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Masterpiece Memo – Lawrence of Arabia

Mention Hollywood epics and one of the first films that comes to mind is Lawrence of Arabia. AFI named it Number One on its “EPICS” top ten and it appears on every other list for which it qualifies. It is the standard by which all are measured, but when one looks closer, it should have been doomed to failure simply by the sum of its contrasting and disparate parts.

When the critically-acclaimed box office hit, Bridge On the River Kwai, won seven of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated, producer Sam Spiegel offered director David Lean carte blancheand told him to name a project – any project – that he wanted to film. The result was about as far from your standard Hollywood epic as you could get.


There had been several previous failed attempts to get T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom onto the big screen. There would be no romantic interest – in fact, there would be no female roles. There would be few action sequences during the three hour-plus running time and the protagonist, to be played by an unknown, was based on an enigma of a man who dies at the beginning of the film. To top it off, the film would have a decidedly existential tone, go for the gist of events rather than get mired down in historical facts and characters, and suggest a slightly dark (to 1962 audiences) psychosexual bent anchoring the main character. Heady stuff from a someone who was an unfocused school drop-out who didn’t direct his first film until he was in his mid-30s after working his way up from clapper boy to editor to director. David Lean was aiming for the Intimate Epic.

Lean hired Freddie Young, whose first job was making hand grenades and with whom he shared a mutual respect but little affection, to collect, then lug through the deserts of Jordan and Morocco, the latest – and heaviest – Panavision equipment.  Desert sand, dust and heat are not compatible with film emulsion. Everything had to be real as there was no CGI to save the day and there were no daily rushes handy to monitor success as the film had to be flown back to the Britain for processing; reports were telegrammed back to the set and, apparently, Spiegel hated just about everything he saw. Lean, on the other hand, mostly told Young what he wanted then got out of the way, a lesson he had learned the hard way working with Young before. “Stunning” does not begin to describe the results, which set a benchmark for cinematography.
Lean was also working with an unfinished script. Blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, who was refused credit for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Bridge on the River Kwai, cobbled together the main outline and story before he clashed with Lean and quit the film.  He was replaced with playwright Robert Bolt, who taught English and only became a full-time writer five years before Lawrence. Bolt, who had never done an original film script before, was to flesh out the characters and write the dialogue. Midway through the film, Bolt was thrown in jail for participating in the “Ban the Bomb” efforts.  To save his film, Spiegel successfully coerced Bolt into promising to refrain from such activities in the future in return for his immediate release. Bolt was able to complete his screenplay – but the two never spoke again. Michael Wilson didn’t receive credit for his contributions until 1995, 33 years after the release of the film and 17 years after his death.
Despite the “Introducing Peter O’Toole” frame in the opening credits, it was O’Toole’s fourth film. The trainee journalist and photographer had turned to acting, studied in the same class as Albert Finney and made a name for himself on the stage. Finney was actually the second actor to turn down the lead in Lawrence after Marlon Brando passed on the offer. Lean selected an untried entity who was required to appear in nearly every scene and carry the film, and carry it he did, delivering what is considered an iconic performance few will match.
The only Arab cast in a primary role was Omar Sharif, a physics grad who left the family lumber business to pursue a successful acting career in Egypt. His intensity (and good looks) made him an international star. The remaining roles were filled by British or American actors, a practice that would probably not be tolerated today, but Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Jack Hawkins, and especially Alec Guinness each delivered. Oddly, Hollywood money thought Anthony Quinn was the one “bankable star” Lean had to acquire to guarantee financing for the film. He gives one of the best performances in the film as chieftain Auda Abu Tayi.
Composer Maurice Jarre, who originally intended to pursue engineering before switching his major to music, had scored a few French films before Lawrence of Arabia, but likely nothing anyone in Hollywood had seen. His score for Lawrence was unlike the usual symphonic movie score as it was full of dissonance, percussion and indigenous instrumentation. The original presentation format of the film also called for an Overture, an Entre Acte to be played during intermission, and Exit Music in addition to scoring the actual film. Jarre’s gloriously expansive work is now considered (AFI, again) to be one of the top three film scores ever written.
The films’ editor, Anne V. Coates, started her professional life as a nurse and repaired religious films so that they could be put back into circulation for churches. She had only cut maybe half a dozen feature films before she was given the job of editing miles of original film down to a trim 24,987.5 ft., or about 222 minutes. Because of the shooting schedule, she had to edit the second half of the film first, then go back and do the first half. She must have been warmed–up and sunk deep into her work when she famously transitioned us, in the first half of the film, to our first view of the desert that occurs by the simple blowing out a match. That cut alone made her a legend in film editing. When the film was restored in the 80s, she was on deck to assist.
What makes Lawrence of Arabiaunique – this story of a liaison officer and mapmaker who blossoms in the desert into a warrior legend – is that it is not so much a historical biopic as it is a breathtaking illusion of a misfit that very briefly finds his niche, with all its unexpected glories and horrors, but chooses to retreat back into relative anonymity. The film rejects the standard one directional ascent trajectory of Hollywood heroes. It’s an epic film whose heart is rooted in the rebelliousness of the “Kitchen Sink” British dramas of the late 50s that just happens to be infused with the best technology available at the time. The story of an academic loner who manages to not only to thrive, but also to change history, only to see that his reach is limited, creates a complete arc. The anti-hero becomes the hero, but ultimately rejects the role – something that had never been done on widescreen in Technicolor before.
The very last scene, shot from Lawrence’s point of view as his driver passes a camel on the roadside just as they are passed by a motorcycle, is heartbreaking because of all that has come before. The miles traveled, the people met and lost, the military triumphs and political frustrations, knowing what we do that Lawrence will die young – are all encapsulated in that camel’s amble to stay out of the way of Lawrence’s vehicle as they fly past on the way home. The character’s journey is complete, but the daydream illusion that it was becomes mythology.
Great films stay with you. You age, but they don’t. They continue to speak to you throughout your life, and like a prism they offer new facets for you as your life experience matures. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on its initial release when I was 12, complete with the whole roadshow treatment. The soundtrack was my first LP, which is the only LP I still have. It was inspiring to me then, seeing this nerdy guy turn it all around. It’s meaning morphed as I’ve seen many incarnations of various lengths since then as a rebellious young man and as a responsible adult. It was the restored version in 1989 that forced me to finally give in to a passion and cross the Sahara just to experience extended time in the desert. It is probably the film I have watched most often, most recently while I wrote this piece.
So just as the mapmaker became a legend, you have to admit: The one-timedrop-out (Lean), munitions-maker (Young), English teacher (Bolt), journalist (O’Toole), physics grad/lumberman (Sharif), engineering student (Jarre) and nurse (Coates) each hit the zenith of their professional passion at the same time with the same film. The results are magical.
Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”

Steve Schweighofer is found on Twitter @banjoonthecrag


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