By Sven Mikulec
When David Lean lost interest in doing a film about Gandhi with Alec Guinness in the lead role, he turned his attention to another, historically certainly less significant figure, but a man whose story definitely needed telling. Lawrence of Arabia, the chronicle of the life of British WW1 officer T.E. Lawrence and the work he’d done on the Arab peninsula, turned out to be a magnificent film: David Lean, whose significance for European film culture needs no introduction, was extensively helped by British playwrtght-turned-screenwriter Robert Bolt in creating a wonderful, deep profile of the controversial protagonist. Instead of focusing on the political situation or the historical aspects of the Arab Revolt, Bolt chose a far more personal approach, concentrating primarily on the development of Lawrence’s character.
Along with Doctor Zhivago and A Man of All Seasons, for which he received two Oscars for best adapted screenplay, Lawrence of Arabia remains the high point of Bolt’s career. After Albert Finney decided to pass on the offer, Peter O’Toole hopped on the camel and gave us one his best performances ever, and the artistic triangle composed of him, Lean and Bolt succeeded in creating an epic we tend to go back to every once in a while. It would be careless not to mention the contribution of brilliant editor Anne V. Coates, as well as wonderful supporting performances from Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and Jack Hawkins. Lawrence is a glorious 4-hour experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Robert Bolt’s relationship with David Lean was probably one of the most important director-screenwriter collaborations that has ever existed. Screenwriter must-read: Robert Bolt’s screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). A 4K digitally-restored version of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“I have a host of memories which I see very clearly,” actor Peter O’Toole told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 1993. “And though I’m very aware of the tricks of memory, I’m also aware of the concrete nature of these brilliantly lit pictures in my mind. They’re ineradicable.” O’Toole, who died Saturday at the age of 81, was instrumental in making many “brilliantly lit pictures” for movie lovers during his decades-spanning career. Nominated for eight Oscars, the tall, blond, blue-eyed actor captivated audiences, on-screen and onstage. O’Toole grew up in northern England during World War II and began his acting career after two years in the Royal Navy. He became best-known for his starring role in the 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia. “I can’t imagine anyone whom I’m less like than T.E. Lawrence,” O’Toole admitted, but he suspects director David Lean wanted “someone who could act it rather than be it.” —Peter O’Toole remembers Arabia
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. —Lawrence Of Arabia: A Desert Odyssey
When Peter O’Toole and Roger Ebert talked Lawrence of Arabia.
This film reminds me of the time when directors and actors and writers thought differently than they do today. The length of it, the ambition of it, the breadth of it, the depth of it. The fact that it had the patience to tell its story without having to blow something up every five seconds.
The script demanded those things. The circumstances demanded all those things. David had the courage to do all those things. We were the right people to do all those things. And we took two years and I don’t think there’s one boring second of it. Some say disagreeable seconds, but not boring. —Roger Ebert interviews Peter O’Toole
Peter O’Toole talks Lawrence of Arabia in a rare 1963 interview.
The American WideScreen Museum presents a gallery of 70mm frames from The Sam Spiegel/David Lean Production of Lawrence of Arabia.
“As for Lawrence, after its glorious re-release in 70mm in 1989, it has returned again to video, where it crouches inside its box like a tall man in a low room. You can view it on video and get an idea of its story and a hint of its majesty, but to get the feeling of Lean’s masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film.” —Roger Ebert’s 1989 review of the restored Lawrence
Columbia picture’s press kit for the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia after its restoration in 1988.
Rare behind the scenes footage with the film producer Sam Spiegel on Lawrence of Arabia. Narrated by Ludovic Kennedy. On location in the desert; filming with Arabs and camels; Sam Spiegel arrives in a plane; Peter O’Toole and director David Lean; filming the quicksand scene. Thanks to Huntley Film Archives.
DAVID LEAN AND HIS DEDICATED MANIACS
David Lean is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest film directors. Epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai have left an indelible mark in film history, inspiring generations of cinema goers and filmmakers. Lean had great faith in his regular film crew, once saying “Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs.” This is a profile of four of those key men—David Lean and His Dedicated Maniacs (2009).
FREDDIE YOUNG OBE, BSC, ASC
Renowned director Nicolas Roeg, who worked with Young at MGM and later photographed the second unit on Lawrence of Arabia, said Freddie was a terrific guy to work with. The three films he made with Lean were a challenge. “Lawrence Of Arabia took two years and was shot in Spain, Morocco and Jordan. The heat in the desert was a dry heat of 110 degrees. We had a sunshade over the camera and a wet cloth on top of the camera, which acted like refrigerator. We never saw rushes, the results were cabled from London. The famous mirage scene was shot using a 500mm lens. This was obtained from Panavision in Hollywood along with the rest of the camera equipment,” said Young. In 1992 Lawrence of Arabia was re-launched and Young went to several screenings. At one screening Steven Spielberg told him it was seeing Lawrence in 1962 that made him decide a film career was for him. —British Cinematographer
Behind the Camera: Freddie Young. Produced, directed and filmed by Richard Blanshard. Special thanks to BBC TWO.
Following the premiere of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean began to prepare his film for general release by trimming down the film’s original running time of 222 minutes. The following are a transcription of Lean’s typewritten notes provided to Sam Spiegel, Robert Bolt, and Anne V. Coates. They are a fascinating and insightful document into Lean’s process for polishing one of his greatest films.
ANNE V. COATES
Legendary Editor Anne V. Coates with director David Lean and actor Peter O’Toole talk about Lawrence of Arabia in this 1989 interview.
Anne V. Coates is best remembered for the film which won her an Oscar. “We had 33 miles of film. That’s a lot of film to go through and make choices on in very little time,” says Coates when talking about Lawrence of Arabia (1962). “When we were reconstructing it, David Lean and I tried a couple of times to cut down scenes. But we realized they were right the way they were. Lawrence had its own kind of rhythms and you had to go with them.” As for the famous transition featuring a lighted match and the rising sun, Coates remarks, “It was in the script as a dissolve but we saw it cut together before we had the optical delivered. We looked at the job and said, ‘My, God it worked fantastic!’ We tried taking a frame off here and there and David said to me in the end, ‘That’s nearly perfect. Take it away and make it perfect.’ I literally took two frames off of the outgoing scene and that’s the way it is today.” —Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Anne V. Coates
“I was doing some turning out in England the other day because I’m selling my apartment there,” recalls British film editor Anne V. Coates who made a surprising discovery. “I came across this letter which said, ‘Dear Mr. Spiegel, I don’t think I can cut Lawrence of Arabia  for the money you’re offering.’ I turned down the picture. It’s a two page letter saying all the reasons why I wasn’t going to do it.” Coates explains, “I had already cut Tunes of Glory and The Horse’s Mouth. I wasn’t a complete nonentity. They were offering, and they paid me, very little money. Sam Spiegel said to me, ‘If you cut Lawrence then you would be able to ask any money you like afterwards.’ So seven years later when they asked me to go back on to do the recut for television, I asked for a huge amount of money. Sam said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing what you said.’ and he paid me. I had forgotten I had ever written that letter and to come across it was really weird. I thought, ‘I wonder where I’d be now? Probably, not here in Hollywood.’” —Twice Around: Anne V. Coates talks about Lawrence of Arabia
“I was one of the up-and-coming young editors in England at the time,” states Anne V. Coates. “I had a meeting with Stanley Kubrick about doing Lolita and I liked it; we got on very well. It was a question of going with a new director or what we call in England ‘an old hat director’ like David Lean. My husband said, ‘You can’t even think twice. Don’t even think about Stanley Kubrick. You have to work with David Lean.’ I’ve never had a choice of two such interesting films at the same time.” Reflecting on her decision, Coates admits, “I was very disappointed not to work with him. He never asked again. I saw him occasionally and he rang me about one of my assistants on Lawrence that he wanted to use. I couldn’t part with that one but I gave a very high recommendation to my second first, Ray Lovejoy, whom he took, and he became a top editor. He cut 2001 for Stanley. I had a chat with Stanley then; that’s probably the last time I spoke to him.”
For an interview between Walter Murch and Coates, head over to FilmSound.org. An Oscar-winner for her work on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, Anne V. Coates, ACE is still working on major feature films, at the age of 85, as one of Hollywood’s most respected film editors. When editing students at TFT were offered an opportunity to receive hands-on instruction from this meticulous craftsman, famed for her sensitivity to nuances of charater and drama, they jumped at the chance, making the Women if Film Legacy Series Film Editing Master Class an academic benchmark for the School.
“What is directing? It’s trying to use a lot of people and some very heavy apparatus, and give it all the lightness of a pen while you are writing.”
David Lean (1908–1991)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Photographed by Kenneth Danvers & Mark Kaufman © Horizon Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in