Monday, December 2, 2019

Peter Visits Arabia

Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is working in the map division in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, when he was assigned by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) to evaluate Prince Faisal's (Alec Guinness) war against the Turks. Lawrence's interest in Arab culture and his eagerness to form a united Arabia impresses Faisal; when Lawrence comes up with a plan to cross the Nefud Desert with 50 men and attack the Turks in Aqaba, Faisal supports it. Lawrence's daring impresses his troops who make him one of their own -  Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

The recent TCM Presents: Fathom Events presentation of this film was a must-see. Jon Stewart was right - you have to see this movie wide-screen (and not on a cellphone!). The heat of the desert and the glare of the sun are visceral in the film - even in an air-conditioned theatre, you are hot and thirsty. With commentary by Ben Mankiewicz, this was an exceptional TCM Presents.

Albert Finney was originally approached for the lead role of T.E. Lawrence; he was even given an extensive, expensive screen test (costing £100,000), but Mr. Finney balked at a five-year contract with Sam Spiegel. (TCM article). At some point, Spiegel tried to interest Marlon Brando, but that raised a row in the U.K., and Brando pulled himself out of consideration (AFI Catalog). Anthony Perkins was also considered (but his appearance in Psycho made him less appealing to Spiegel).  Director David Lean was more interested in an unknown actor, and had seen Mr. O'Toole in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960). Halfway through O'Toole's screen test, Mr. Lean stopped the cameras - "No use shooting another foot of film. The boy is Lawrence."
It is hard to imagine anyone but Peter O'Toole in the part. He embodies Lawrence, even resembling him a bit, as you can see from the photos below (though at 6'2", Mr. O'Toole would tower over the 5'5" Lawrence). Mr. O'Toole captures the whimsy as well as Lawrence's personal and emotional conflicts. Lawrence was born to unmarried parents (though his father was not an absentee one); he was well educated and lived fairly well, but he was also teased and tormented about his bastardy. In his book Hero: The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Michael Korda states that Lawrence was tortured by the pleasure he found in pain. That he also took pleasure in killing is not discussed in this book - in fact, he was a vegetarian (PBS) who professed his gladness that "nothing had to be killed to feed us." His death on a motorbike was the result of his need for speed - he was probably going nearly 100 miles per hour. Mr. O'Toole did an interview for TCM about his work on the film here. His tale on the filming of the scene where Lawrence is given his white robes is fascinating.
Alain Delon was originally cast as Sherif Ali iben el Karish, but David Lean wanted Ali to have brown eyes, and Mr. Delon was unable to wear the contact lenses required to turn his blue eyes brown. So, they hired Maurice Ronet for the part - but his eyes were green. Director Lean, already in Jordan, asked to see photos of Arab actors - he was sent a photo of Omar Sharif, resulting in a collaboration that would result in Mr. Sharif getting the lead in Dr. Zhivago (1965). Mr. Sharif and Mr. O'Toole became great friends on the shoot, learning to do The Twist together; as a result of their dancing prowess,  Mr. O'Toole called Mr. Sharif "Cairo Fred" because "No one in the world is called Omar Sharif." Mr. Sharif won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor for his work in this film.

The list of actors who almost appeared in the film is breathtaking - Cary Grant, David Niven, Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Horst Buchholz were all considered or approached at one time or another. Even so, the list of actors in the cast is spectacular: Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi) is strong as a desert chiefan; Jack Hawkins (General Allenby) is both tough and sly as a British officer looking out for the best interests of his country; Alec Guinness is a cagey prince looking for the best deal for his nation; Anthony Quayle (Col. Harry Brighton) portrays an officer who cannot comprehend the man that is Lawrence; Jose Ferrer (Turkish bey) gives us a fiendish enemy to the Arab nation - and to Lawrence. Last, but by no means least, is the wonderful Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden), initially Lawrence's benefactor, but in the end, a pragmatic official using the best man at hand for the job.
Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) was to have been played by Edmund O'Brien, but he left three days into the shoot. Kennedy is excellent as an opportunistic reporter who builds his reputation - and Lawrence's - with the articles he publishes about the conflict. The character of Bentley is based on Lowell Thomas; the name of the character was changed because Mr. Thomas did not wish any association with the film (Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene Phillips). Mr. Thomas would later state that "the only true things in it [the film] are the sand and the camels." Though initially friends, Lawrence became disillusioned with Thomas when Thomas toured with film footage he had shot of Lawrence in Arabia (PBS); Lawrence felt himself exploited, while Thomas claimed "[Lawrence] had a genius for backing into the limelight."
To say that you should see this film if you have not already done so is redundant. Though Bosley Crowther's New York Times review was unenthusiastic, it has since garnered much praise. Janet Maslin discussed the beauty of the movie when it was restored in 1989 (New York Times). It won 7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art/Set Direction, Sound, Film Editing, and Score), and was nominated for 3 other (Actor: Peter O'Toole; Supporting Actor: Omar Sharif; Writing: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson - Mr. Wilson's contributions were finally acknowledged in 1995). It also won best film awards from the Golden Globes and BAFTA, with David Lean taking the Director's Guild Award and Sam Spiegel winning the Producer's Guild Award.  It was added to the National Film Registry in 1991. It's also on five American Film Institute lists: #1 in the Ten Top Ten for Epic; #7 in the 100 Years, 100 Movies Anniversary Edition (#5 in the Original List); #3 in Film Scores; #23 in Thrills; #10 in Heroes.

Even if you can't see it on a big screen, do seek this remarkable film out. We'll leave you with the trailer to this amazing work of cinema:

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