ow, you rotten man… here, let me take your rotten bloody picture… for the rotten bloody newspapers.
13- T.E. Lawrence : No prisoners! No prisoners!
14- Jackson Bentley [on his interest in Lawrence and the Arab Revolt] I’m looking for a hero.
Prince Faisal: Indeed, you do not seem a romantic man.
Jackson Bentley: Oh, no! But certain influential men back home believe the time has come for America to lend her weight to the patriotic struggle against Germany… and Turkey. Now, I’ve been sent to find material that makes this war seem more…
Prince Faisal: Enjoyable?
Jackson Bentley: Oh, hardly THAT, sir. But to show it in its more… adventurous aspects.
Prince Faisal: You are looking for a figure that will draw your country towards war?
Jackson Bentley: All right, yes.
Prince Faisal: Lawrence is your man.
15- Prince Faisal: What I ow you is beyond evaluation.
16- Jackson Bentley [taking a picture of T.E. Lawrence] Yes sir, that’s my baby!
Ok, the last one sounds less “poetic”, but I personally love it!
“I walk through a desert song” (David Bowie, The Secret Life of Arabia)
We cannot talk about Lawrence of Arabia without mentioning Maurice Jarre’s spellbinding score. The Oscar-winning music is a melody that is familiar to all. I remember, the first time I watched the film and heard it, I said: “Ah! That’s where it comes from!” The glorious notes reflect both the magic and dangerous atmosphere of the desert, of its obstacles, of T.E Lawrence’s quests, and of history itself. When images of the large desert are shown to us, the music that accompanies them is the perfect description.
Dressed like a prince
Lastly (but there would be many other things to discuss), what also makes the beauty of this film (aside from the cinematography, Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes, and the music) are the costumes designed by Phyllis Dalton (Island in the Sun, The World of Suzie Wong, Doctor Zhivago) and John Wilson-Apperson. The only reason why their creations weren’t nominated for an Oscar is simply because We forgot to submit their names for the competition… Silly as that. The creativity of the costumes doesn’t reside in the British officers’ uniforms but in the clothes worn by the Arabs and Lawrence in the desert. Peter O’Toole’s looks created with the white silk gown became an iconic look. The way the costumes are designed perfectly highlights the characters’ features and make this movie even richer visually. Peter O’Toole’s eyes have never been bluer and Omar Sharif’s dark iris doesn’t lack deepness, thanks to this majestic black robe.
Despite being criticized for some inaccuracies and banned in some Arab countries, Lawrence of Arabia received an important critical and financial success. And with no surprise. Interestingly, to avoid the movie to be banned in Egypt, Omar Sharif showed it to President Gamal Abdel Nasser so he could realize there was nothing wrong with it. All ended well as the president loved the film and it became a huge success in Sarif’s native country.
A few pictures on the set of the film because I just love them!
Lawrence of Arabia is a complex film, both for its history, it’s creation, and the impact it created. We could talk about it for hours, but there’s nothing better than watching it to really understand its meaning.
I want to thank Maddy for hosting this awesome blogathon honouring the great David Lean! It was a pleasure to participate and FINALLY write about this iconic film.
Make sure to read the other entries here!