A review of a fascinating book on the making of the classic film “Lawrence Of Arabia”

“Lawrence Of Arabia” by Kevin Jackson (2007)

The film “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962) is my favourite cinematic work and to date (2023) I have seen it 12 times, so I thoroughly enjoyed this short (127 pages) examination of the making of the movie, which is one of the books in the British Film Institute Film Classics series. We become so enamoured and familiar with a classic work that there is a tendency to think of it as the perfect execution of a brilliant plan.

However, Jackson relates the number of failed efforts to bring T. E. Lawrence’s story to the screen, the number of other possible producers before the formidable Sam Spiegel took charge, the other directors considered before the superbly talented David Lean was chosen, the other writers who worked on scripts before Robert Bolt produced such apposite and memorable dialogue, and the other actors who were contemplated for the key positions before newcomers Peter O’Toole in the eponymous role and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali gave arguably the best performances of their lifetimes (although today white actors would not be given the Arab roles filled by Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn).

Jackson describes the logistical and financial pressures involved in the filming in Jordan, Spain and Morocco and the rush to cut the gargantuan output down to a screenable length. We learn how Lean was filming before he had a completed script, how Maurice Jarre struggled to finish the score in time, and how Lean was making cuts until the last moment and, even then, was not entirely happy, even with scenes that have become iconic (such as the arrival of Sherif Ali at the well, which Lean would have liked to have been even longer).

When Lean originally finished it in late 1962, “Lawrence” ran for 222 minutes; however, the version that went on general release in early 1963 was cut to 202 minutes; finally, the restored version of 1989, with cuts reinstated by Robert Harris and Lean’s final cutting, lasts 216 minutes (plus overture and exit music). “Lawrence Of Arabia” is not flawless – no work of art is – but I agree with Jackson when he declares that “It’s the most wonderful combination of spectacle and intimate character study which ever fell into a filmmaker’s lap”.


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