“All men dream, but not equally…” T.E.Lawrence
The word “epic” is bandied about too easily these days. Along with its running mate “awesome”, its value has been cheapened by everyday use. But certain films have cause to claim that word as their primary definition, for no other will suffice – such a film is Lawrence Of Arabia, finally available on Blu ray from September 10 in this, its 50th anniversary year, and also on limited re-release in UK cinemas from November 16. A “miracle of a film” according to its number one fan, director Steven Spielberg. Not just that, but a hell of a gamble – a four hour unreliable narrative of the most unlikely warrior to command a desert force: T.E. Lawrence, diffident scholar and poet, brought to life by two men – the magnetic Peter O’Toole in a career defining debut; and director David lean, Quaker born, film obsessive, deeply distrustful of “intellectual” critics. Subject and director were each deeply private men, with different appetites, over whom the desert cast a fierce spell.
“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”
Lawrence of Arabia began filming on 15 May 1961 in Jordan. The first shot is the sweeping panoramic view of the desert dunes, immediately after the startling match cut sunrise. The final shot would be 313 shooting days later on 21 September 1962 – the close up of Lawrence’s goggles, torn off by the fateful motorcycle crash in the country lanes near his Dorset home. That opening location was Jebel el Tubeiq, an isolated mountain range 250 miles east of Aqaba, the port city Lawrence stormed from out of the desert. We first see him and his guide appear as tiny dots at the start of his mission to unite the Arab tribes in the fight against the Turks, in WWI’s Middle East campaign. Lean was treading uncharted waters in these dune seas. Every member of the crew wore tinted googles to protect them from the harsh glare. They were plagued by sand flies. Every camera set up required sweeping the sand free of footprints, and the accursed plastic cups from catering. The huge expensive Panavision cameras were dragged up steep slopes on improvised pulleys. Film was stored in refrigerated trailers. To allay boredom, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif would fly off to Beirut on three day binges. Lean and die-hards encamped in the desert, supplies flown in. Lean had already been in-country six months, scouting locations. The desert had exerted a magical hold on him.. He said of it:
“It’s something unbelievable, the loneliness of it, the majesty of it, the wonder of the sky at night, whether it’s starlight or moonlight. Just wonderful… When you’re in the desert, you look into infinity. it’s no wonder that nearly all the great religions came out of the desert.”
In the middle of filming, screenwriter Robert Bolt had been arrested demonstrating on a CND march in London. Refusing on principle to be bound over, he was sentenced to a month in prison, where he could not be paid for writing. Producer Sam Spiegel went nuts, pressuring him to return to work, which he reluctantly did, when in fact, production had briefly shut down because they were running out of scenes to shoot. Bolt never forgave Spiegel for making him sell out.
For Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, the film was an astonishing debut. Marlon Brando, Lean’s original choice, passed it over for Mutiny On The Bounty, a story Lean would later attempt to remake. Then Albert Finney, rising star of the British new wave of kitchen sink dramas, went through elaborate and expensive screen tests at MGM, Borehamwood. They were edited by Anne Coates, who would get her big break editing the film later alongside Lean. Finney turned the role down before he could be rejected outright by a reluctant Spiegel, stating in an interview, “I hate being committed – to a girl, or a film producer, or to being a certain kind of big screen image.”
A defining image of O’Toole as Lawrence comes after he has defied the “sun’s anvil” and returned for a fallen comrade. Omar Sharif’s Ali presents him with immaculate white Sheriff’s robes. Lean encouraged him to improvise. “What do you think a young man would do if he’d just been given these beautiful robes?” O’Toole pulled his gleaming dagger from its scabbard to preen at his reflection (this was parodied by Mad magazine, with a cartoon O’Toole trilling “I feel pretty,” from West Side Story). The pose is echoed later in the film when Lawrence, enraged by the Turks slaughter of the village of Tafas, orders “No prisoners!” and he himself slakes his blood lust, implied as revenge for his own defilement at the hands of Jose Ferrer’s Bay. In the aftermath, he stares in horror at his haunted reflection in the bloodied blade.
Lawrence’s robes subtly reflect the gradual corruption and sublimation of his character to an impossible ideal. When he struts across the roof of a Turkish train he’s ambushed, golden light shines through them. Haloed, he’s like a sun God, a reflection of Ali’s black desert hawk. Later, his robes tattered and dirty, they appear thinner and thinner (actually made now of muslin), and he appears wraith-like, spent.
Eventually, Sam Spiegel had to prise David Lean away from his beloved desert, and they shot further scenes on location in Seville and Almeira, where many Spaghetti Westerns would be filmed. For the impossible camel assault on Aqaba, O’Toole and Sharif rode special racing camels amidst the horde. Here, O’Toole recounts the experience on the Late Show with David Letterman.
And when is a match cut not a match cut? When it was nearly a dissolve. That’s the way the transition to the rising sun, from Lawrence snuffing out the match, after telling Claude Rains’ Dryden that his adventure will be “fun”, was written in the script. Editor Anne V. Coates was a huge fan of the French New Wave, and introduced Lean to the idea of match / jump cuts. Did she influence his decision here? Who knows? On the exhale of Lawrence’s breath, the image cuts to a desert horizon, the sun slowly rising, accompanied by Maurice Jarre’s tingling, rising score. It’s a brilliant, literal transition, as iconic as the bone /space weapon platform cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The mirage shot is even more famous, designed by Lean as a dramatic entrance for Omar Sharif’s Ali, as Lawrence and his guide observe him approach his well from which they drink. Production designer John Box had a white line painted to the horizon where Sharif would appear, marked by black pebbles to subtly draw the eye. Lean sent Sharif off on a long arc so as not to spoil the virgin sand. Meanwhile, two land rovers were busy stirring up the sand even further away, so it would appear he approaches out of a dust storm. D.P Freddie Young assembled the monster long lens he’d found in Hollywood, and had earmarked especially for this shot. “David told him to ride straight towards the camera. Nobody had done it before and nobody had done it in colour in 70mm.”
The whole take originally took ten minutes, although Lean admits he bottled it, intercutting with later reaction studio shots from O’Toole. But it is still an incredible sequence, Sharif appearing first as a pinprick, then seemingly floating on the heat haze. Lean was dismissed in this and his other international work as a mere “painter of landscapes” by critics such as Pauline Kael. But he was much more than that. With Lawrence Of Arabia, Lean and his dogged crew create an almost mystical trial, a dream of a man who becomes a myth, by enduring and surpassing feats of wondrous strength, spiritually and physically, in a domain that comes to define him. So much so, that, job done, he almost ceases to exist. In the final shot, newly promoted, Lawrence is driven off to be shipped home, back in uniform; face concealed by a dusty windscreen, he is already fading into (temporary) obscurity.