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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Main image of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed byDavid Lean
Production CompanyHorizon Pictures (G.B.)
Produced bySam Spiegel
Screenplay byRobert Bolt
Screenplay byMichael Wilson
Director of PhotographyFreddie Young
Music Composed byMaurice Jarre

Peter O'Toole (T.E.Lawrence); Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal); Anthony Quinn (Auda abu Tayi); Jack Hawkins (General Allenby); Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish); Claude Rains (Mr Dryden)

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From being a cartographer in the British army in Cairo during World War One, T. E. Lawrence becomes internationally famous when he leads the Arabs to victory over the Turks.

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Over the years, several attempts to film the story of the extraordinary life of T. E. Lawrence, most notably by Rex Ingram in the 1920s and Alexander Korda in the 1930s, had come to nothing. After the huge success of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which fused adventure story, spectacle and flawed heroics, the potential of Lawrence's story to a filmmaker of David Lean's genius was obvious.

Lean's mastery of composition, of fashioning exactly the right images from the immensity of the desert, its rocks and shadows and hillocks of sand, surpassed anything even he had attempted before. Sometimes he is content for the desert vastness itself to be the point of the scene, as evident in the breathtaking long shot of camels strung out on it like ships on the sea, or the famous sequence of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) slowly emerging from the mirage on the far horizon.

Audacious cuts, like the legendary one from an extinguished match to the rising sun, or sequences like the one where the sun grows larger and larger until it fills the screen during Gasim's desperate desert walk, have lost none of their power after forty years.

There is hardly a frame which is not visually stunning, but Lawrence of Arabia also boasts an exceptional script by Robert Bolt, in his first collaboration with Lean. In the opening credit sequence we know nothing of the man, yet Bolt economically conveys that this is someone who takes risks and finds danger exhilarating. The film promotes the Romantic view of Lawrence which informs his own account of the Arab Revolt in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. There are startling symmetries, like Lawrence checking his reflection in the golden dagger that goes with his immaculate new white Arab robes, and later seeing his blood-soaked face and clothes in the same dagger, following the massacre of the Turkish column.

Lawrence's identity is questioned throughout the film. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton devised a marvellous way to indicate Lawrence's failing grip on who and what he was. The robes worn by Peter O'Toole become thinner and thinner, until, at the Arab Council in Damascus, they are practically transparent. By the time Lawrence takes his farewell of Arabia, he is reduced first to a reflection in a table top, then a shadow on a curtain, and then to a blurred image behind a car's dirty windscreen.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. A match and the sun (0:59)
2. A fatal quicksand (1:00)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Bolt, Robert (1924-1995)
Box, John (1920-2005)
Coates, Anne V. (1925-)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Jarre, Maurice (1924-2009)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
O'Toole, Peter (1932-)
Quayle, Anthony (1913-1989)
Rains, Claude (1889-1967)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Spiegel, Sam (1903-1985)
Young, Freddie (1902-1998)
The End of Empire