Thursday, December 10, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)

Scene from Lawrence of Arabia
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: December 10, 1962
Director: David Lean
Written By: T.E. Lawrence (Writings), Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson(Screenplay)
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Genre: Adventure, Biography, Drama
Running Time: 216 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction (Color)
-Best Editing
-Best Sound
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Peter O'Toole)
-Best Supporting Actor (Omar Shariff)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Longest Day
-The Music Man
-Mutiny on the Bounty
-To Kill a Mockingbird

And the winner is...

When it comes to epics, there are few that are as immediately recognizable and iconic as director David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. From Peter O'Toole's career defining performance to the beautiful cinematography, it is a film unlike any other about the life of an egotistical man. While the film's length may be daunting for newcomers, there's little to fear, as its countless scenes in the desert are in themselves beautiful and easy to get lost in. With a great cast and an expansive scope, it's a film that showed the potential of the medium while creating something not only used space well, but showed how the absence of action could be used to its full advantage. Lawrence of Arabia is a film that will delight and keep audiences entertained, even at its lengthy running time.

The story to make a T.E. Lawrence biopic was long and tumultuous. Writer Rex Ingram approached the actual Lawrence in 1926 with the idea to adapt his life. In person, Lawrence rejected this offer. With many adaptations along the line, there was even hope of doing one with John Wayne in 1953 before funding dropped out. Having enjoyed each other's company on The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean and producer Sam Spiegel eagerly looked for a project to do together. In 1960, they would attempt to do a Gandhi biopic before rejecting it (this project would later be directed by Richard Attenborough and win Best Picture). When Spiegel finally came up with the idea to do a Lawrence biopic, he submitted a script to Lawrence's relative A.W. Lawrence, of whom initially accepted it, but would later request them not to use Lawrence's book's title ("Seven Pillars of Wisdom") as they had done an inaccurate job in the portrayal. As it stands, there were complaints that if T.E. Lawrence was any more attractive, it would have to be called "Florence of Arabia."

The film went through several casting suggestions, including Marlon Brando. The iconic actor rejected it, claiming that he didn't want to spent two years riding camels in the desert (he would go on to do Mutiny on the Bounty). Lean decided on a then unknown Albert Finney, running $10,000 worth of tests on him before failing to get him. Lean would go with O'Toole after seeing the B-Movie The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. O'Toole was considered to have staggering features and would be such an easy lead. Spiegel flew out to Egypt to cast Omar Sharif, who was impressed to see him. Considering the conflicts going on in Africa during this time, Spiegel was skeptical on being able to film there, believing that a Jewish producer would be banned. They got around this problem using a forged passport. Even then Spiegel and Lean would have too many problems and thus talked predominantly over phone. When conflict arose over the dailies, Lean would insert himself flipping off the camera just to annoy him. Otherwise, Lean never looked at dailies.

Lean was also a very resourceful person, only missing one day of shooting. The film began shooting in Jordan, where the setting was very desolate. All of the crew's drinking water had to be transported in from the nearest location over 150 miles away. While the crew was initially served using white cups, Lean eventually settled on ceramic mugs to keep them from flying into the desert and ruining shots. The crew featured several actual Jordanians, who made fun of the crew during breaks and often disappeared without notice. The cast and crew also had a whole area with tents that had air conditioning. Because the shooting took 14 months, Spiegel suggested that they take a two month break. While this was seen as a time to relax, Spiegel also did it for financial reasons, having maxed out his budget in Jordan. The shooting resumed in Spain after three months. The filming would be moved once more to Morocco. Despite all of these shifts, Lean would complain that Jordan was the best that they would ever do.

O'Toole was a character unto himself. When he met Sharif for the first time, he claimed to have not believed Omar Sharif to be his real name, insisting on calling him Freddy instead. This would stick for the rest of their lives. The two would go out drinking together after shootings. O'Toole's alcoholism would have its own storied presence throughout the filming. During the break, he would be arrested for public drunkenness. He also claims to have been so buzzed at points that he didn't even know where he was when shooting. In several cases, he fell off of his camel. He would receive an astounding amount of injuries including: third-degree burns, sprained both ankles, torn ligaments in both his hip and thigh, broken thumb, dislocated spine, fractured skull, bitten by a camel, sprained his neck, and concussed twice. Despite any setback, his performance is still widely regarded as one of the best in film history.

The editing of the film owes a little bit to the ongoing French New Wave scene. In the case of the famous candle-to-desert transition, Lean was suggested by editor Anne V. Coates to do a quick cut as opposed to the slow fade that he initially wanted. In a scene involving Sharif entering the desert, a specialized camera of 482 mm lens was used - the only time in history that it was. In the famous train sequence, materials had to be shipped in, creating a two mile long stretch. Because they could only shoot the scene once, special attention was paid to how it was shot. As for the composers, Lean intended to split duties between Aram Khachaturyan and Richard Rogers. However, when both were proven to be inadequate, he turned to Maurice Jarre, who was a relative newcomer. When he turned in his first piece of music, it was clear that he was the right man for the job and created what is now considered an iconic score in six weeks.

When the film was released, it was considered to be one of the best epics in history. From its beautiful cinematography to the music and O'Toole's performance, a lot was praised about it. Despite the acclaim, the initial cut was requested by Siegel to lose 20 minutes so that there could be more showings. This made portions of the final act incomprehensible. Likewise, Lean was bitter towards Siegel about it. While A.W. Lawrence and other T.E. Lawrence enthusiasts weren't as hip to the portrayal of the protagonist as anything but pure, the film ended up becoming a success. It would go on to receive 10 Oscar nominations, winning 7 of them. Despite not having any major controversy, there was one absentee to the list. Because they forgot to mention Phyllis Dalton for Best Costume Design, they missed out on what was sure to be an 11th nomination. To date, Lawrence of Arabia is considered the longest film to not feature any lines of dialogue uttered by a female character. In a controversial move, many consider O'Toole's (who would receive 9 nominations throughout his career) lack of winning to be one of the biggest snubs in history. For Lawrence of Arabia, he lost to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film's impact was imminent in ways that are obvious. One of the film's biggest fans, Steven Spielberg, owes a lot to Lawrence of Arabia. It is his favorite film and has been active in making sure to restore prints of the film following its improper storage. With the edited cut running rampant, there was also a committee to restore the lost footage and get it to its former glory. Spielberg's work is also reflective of Lean's vision, as Raiders of the Lost Ark features several desert shots reminiscent of the epic. The film also had a legacy of sorts for the cast, as Lean didn't receive any royalties until 1978 and O'Toole didn't see a print of the film for at least 20 years after its release. Due to some dialogue being ruined, the restoration involved several actors coming in to redub their audio. Lean even praised O'Toole who claimed that after 25 years, he figured that he could do it better.Beyond Spielberg and the restoration, the film continued to inspire and be prominent in pop culture as one of the defining epics.

Even if audiences may have trouble watching a four hour movie set in the desert, Lawrence of Arabia remains one of the most beautiful and sweeping epics in history. With O'Toole in a career-defining performance, he carries the film through moments of nothingness and finding the beauty in an economic structure. Even if the film featured various disputes behind the scenes, the final payoff inevitably was well worth the struggle. It not only influenced the genre, it influenced some of the greatest filmmakers of the later decades, creating such iconic shots that they can't help but borrow from. It is why it's hard to ignore the value and impact of this film, which continues to mesmerize after 50 years and some potential permanent damage, had it not been for some film enthusiasts. 


  1. Honestly, it was okay for Peter O'Toole to lose to Gregory Peck, especially when Peck played Atticus Finch. O'Toole really only had one realistic opportunity in which to win, for his performance in the 1968 costume drama The Lion In Winter. For some reason, Cliff Robertson's performance in the now-forgotten Charly won instead. Robertson may have been the definitive Uncle Ben (in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, for those who don't know), but when an Oscar analyst looks at O'Toole's nominations, he or she can only conclude that Robertson was the one who deprived O'Toole of a well-deserved Oscar.

    1. I think that it goes both ways between O'Toole and Peck. Those are arguably two of the most iconic performances of their respective careers. It would be like forcing someone to figure if Citizen Kane or The Godfather was a better film. Both achieve different things, but they're accepted as being the best in their fields. I don't hate Peck's performance, but I guess that I like O'Toole better because I feel like I have seen better Peck, but not O'Toole (in fairness, I have seen very little). I think it's just great that there are two legacy performances in one year worthy of attention when there's more often than not only one per category (if even).

      Though I definitely agree about The Lion in Winter thing. It's a great example of theatricality and overacting servicing a story. Frankly, it's one of the few times that I got the appeal of Katharine Hepburn as well. She was a good actress, but I never got the whole greatness thing. She was good, but I feel her "confident, independent woman" persona hasn't aged as well, or at least her Oscar-nominated performances haven't. But O'Toole was definitely great and worthy of attention. I've never even heard of Charly.