Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia in the David Lean film. Image supplied.
It will be 50 years ago next week that director David
Lean's epic film Lawrence of Arabia was given its
royal premiere in London. Greg Dixon looks back on the making
of a film Steven Spielberg calls a miracle.
"The desert shimmers and flickers in the heat. At a
broken-down well in the middle of nowhere, a British soldier
in desert uniform lies on the sand, fiddling lazily with his
army compass and whistling idly.
At the well, Tafas, his Bedouin guide, throws a skin
attached to a rope down into the water, making a splash that
in the desolate, dazzling emptiness of the desert sounds like
a rifle shot - a prescient echo of what is about to
In the heat-blasted distance, just at the edge of sight, a
small black speck appears. Tafas freezes; the soldier leaps
to his feet. Is it a mirage?In the long seconds - it might
only be a minute or two but feels like an hour - the black
speck, making a peculiar swishing sound, grows slowly until
at last the soldier and his guide - and we the audience -
''Bedu!'' shouts Tafas, and runs for his gun. There is a
crack, a real shot this time, and Tafas falls dead. The
speck, the owner of the well, rides his camel forward, his
rifle raised ..."
I'll let you pick yours. But in a film rich with superbly
shot scenes the entrance of Sherif Ali - played by a
brooding, impossibly handsome Omar Sharif in his first
Western film - has to be my favourite scene in Lawrence of
This is a scene that, for me, sums up what makes director
David Lean's near-flawless 1962 film still so utterly
compelling, even 50 years after its premiere and even in the
age of modern uber-epics. This is a scene that revels in the
bleak beauty of its setting, is utterly languid in its
pacing, is beautifully composed and shot, turns your knuckles
tight with the tension and has been achieved without any kind
of film-making jiggery-pokery whatsoever - or so I thought.
It turns out it had been ever-so-carefully designed. In his
definitive 1996 biography of Lean, author Kevin Brownlow
reports that Ali's ride towards the camera, which ran for
nearly 10 minutes of unedited film, was made ''more
interesting'' by Lean's art director John Box, who ''painted
a white line, a camel track coming to the well''. Black
pebbles were placed on another line.
''[Before that] there was something bland about the shot,''
''What are we going to do? You're going to paint the desert
with these fingers, which point toward where the man is
At the end of shooting this sequence Lean is said to have
told Box: ''You'll never do a better bit of designing in
As in all Lean's work - which includes classics Doctor
Zhivago and Bridge Over The River Kwai - nothing
in the making of Lawrence was left to chance, even though it
was a mammoth, larger-than-life production involving the
proverbial cast of thousands working across continents. And
it took forever to film. The first official day of the shoot
was May 15, 1961, the climax of nearly two years' preparation
work. The shoot didn't end until October 1962.
Indeed, the making of Lawrence of Arabia - released in
a new high-definition version on Blu-ray this month - was
epic film-making of the most old-fashioned kind.
Unlike modern film-makers, who create whole scenes and cities
on super-computers, Lean's Lawrence involved blokes building
stuff for real. And then blowing it up, for real.
The Red Sea port city of Aqaba, which Lawrence and an Arab
army invade after crossing the Nafud desert, was actually
built in replica by Box and his team in a dry riverbed in
Spain. Using a photo of the town in 1917, 300 fake buildings
were erected. And, when you watch this scene again, you can
only appreciate the sheer and glorious madness involved in
doing such a thing.
The memorable charge into the replica Aqaba by Peter
O'Toole's Lawrence, Sherif Ali and the army of Auda abu Tayi
(Anthony Quinn in an amazing fake nose) is said to have
employed more than 450 horses and 150 camels.
However, it is the scenes shot in Jordan which astound, not
only for the exquisiteness - the sequences with Lawrence and
Tafas riding to meet Prince Faisal, and the Arab camp at Wadi
Rum, are gobsmackingly wonderful to look at - because they
seem to have been unbelievably tough to make.
Cameras and camels had to be hauled up giant sand dunes,
which also had to be carefully groomed; plastic drinking cups
were banned from the set after the wind kept blowing them
across the dunes and into shot. There were cost blowouts, too
(which forced the shoot to move to Spain), and much illness
among the vast cast and crew. And then there was the desert
In his biography, Brownlow quotes the production's head of
publicity, John Woolfenden, writing: ''Although the summer
has scarcely started at [Jordan's] Jebel Tubeiq, the heat
radiates like the proverbial blast furnace from the desert
floor to a height of a thousand feet. Cast and crew wear
goggles, for not only does the dazzling colour hurt their
eyes after a prolonged gaze, but also the sand itself, blown
by the `hamsin' or desert wind, stings like birdshot.''
These were real men making a real movie.
But, of course, Lawrence of Arabia is a quite
literally a bloke's movie.
In a move unthinkable to modern directors such as Peter
Jackson, there are no speaking parts for women in Lawrence.
Indeed, by reputation it is the longest film (at 218 minutes)
made in which a woman doesn't speak (though Arab women are
heard trilling as they farewell their men from Wadi Rum
before the battle of Aqaba).
And it seems the blokes had quite a time, even if Lean
allowed no tomfoolery on set. The stories are legend, some
are possibly true, and alcohol and O'Toole, who until he
played Lawrence was an unknown, seemed to be a common thread.
While filming in Jordan, O'Toole and Sharif would head for
Beirut during the short monthly breaks in production.
''We'd drink without stopping for 48 hours,'' Sharif wrote in
his '70s autobiography The Eternal Man.
''We went hunting girls in every bar, every nightclub''.
There is another story, possibly true, that during a
rough-cut screening of the film, O'Toole spent his time
trying to work out which scene was the one in which Sharif
was suffering from the clap.
Even the Hollywood premiere wasn't safe from their
larrikinism. O'Toole, Sharif and comedian Lenny Bruce were
arrested the night before it. The cops had turned up just as
Bruce was ''shooting up''.
''[Lawrence producer] Sam Spiegel got us out of
jail,'' Sharif recently told Britain's Independent.
''He arrived with six lawyers. Of course we were completely
It is a long film, the longest, in fact, to win the best
picture Oscar. It is also one of the most successful, winning
seven Academy Awards in total, four Baftas and five Golden
Globes. It frequently appears in the top 10 of the world's
greatest films and its style has been hugely influential.
It is, or at least it was, hugely controversial, too. T.E.
Lawrence's brother, Professor A.W. Lawrence, who sold the
rights to his brother's memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom
to Spiegel for a paltry $US25,000, was furious with
screenwriter Robert Bolt's final script, which depicted
Lawrence as a masochist and a sadist.
Biographers and historians have quibbled, too, over the
portrayal of Lawrence, and the families of others depicted in
the film were extremely upset upon the film's release.
However, 50 years on, all that is utterly irrelevant. As
director Steven Spielberg said in an interview around the
time Lawrence was first released on DVD in 2001, Lean's film
is nothing short of a miracle.
Another view of Lean's achievement might be a line from Mr
Dryden, the dry, playful, deeply cynical Arab Bureau
official. After Lawrence and the Arabs take Aqaba, he says to
General Allenby: ''Before he did it, sir, I'd have said it
couldn't be done.''