To those who in the dark days following the WW1 hero-happy public he was a guerrilla genius, the Galahad of World War I. To his military superiors he was a popinjay. To the Arabs he was Sheikh Dinamit, the spirit of the wind who led them to victory over the detested Turk. To Biographer Richard Aldington he was a cad and a bounder—sado-masochistic, hemi-homosexual, selfpublicizing charlatan whose actual role in the Arab revolt was small and whose subsequent career as a technician in the R.A.F. was merely a theatrical gesture of humility. To Winston Churchill he was “one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” a man of vast abilities who could write (Seven Pillars of Wisdom) as well as he could fight. He was a genuine soldier-scholar notwithstanding all accusations of his self-publicity.
Such men are the stuff of legends, and since his death in 1935 the legend of Lawrence has inspired scores of books. Produced by Sam Spiegel and directed by David Lean, the men who made The Bridge on the River Kwai the best war picture of the ’50s, Lawrence of Arabia is a cinema colossus that takes four hours (including intermission) to see, took 15 months to film, cost more than $10 million, employed 1,500 camels and horses, 5,000 extras, six famous performers (Alec Guinness. Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy) and it made a star out of a comparatively obscure young man (Peter O’Toole)
The script, written with considerable address by Playwright Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), foreshortens but does not falsify the story as Lawrence told it. Sent to Arabia to scout the forces rising in revolt against Constantinople, Lieutenant Lawrence (O’Toole) impetuously leads a party of picked men across a notoriously impassable waste that is known as “the sun’s anvil,” and seizes the seaward-sighted cannon of Aqaba from the rear. Stunned, the Turkish garrison surrenders. Startled, General Allenby (Hawkins) offers the young hothead guns and gold, and before long Lawrence and his Arabs are blowing up Turkish trains and garrisons from Medina to Damascus. Then Allenby strikes north from Aqaba, and Lawrence leads 3,000 tribesmen in triumph to Damascus.
Lean is a gifted director who works with confidence at epic elevation, and in Lawrence he also works with a sensitivity to form and color that he has never shown before—it is as if the desert, like a gigantic strap of white-hot steel, had burned away a northern mist that has always obscured his vision. Time and again the grand rectangular frame of the Panavision screen stands open like the door of a tremendous furnace, and the spectator stares with all his eyes into the molten shimmer of whitegolden sands, into blank incandescent infinity as if into the eye of God. It is a mind-battering experience, an encounter with an absolute, and after it too much of the film seems merely human.
The actors, however, survive the encounter. Guinness as Prince Feisal is finely serpentine, and Quinn is magnificent as the venal and violent Sheikh Auda abu Tayi, a great black hairy camel of a man who sucks up gold as a camel sucks up water, and then spews it out with a roar of patriarchal pride: “I am a river to my people!” But it is O’Toole who continually dominates the screen, and he dominates it with professional skill, Irish charm and smashing good looks. They are the looks of a healthy young lion: large strong animal mouth, blazing blue eyes, big graceful head overgrown with a golden mane. (Lawrence by comparison was something of a mouse: his coloring was drab, and he stood scarcely 5 ft. 5 in.—a full head shorter than O’Toole.) In his performance, O’Toole catches the noble seriousness of Lawrence and his cheap theatricality, his godlike arrogance and his gibbering self-doubt; his headlong courage, girlish psychasthenia, Celtic wit, humorless egotism, compulsive chastity, sensuous pleasure in pain. But there is something he does not catch, and that something is an answer to the fundamental enigma of Lawrence, a clue to the essential nature of the beast, a glimpse of the secret spring that made him tick.
But then the script does not catch it either. People who knew Lawrence did not catch it. Lawrence himself did not seem to know what it was. Perhaps it did not exist.
(ack: TIME Magazine, Jan. 4, 1963)
So the only way we can justice to the film is not to rely heavily on historic accuracy but enjoy the film on its merits. A book when transformed into film is sure to disappoint many; by the same token biopics also fall foul with who look more than necessary into lives as lived. Something is lost in translation
“The film, which seemed nostalgic upon its release, looks prescient now, as the debate over Western influence in Arabia is written daily in blood”. —Richard Corliss
This film made number 5 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 and number 3 on the British Film Institute list. Lots of great directors have since named it as an influence. Lean showed everybody what to do with a wide screen by filling it with desert. In this vast, hot, shimmering space we feel, with Lawrence, alien and alone.
Trivia: In 2001, Lawrence’s revised 1922 proof of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was sold for nearly a million dollars by Christies in New York.
From the creators of “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
Director: David Lean
T.E. Lawrence: Peter O’Toole
Prince Feisal: Alec Guiness
Auda Abu Tayi: Anthony Quinn
Gen. Allenby: Jack Hawkins
Turkish Bey: Jose Ferrer
Sherif Ali Ibn El Kharish: Omar Sharif
Col. Harry Brighton: Anthony Quayle
* Best Picture
* Best Director
* Best Sound
* Best Art Direction
* Best Cinematography (Fred A. Young)
* Best Editing
* Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre)
* Best Actor (Peter O’Toole) -he was passed over for Gregory Peck who won for TO KILL A MOCKING Bird
…Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif)
* Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt)
Peter O’Toole gives a memorable, idiosyncratic performance as the cerebral and scholarly Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence. Neither the script or his performance hides Lawrence’s strangeness. The film never states that Lawrence was a homosexual, given to masochism and with a predilection for young Arab boys, but if you choose to come away with that impression, it will let you.
He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.
( Col. Brighton at Lawrence’s memorial service)
Assigned to British Intelligence in the Middle East in 1917, he persuades his doubtful superiors to become an observer to Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness – a David Lean stalwart and at this stage merely an understudying apprentice to Obe-Wan Kenobi). With the help of a dot on the horizon who eventually turns out to be Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence crosses the allegedly impassable Nefud Desert and joins forces with an enemy tribe led by Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). This new force defeat the Turks at Aquaba, a strategic port.
So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.
‘El Aurens’, in traditional Arab garb, now leads his native forces in a guerilla war against the Turks. But Lawrence now begins to enjoy violence, his dream of creating a united Arab council in Damascus collapses in disagreement and disarray. An exhausted Lawrence returns to England, seeking peace and obscurity.
I pray that I may never see the desert again. Hear me, God.
This movie needs a big canvas, and you should see it on the largest screen possible.