”’Lawrence of Arabia’ was the first film I saw that made me want to be a moviemaker,” Steven Spielberg once said. "It was in Phoenix, I was 13 or 14 at the time, and it was overwhelming."
For me, “Lawrence of Arabia,” which I first saw when I was 11 years old, was one of the major reasons I fell in love with the movies, a romance that continues to this day. As a boy seeing this 70mm movie on the giant screen at the (now long-gone) Stanley Warner Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills was indeed an overwhelming experience.
First and forever are the spectacular images, mostly filmed in the deserts of Jordan. Director David Lean and his brilliant cinematographer, Freddie Young, spent 117 days shooting the movie in Jordan, ending on Sept. 28, 1961, according to movie historian Kevin Brownlow’s insight-filled "David Lean," a 1996 biography of the director, who died in 1991. But the film was far from finished. Production then moved to Spain and then Morocco.
Shooting resumed two months later in Saville. To tell what happened in the interim, here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of “Lawrence.”
Before filming in Spain could continue, screenwriter Robert Bolt had to finish the second half of the movie’s script. Bolt had written the award-winning play “A Man for All Seasons” about Sir Thomas More’s fight between his conscience and his king, Henry VIII, and “Lawrence” was his first screenplay. Writes Brownlow, “There was an urgency about this, not helped by the fact that Bolt himself was languishing in jail.”
It turns out that Bolt had participated in an anti-nuclear demonstration in England and had been arrested. According to Brownlow, “He was hauled into Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and given the option of recanting and swearing not to take part in further demonstrations, or going to prison. As the author of the play about Sir Thomas More, Bolt could hardly recant and he was duly sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. … Bolt counted on being able to continue working on the script in prison, but the authorities forbade this.”
The flamboyant producer of “Lawrence,” Sam Spiegel, “sent a blitz of cables to Bolt,” writes Brownlow, “saying that [Bolt] was delaying the whole project and putting the massive investment at risk; scores of people were going to be unemployed just so that Bolt’s conscience might be satisfied. But Bolt would not budge. Finally, Spiegel went to the prison and met with Bolt face-to-face — and God knows what threats he made. The other imprisoned [anti-nuclear] activists understood Bolt’s dilemma and urged him [to recant]. And, with a heavy heart, he did. He was driven away from jail in Spiegel’s Rolls-Royce. ‘I have never forgiven him for getting me out of jail,’ said Bolt. ‘It was the most shameful moment of my life.’”
After filming a number of months in Spain, the production moved to Morocco. Lean and Young were four months into shooting in Morocco when producer Spiegel became “determined to bring the production to an end,” Brownlow writes. So Spiegel arranged for the film to have its world premiere in a Royal Film Performance before the Queen of England on Dec. 10, 1962, “giving Lean just four months to have the film ready.”
The assessment of “Lawrence of Arabia” by the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael probably best sums up what many feel about the film. She lauds the “vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide.” However, she adds, “[This] picture fails to give an acceptable interpretation of Lawrence, or to keep its action intelligible, but it is one of the most literate and tasteful and exciting of expensive spectacles.”
Kael also compliments Peter O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence. My own opinion is that O’Toole’s performance is magnificent. He doesn’t make a false move in the picture. Lawrence was reportedly quite mesmerizing, and O’Toole is mesmerizing as Lawrence. It’s a performance that burns in one’s memory as much as Young and Lean’s imagery.
Lean himself agreed that some of the action in the movie wasn’t clear, particularly in the scene between O’Toole and Jose Ferrer, who plays a Turkish officer.
Brownlow quotes a letter that Lean wrote to screenwriter Bolt two days after Lean attended the Los Angeles premiere of "Lawrence of Arabia" on Dec. 21, 1962 (all of the misspellings are Lean’s, who always said he was a terrible speller): “Among the real ravers are Willy Wyler, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnermann, Richard Brooks, Joe Mancowich and the great old-timer King Vidor … They are all so bloody generous that every one of them has said words to the effect ‘It’s out of our class’ and really mean it.“
However, Lean says in the letter that though Wilder “thinks the film is a tremendous piece of work," Wilder adds that " ‘if my heart had been really touched by Lawrence as a human being I would put it up into the first movie Sistine Chapel stuff. But it wasn’t.’ I think he’s right," Lean continues, "and I think the second half [of the film] is more than half responsible. Funny. Like you, I started off against Lawrence and then gradually started to swing round. As an audience I feel like [Omar Sharif’s character Sherif] Ali about him now. I have a feeling that given the time to be alone with [Lawrence] a little more we could have gone a stage further and given the audience real compassion.”
Lean added that Wilder, like so many in the audience, didn’t understand that what happened between O’Toole’s character and Ferrer’s character in their scene together was more than just a beating.
Lean concludes his letter to Bolt saying, “My own criticism is that the second half shows the forced pace at which you had to jump from point to point. As it nears the end I get a bit stiffled with keeping up. Know what I mean? Not your fault of course, but a lesson not to be forgotten about starting [filming] with an unfinished script.”
My own view of the storytelling of the film is much more akin to an explanation of the movie I once heard given by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, besides being a tremendous director, is a true student of film and one who has taught about movies at New York University. Here’s what he once told the American Film Institute about “Lawrence of Arabia”:
“There it is up on the screen in 70 mm and the main character is not Ben-Hur, is not a saint, is not a man struggling to come to terms with God in his soul and in his heart. It is a character that, in a way, comes out of B movies. A noir in a way. The man is filled with self-destruction. With self-loathing, I think. This is fascinating to me. And he’s constantly testing himself, pushing himself. Putting his finger in the flame is just one thing. But then going through the desert and going back out. What is he trying to prove? What is he fighting about himself? And there it is up there, on the giant screen.
“The clue is right in the beginning, in the credits. In the credits there is a man getting on a motor bike. The film is ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ Why aren’t we in the desert? Instead it’s a motor bike, it’s in England, and, I remember, hand-held shots in 70 mm. Point of view of Lawrence of Arabia on the bike. And then, of course he dies and the film is told in flashback.
“But it was the first film to play around with this very difficult character. The character was very complex …
“It was an odd film because it never seemed to be finished. I can’t tell you what the ending is. It seems to go on and
on. He’s in a jeep and he sees some of the camels go by and he sorta wishes he was with them I guess and that’s the end. So in a funny way the film is open to be seen again and again, because it’s sort of structureless in a way. Some people would say that’s a negative aspect of it. I don’t know. That it’s a fault. I don’t know. Maybe it’s proven that way because when the restoration was made, David Lean was still putting in more scenes. He claimed he never really finished editing the film. Believe me, that could happen.”
Lean himself would likely agree with Scorsese’s interpretation of Lawrence’s personality. Speaking to a group of American Film Institute students in 1983, according to the book "Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute" by George Stevens, Jr., Lean was asked if it was deliberate that the main characters in both "Lawrence of Arabia" and Lean’s "Bridge on the River Kwai" "seem to be almost symbolic of all that may be thought of as the worst in British character."
Lean responded, "No. I’m just interested in people who are nuts. I think they make very interesting characters….Lawrence is a fascinating character. This Oxford don on camelback. I mean, it was absolutely nutty."
If you’ve never seen “Lawrence of Arabia,” you’re going to have some great opportunities soon. And if you have seen it, it’s a must to see again. As TVWeek was among the first to announce yesterday, the movie finally comes to Blu-ray on Nov. 13, 2012. And a digitally restored version of “Lawrence of Arabia” will be released to theaters nationwide starting Oct. 4. And tonight, July 19, 2012, the new restoration will have its U.S. premiere here in Los Angeles at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That screening is sold out. The new restoration will also be broadcast for one night only on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. (ET) on Turner Classic Movies.
All of this news about "Lawrence" also comes less than two weeks after Peter O’Toole announced that, as he is approaching 80, he is retiring from acting. He was nominated for Best Actor in "Lawrence of Arabia," but lost out to Gregory Peck’s performance in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia"