1962 - Dir: David Lean - 3 hrs 40 minutes
Shown at The FeckenOdeon on 27th April, 2013
What a bold, mad act of genius it was to make "Lawrence of Arabia," or even think that it could be made. In the words 27 years later of one of its stars, Omar Sharif: "If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that's four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert, what would you say?" The impulse to make this movie was based, above all, on imagination. The story of "Lawrence" is not founded on violent battle scenes or cheap melodrama, but on David Lean's ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert and slowly grow into a human being. He had to know how that would feel, before he could convince himself that the project had a chance of being successful.
T.E. Lawrence must be the strangest hero to ever stand at the centre of an epic. To play him, Lean cast one of the strangest actors in recent movie history, Peter O'Toole, a lanky, almost clumsy man with a sculptured face and a speaking manner that hesitates between amusement and insolence. O'Toole's assignment was a delicate one. Although it was widely believed that Lawrence was a homosexual, a multimillion-dollar epic filmed in 1962 could not possibly be frank about that. And yet Lean and his writer, Robert Bolt, didn't simply cave in and rewrite Lawrence into a routine action hero. Using O'Toole's peculiar speech and manner as their instrument, they created a character who combined charisma and craziness, who was so different from conventional military heroes that he could inspire the Arabs to follow him in that mad march across the desert.
Although it won the Academy Award as the year's best picture in 1962, "Lawrence of Arabia" would have soon been a lost memory if it had not been for two film restorers named Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten. They discovered the original negative in Columbia's vaults inside crushed and rusting film cans, and they also discovered about 35 minutes of footage that had been trimmed by distributors from Lean's final cut. To see it in a cinema, as we’re doing tonight, is to appreciate the subtlety of Freddie Young's desert cinematography - achieved despite blinding heat and the blowing sand, which worked its way into every camera. "Lawrence of Arabia" was one of the last films to be photographed in 70mm (as opposed to being blown up to 70 from a 35mm negative). We can now, thanks to further restoration work achieved through digital means, see it in 2013 exactly as David Lean meant us to see it in 1962.
● David Lean hoped to film in the real Aqaba and the archaeological site at Petra. Much to his regret, however, the production had to be moved to Spain because of cost overruns and outbreaks of illness among the cast and crew before these scenes could be shot.
● When production was moved to Spain filming did not resume for three months because writer Robert Bolt had been jailed for participating in a nuclear disarmament demonstration. He was released only after Sam Spiegel persuaded him to sign an agreement of good behaviour.
● Peter O'Toole is considerably taller and better looking than the real T.E. Lawrence (6'3" to Lawrence's real life height of 5'6"). Noel Coward is rumoured to have said, on seeing the premiere, "If he'd been any prettier, they'd have had to call it Florence of Arabia."