Lawrence of Arabia

by Susan Patterson

The 50th Anniversary Restoration of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is an immense film in every respect: the score by Maurice Jarre, which begins before the first frame is seen (and the beautiful performance by the London Philharmonic conducted by Boult); the vast desert panoramas photographed by F A Young in Panavision 70; its 227 minute restored running time; the central eponymous performance by Peter O’Toole, with Omar Sharif supporting, all make this something very special. Director David Lean, Jarre and Young all won Oscars, producer; it won Best Picture for producer Sam Spiegal; Anne Coates best editing;  and there were further Oscars for sound and art direction, plus four BAFTAs.

Lawrence of Arabia premiered on 10 December 1962 at the Odeon Leicester Square in front of the Queen, and it ran there for eight weeks, doing massive business. It cost $15m, took 18 months to film and was the first British film to be partially funded by pre-sales.

Much of Lawrence of Arabia was made in the Jordanian desert. The massive vistas, with a huge cast of camel- riding extras bring home how tough it must have been to make this film. Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif are really riding camels, side-saddle, at high speed over tough terrain. A large crew must having been living on location there for months. It could not have been comfortable nor easy. It is a film almost entirely without women, except for rare occasions on the periphery.

Against this background it seems churlish to wonder how accurate the story is. Scriptwriter Robert Bolt, and the much later credited Michael Wilson, based it on T E Lawrence’s book about his exploits, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, merging many real people into merged fictional characters, most notably Claude Rains’ Mr Dryden and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), an archetypal noble savage who mostly rides alongside Lawrence.

Dryden of the British Government’s Arab Bureau, is the person who slyly brings Lawrence, a humble(ish) Arabic-speaking captain who had worked in Syria prior to the First World War, into the political fray to seek out and persuade Prince Fesial (Alec Guinness) that the Arab’s (and, of course, the Allies’) best chance of success against the Turks was to be united. Sherif Ali is one of the Bedouin leaders who has to persuaded to unite by Lawrence. Once Lawrence makes contact with Feisal he persuades him that that the only way to succeed is to approach Aqaba, a strategic port on the Red Sea, is across the desert from the north, not from the sea where the Turks would have been expecting an attack. Aqaba spectacularly taken in one of the films’ many impressive scenes, Lawrence returns to Cairo with his boy servant, and then on to Damascus, where he seemingly gives birth to Pan-Arabism.

The spine of the action parts of the narrative is the relationship between Sherif Ali and Lawrence. From the moment Omar Sharif rides out of the desert towards Lawrence it is apparent that Omar Sharif is going to be important to the success of the story, and the success of Lawrence. His second screen action is brutal, and Lawrence chides him for it, petulantly refusing to tell him his name as his name is for his friends, although it’s only a short time until they are exchanging confidences in the night, and providing a united front against more resistant Bedouin  leaders . As the film progresses it is Sherif Ali who takes on more of Lawrence’s ‘civilised’ behaviour, as he watches, sometimes almost lovingly, as Lawrence learns to survive the desert,  then  often horror struck as Lawrence takes to his brutality of war, and his ego takes over from rationality.  Both men were nominated for Oscars, and neither won, Omar Sharif somewhat unfairly; he gave a much more nuanced performance than the written role.

One of the pivotal scenes in the film, where Lawrence moves from brave, warrior visionary to almost twitching madman is after he is captured, beaten and maybe raped by the Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer), another fictional amalgamated character. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom T E Lawrence is quite explicit from the beginning about his hatred of the Turks. His description of his beating and imprisonment by Turkish Govenor alludes to rapes, and is explicit about his own bravery, and later arousal, at his treatment. It’s an event that many, notably Desmond Stewart, in his 1977 biography of T E Lawrence, say never took place.

A man who calls his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom was never going to be modest, and O’Toole plays Lawrence as a charismatic egotist: vain, brave, sometimes effete and easily bored. O’Toole had made a couple of films, but was a theatre actor who was largely unknown to the wider public. His blue eyes are striking, and not only in his close ups. Some of his performance is stagey, too large for even this gigantic canvas, but these are only moments in the 227 minutes.

This 4k restoration with its intermission and theatricality makes Lawrence of Arabia is a proper old fashioned cinematicevent rendered bright and digital for a modern audience. It is beautiful to look at, and the running time never ever a trial.

The 50th Anniversary Restoration in 4k of Lawrence of Arabia is in UK cinemas nationwide from 23 November.

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