BFI Classics: Lawrence Of Arabia

Author: Kevin Jackson           

Possibly the most heralded British film of all time, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia regularly features in every top 10 of greatest films. Kevin Jackson’s book focuses on the battle to get the film made, the difficulty of production and the aftermath of the release.

A biopic about the life of TE Lawrence had been perused by film studios since the 1930s. British interest was lead by the Korda boys (with Zoltan very close at one point before going off to make The Four Feathers instead). A script was eventually put together and, following the enormous success of The Bridge on the River Kwai, producer Sam Spiegel turned to Dave Lean to team up again for another epic. Being less than impressed by the working script Lean eventually found Robert Bolt who would become a lifelong collaborator following Lawrence.

The search for who would play Lawrence is also detailed with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Albert Finney being considered before they settled on the then unknown Peter O’Toole. The production itself was one of the longest in film history with locations including deserts in the Middle East and Spain. The desert shoots become torturous given the heat and utter lack of anything to do for the cast and crew after shooting. The production was in fact pulled away from that location early as the production budget was spiralling out of control. David Lean felt that this hurt the film as he found the solitude of the desert both relaxing and productive.

The ongoing debate about the portrayal of TE Lawrence is one of the biggest questions around the final film. The film suggests both that Lawrence was interested in men sexually and that he may have been a masochist (others would go even further and refer to him as a sadist). Lawrence’s extended family obviously found any mention of this to be highly offensive. The book details how the work done by Robert Bolt in terms of adapting the then screenplay and Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom seems to have placated the family.

Kevin Jackson’s book is a fascinating companion piece to the film, especially when coupled with Kevin Brownlow’s classic book on Lean himself. For anyone who doubts the validity of Lawrence of Arabia as a true classic of the cinema, simply read this book and you’ll begin to grasp the sheer magnitude of the production. In an age where everything is greenscreen and three-dimensional garbage, comparing the likes of Avatar to Lawrence of Arabia is a joke.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously a fan of David Lean. But having seen his many epics you slowly come to realise the man really was a titan. The brilliance of Werner Herzog in making films such as Aguirre and Fitzcaraldo in what can only be described as insane locations is matched by Lean. Jackson’s book perfectly captures the buccaneer who feared nothing and ensured his films looked as perfect as they could. It details the opening shot of Lawrence when a dot on the horizon turns into Omar Sharif. Cinematographer Freddie Young set up his 70mm cameras and looked down the viewfinder to see a little speck of dirt on the desert miles away. The decision was taken to simply hold everything in the hope it would blow away, given how far away it was.

Lawrence of Arabia is a unique epic that is wonderfully detailed in this superb book by Kevin Jackson.

Aled Jones

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