This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of Lawrence of Arabia, a movie which many call one of the greatest Hollywood epics ever made if not the greatest. Many people talk about the cinematography, the score and Peter O’Toole when they praise it and of course David Lean’s direction and the smart script, which was adapted from the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written by British Army colonel T.E. Lawrence as an account of his experience as a military advisor during the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 against the Ottoman Empire.
Set during the first World War, the basic plot follows an outspoken and individualistic British Army lieutenant (Peter O’Toole) who is tasked with assessing the prospects of a revolt against the Turks by Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness), but in doing so he gets drawn into the revolt himself, advising Faisel and working with Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) and Bedouin leader Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) to cross the seemingly impassable Nefud Desert and lead a surprise attack on Aqaba while getting the drop on some Ottoman Empire defenders. And that’s just the first half of the movie. This is divided into two parts and separated by an intermission (back when movies still had those!) with the entire film lasting 227 minutes total. The movie also starred Anthony Quinn as the Sheikh leader of the Howeitat tribe Auda abu Tayi, Jack Hawkins as British Army General Edmund Allenby, José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden and Arthur Kennedy as American journalist Jackson Bentley.
While the film was based on the events of the Arab Revolt, it is still a fictionalized account of the story that was altered to heighten the drama and streamline the narrative flow, so nothing in this movie (or any movie?) should be taken seriously as historical. In fact historians and biographers don’t even 100% agree on how accurate the portrayal of Lawrence himself was, but I won’t get into all that because this is a blog about film history not world history.
Attempts to bring this story to the big screen have been made since the 1940s but for a long time nothing got off the ground. Producer Sam Spiegel had previously worked with director David Lean on the Best Picture-winning World War II epic The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, and in their next collaboration they decided to tackle the story of T.E. Lawrence. After Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Michael Wilson wrote the first draft, but Lean found Wilson’s script too history and politics-heavy, so he hired Robert Bolt to re-write the script as more of a character study for Lawrence. The finished film features most of Wilson’s framework but most of Bolt’s dialogue.
The desert scenes were shot in Jordan, Morocco and Spain from May 1961 to September 1961, with location scouting assistance from the Jordanian government of King Hussein, who helped the film crew out a lot during production in Jordan, including providing local extras. Although Jordan later did a complete one-eighty and banned the film for what they felt was a disrespectful portrayal of Arab culture, with Egypt (the home country of actor Omar Sharif) the only Arab country giving the film a wide release. The Egyptians, including the then president Gamal Abdel Nasser, loved the film and had no objections to the portrayal of Arab culture.
Bridge on the River Kwai composer Malcolm Arnold was among the first considered to write Lawrence of Arabia’s score, but when he proved unavailable, Maurice Jarre was given a chance instead, and he blew everyone away with his Oscar-winning score so much that he composed all of David Lean’s films ever since. Jarre’s score is considered one of the best film scores ever composed and you may have heard it at some point in your life even if you haven’t watched this movie.
Lawrence of Arabia was first released in the United States in December 1962 after premiering in London, and with overture, intermission and exit music the film initially ran for 222 minutes, but it had been edited down to shorter lengths upon subsequent re-releases such as in 1971 (187 minutes). But the restored director’s cut in 1989 was about 216 minutes long (with most of the cut scenes being dialogue scenes that Lean found unimportant). Although most recent director’s cuts on DVD and Blu-ray can be found with a length of 227 minutes at the longest!
But no matter how many different ways the film gets released, the reaction is always the same. When it first came out, it got wide acclaim from film critics and was hugely popular with audiences, with most of the praise aimed at Peter O’Toole’s performance, the writing, the cinematography and the score along with the common observation that it is a masterpiece and one of the best films ever made, with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick among its fans, while it has also gotten recognition from the American Film Institute, the British Film Institute, the National Film Registry and of course the Academy, which awarded it seven Oscars total, including Best Picture. Spielberg even credits it as making a huge impression on him and he has called it his favorite film and the film that made him want to make films. Plus you can really feel the film’s influence on future adventure and fantasy films which tried to be similarly epic in scale, including Dune, Mad Max and Star Wars, which also starred Alec Guiness as a guy wearing a robe who hung out in a desert.