UK / Columbia – Horizon / 221 minutes / 1962
Writers: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (from the writings of T.E. Lawrence) / Cinematography: Frederick A. Young / Music: Maurice Jarre / Production Design: John Box / Producer: Sam Spiegel / Director: David Lean
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, Donald Wolfit
Trying to find the essence of British adventurer T.E. Lawrence, a reporter seeks the truth at the church commemorating his death and David Lean’s Oscar-laden epic flashes back to Egypt and the war years. As a dishevelled young lieutenant, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) wants to leave his Cairo desk and head for the desert and his wish is granted by Mr Dryden (Claude Rains), who sends him to assess the progress of the Anglo-French-sponsored Arab revolt.
He finds the revolution stalled, with its leader Prince Feisel (Alec Guinness) resigned to let the British forces do the work. Seeing that a miracle is needed to motivate the Arabs, Lawrence invents one by leading an invasion force and capturing the Turkish city of Aqaba but forced to shoot one of his rebellious troops, Lawrence returns to Cairo in remorseful mood. There, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), not sharing Lawrence’s self-doubt, provides enough weapons and money to sustain a period of guerilla warfare that sees the young soldier lionized as Lawrence of Arabia and revered throughout the Empire.
With Alexander Korda thwarted by war, the first Lawrence movie was abandoned. Two decades later, Rank cast Dirk Bogarde and balked at the intended budget. It was left to Sam Spiegel to buy the rights and hire David Lean. Albert Finney, Montgomery Clift, Dirk Bogarde and Richard Burton were suggested for the lead, but Spiegel was persuaded to cast O’Toole, who would gain an unsuccessful Oscar nomination (the first of seven, the same number won by the film in 1963).
The late Robert Bolt’s screenplay was savaged for inaccuracy (which misses the point that from the first frame Lean is telling us that the truth about this legend can be found elsewhere). Yet the writer’s poetic stance is irresistible, and his decision to use only Lawrence’s own writings vindicated. The 70mm scope was a publicity coup, with Tommy Steele pouring sand from his shoes at the premiere as a tribute to the detail, and audiences convinced that a four-hour biopic could thrill.
Oscars were won for Best Picture, Direction of David Lean, Cinematography of Frederick A. Young and the Music of Maurice Jarre.