Is there a greater film than “Lawrence of Arabia?” Perhaps. There are certainly few longer ones, or few that are more epic and sweeping in their scope (thanks to the timeless Panavision 70 photography by Freddie Young). But even if the film isn’t your absolute favorite, it is the number one of many, including Steven Spielberg, who credits the picture with making him want to be a filmmaker.
David Lean‘s tale of T.E. Lawrence’s adventures in Arabia in World War I is fifty years old this year, and ahead of a brand-spanking-new Blu-ray release next month, a glorious new 4K restoration of the film is screening at Cannes tomorrow night. To mark the occasion, as well as the anniversary of the death of Lawrence himself, who died 77 years ago tomorrow, we’ve assembled five things you might not know about Lean’s unassailable classic.
1. David Lean nearly directed a biopic of Gandhi instead of ‘Lawrence’
In 1957, director David Lean and legendary producer Sam Spiegel had a huge hit together with war epic “The Bridge Over The River Kwai” — the film was the biggest of the year, and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Actor. As such, the duo were undeniably keen to work again on a similarly epic canvas, but their first idea wasn’t what you’d expect: Plan A was for Lean to direct a film about Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, written by the great Emeric Pressburger (“A Matter Of Life And Death,” “Black Narcissus“), and starring ‘River Kwai’ star Alec Guinness as the title character. Lean lost interest, however (Richard Attenborough would later go on to Oscar-winning success with the project), and returned to an earlier focus: British army officer, archaeologist and Middle East adventurer T.E. Lawrence, who’d played a key role in the Arab Revolt between 1916 and 1918. Lawrence had been an attractive figure for filmmakers for years, but no one had ever crossed the finish line: Alexander Korda had tried in the 1940s to adapt Lawrence’s autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” with Trevor Howard and Laurence Olivier wanted for the lead roles, but couldn’t get the money together. More recently, Terrence Rattigan had written a screenplay, “Ross,” which focused on Lawrence’s alleged homosexuality, with Dirk Bogarde attached to star, but the film never happened, and Rattigan reworked it for the stage (with Alec Guinness starring). Lean himself had been attached to a 1952 version for the Rank Organization, but again it didn’t happen, although clearly the subject matter lingered, as he’d return to it a decade later.
2. The film started shooting without a finished script, and writer Robert Bolt had to be bailed out of prison by the producer.
These days, it’s far from rare for a mega-blockbuster to start filming with only a rough template of the script, as the $250 million “Men In Black 3” is about to demonstrate. But it isn’t a new phenomenon. Lean wasn’t particularly happy with the script by blacklisted Hollywood exile Michael Wilson (“Planet of the Apes“) to begin with, one of the reasons that Wilson quit the film not long after it started production. Playwright Beverley Cross (who would later pen the original “Clash Of The Titans“) did some uncredited work in the meantime before Robert Bolt (“A Man For All Seasons“) was brought on to essentially start from scratch. But things did not go smoothly even then: Bolt was arrested in London for his involvement in an anti-nuclear demonstration, and Spiegel had to bail him out, persuading him to sign a ‘recognizance of good behavior’ so he could continue working on the production. There were other rock’n’roll moments: Peter O’Toole was injured in the first shot of the attack on Akaba, and was so afraid of falling off his camel again that he and Omar Sharif got blind drunk and strapped themselves to their mounts. O’Toole told Jay Leno not long ago that, as a result, he was so inebriated that he had no idea where he was or what he was doing when the sequence was shot.
3. Marlon Brando & Albert Finney both turned the title character down.
It’s hard to imagine “Lawrence of Arabia” without the piercing blue eyes of Peter O’Toole, but as is so often the case, the actor wasn’t the first choice for the part. Spiegel initially wanted Marlon Brando, but the actor turned it down in favor of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which was paying better. After that, Lean liked the idea of then-unknown Albert Finney, who was about to break thanks to Karel Reisz‘s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” The actor was brought in for a screen test, which cost a whopping £100,000, and was subsequently offered the part, but turned it down, concerned that the film would be a flop, and put off by a restrictive, long-running contract. Montgomery Clift lobbied hard for the role, and Anthony Perkins was considered, but instead Lean went to O’Toole, who Lean had seen in a small role in B-movie “The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England.” Spiegel was against the idea: the actor had been on call to replace Clift, should the actor’s drinking problem force him to withdraw, in the Spiegel-produced “Suddenly Last Summer,” and clashed with the producer. But Lean was insistent after the screen test, and Spiegel let the filmmaker have his way. O’Toole won acclaim and an Oscar nomination, despite many criticizing him for not looking like the real-life Lawrence: Noel Coward famously joked after the premiere “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia.’
4. The rest of the cast could have also looked very different, with Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Alain Delon and Kirk Douglas among those considered
The title character wasn’t the only part in flux: in another world, we’d be looking at a very different cast for the movie. For instance, you might think that Alec Guinness would be a no-brainer for a role in the film, but actually, Lean wanted Laurence Olivier to play Prince Faisal before he ended up casting his “Bridge on the River Kwai” star. Olivier was also sought to play General Allenby, while Sam Spiegel wanted to try for Cary Grant, but Lean insisted on his long-time favorite Jack Hawkins, another ‘River Kwai’ vet. The actor became great friends with O’Toole on the shoot, maddening the director by improvising their dialogue. Meanwhile, Omar Sharif became a star as a result of playing Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish in the film, but he was far from the first choice as well: Horst Bucholz was the original pick, but opted to make Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three” instead. Alain Delon also screen-tested, along with Claude Chabrol favorite Maurice Ronet, who couldn’t nail the accent, and Indian megastar Dilip Kumar. None worked out, and Sharif was upgraded from playing Lawrence’s guide Tafas to the larger role. The financial compensations weren’t great, however, particularly when compared to Jose Ferrer, who was paid a factory-made Porsche and $25,000 for his five-minute scene as the Turkish Bey, more than O’Toole and Sharif’s salaries put together. Salary quibbles also put paid to the possibility of Kirk Douglas as journalist Jackson Bentley: the actor wanted a huge salary and top billing to play the part. Instead, Edmond O’Brien (“The Barefoot Contessa,” “The Wild Bunch“) got the part, but had a heart attack on location after filming two scenes, and was replaced by Arthur Kennedy. Not considered for any roles: actresses — the film famously has no speaking roles for women across its 220-minute running time.
5. There’s an unofficial made-for-TV sequel to the film starring Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence.
Surely, given the epic run-time, and the fact that Lawrence dies at the beginning of the film, you would think that possibilities for a follow-up would be minimal, right? Wrong. A year after the film was restored and re-released, in 1989, Anglia Films made “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia,” which picked up the story as Lawrence goes to the Paris Peace Conference after the end of World War 1. Written by Tim Rose Price (“Rapa Nui,”) and directed by Christopher Menaul (“Feast of July“) it starred Ralph Fiennes in one of his very earliest roles (something of a precursor to “The English Patient“), and “Syriana” star Alexander Siddig as Emir Feisal. The film was relatively well-received, even if it was something of a cash-in, and is still available on some streaming services, including Amazon Video.