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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962 movie poster. Notice the credits at the bottom (enlarged at right). Peter O'Toole, in the title role, does not receive top billing (not even close, in fact).
He says it's his favorite film of all time; the one that convinced him to become a filmmaker. Coming from one who may easily be considered the greatest filmmaker of all time, that's praise sufficient to elevate the film itself to at least one of the greatest films of all time. Those are the words of Steven Spielberg and the film he so admires is David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. Normally I include a YouTube clip at the end of any piece I write about a cinematic work of art. Usually it's the trailer. But any trailer is, at best, a finely crafted piece of PR. Instead, this time I want you to hear the words of Spielberg himself before you read any of mine.

It's axiomatic with regard to filmmaking, that what you see on the screen is "art by committee." That's not to say that all the committee members are equal or contribute equally, but each are vital. This committee consisted of Sam Spiegel, the producer, David Lean, the director, Robert Bolt the screenwriter, and finally, Peter O'Toole the Lawrence. Take away any one of those four and the film would either never have existed or would have been a much lesser work. Most films are rated for their entertainment value, or their take at the box office, or the number of awards they win. Lawrence of Arabia has all that, but stands nearly alone, as Spielberg suggests, as one of only a handful of the most influential movies ever made.

David Lean commanding his army of Bedouin extras.
David Lean with one of seven Academy
Awards won by Lawrence of Arabia.
Sam Spiegel made other great films; earlier, with Lean he'd made Bridge on the River Kwai. Before that there had been, Suddenly Last Summer, On the Waterfront, and way back in 1951, The African Queen (among a total of 23 over his lifetime). Lawrence of Arabia was his greatest masterpiece. David Lean cut his directorial teeth on Dickens in the 1940s with such films as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Besides Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, Lean went on to make, in 1965, Dr. Zhivago. Spielberg's respect for him is echoed by dozens of other filmmakers today. Robert Bolt has to his screen credits not only Lawrence of Arabia, but Lean's Dr. Zhivago, as well as A Man for All Seasons (both the stage and screen versions) and numerous plays for the London stage.

O'Toole and Sharif, the acting axis around which Lawrence of Arabia rotated.
Peter O'Toole, as his place well below the rest of the cast on the Lawrence of Arabia movie poster would indicate (top), was the newcomer to the group. The English actor had made his first film just two years before. This was but his fourth time before the camera. He went on to play Henry II in Becket, Lord Jim in Lord Jim, Henry II again in The Lion in Winter, Arthur Chipping in Goodbye Mr. Chips, as well as such historic and fictional characters as Don Quixote, Robinson Caruso, Sherlock Holmes, and Tiberius Caesar. O'Toole died in December, 2013. T.E. Lawrence was undoubtedly his greatest role.

The resemblance of O'Toole to T.E. Lawrence was striking, except for the fact that O'Toole was several inches taller. British playwright, Noel Coward, complained that if O'Toole was any "prettier" they could have called it "Florence of Arabia."
T.E. Lawrence was, in fact, the missing member of the committee. The first three members of the committee had killed him off during the first three minutes of the movie. Thus, the entire film was in the form of a flashback not unlike Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Except for the fact that Lean and Welles were quite similar in their directorial style, it was there any similarities ceased. Lawrence of Arabia was a blockbuster, made in an era when Hollywood felt that the only way to combat the rising popularity of television and the resulting decline in box office revenue was to spend money hand over fist in a manner TV producers couldn't. Lean was working with a budget of $15-million. The film grossed $70-million. It was also longer (at 222 minutes) than anything television could handle. Likewise, the cast was one TV at the time could only dream about, with names and faces like Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Claude Raines, and Arthur Kennedy, not to mention Omar Sharif (in his first major film), all of whom wound up as barely more than supporting roles to the newcomer O'Toole (no female speaking parts). Not since Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind had an acting newcomer so dominated a film.

Literally a cast of thousands.
It would be fifty years before TV screens could handle an army like this.


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