The film was nominated for ten Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards in 1963; it won seven in total: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama and the BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Outstanding British Film.
The film depicts Lawrence's experiences in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, in particular his attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and his involvement in the Arab National Council. Its themes include Lawrence's emotional struggles with the personal violence inherent in war, his own identity, and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army and his new-found comrades within the Arabian desert tribes. As well as O'Toole, the film stars Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains and Arthur Kennedy.
The film is presented in two parts, divided by an intermission.
The film opens in 1935 when Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral, a reporter tries (with little success) to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him.
The story then moves backward to the First World War, where Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant, notable for his insolence and education. Over the objections of General Murray, Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau sends him to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, his Bedouin guide is killed by Sherif Ali for drinking from his well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton, who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment, and leave. Lawrence ignores Brighton's orders when he meets Faisal. His outspokenness piques the prince's interest.
Brighton advises Faisal to retreat after a major defeat, but Lawrence proposes a daring surprise attack on Aqaba; its capture would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. The town is strongly fortified against a naval assault but only lightly defended on the landward side. He convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a sceptical Sherif Ali. Teenage orphans Daud and Farraj attach themselves to Lawrence as servants. They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. One of Ali's men, Gasim, succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. When Lawrence discovers him missing, he turns back and rescues Gasim—and Sherif Ali is won over. He gives Lawrence Arab robes to wear.
Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence's scheme is almost derailed when one of Ali's men kills one of Auda's because of a blood feud. Howeitat retaliation would shatter the fragile alliance, so Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. He is then stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, the very man whom he risked his own life to save in the desert, but he shoots him anyway.
The next morning, the Arabs overrun the Turkish garrison. Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby, of his victory. While crossing the Sinai Desert, Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money for the Arabs. He is deeply disturbed, however, confessing that he enjoyed executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs' suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. When pressed, the general states that they do not.
Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley publicises Lawrence's exploits, making him famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave him to be tortured by the enemy, Lawrence shoots him dead before fleeing.
When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Deraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey. Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. Then, for striking out at the Bey, he is severely flogged and possibly raped (off-camera) before being thrown into the street. The experience leaves Lawrence shaken. He returns to British headquarters in Cairo but does not fit in.
A short time later in Jerusalem, General Allenby urges him to support the "big push" on Damascus. Lawrence hesitates to return but finally relents.
Lawrence recruits an army that is motivated more by money rather than by the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just massacred the residents of Tafas. One of Lawrence's men is from Tafas; he demands, "No prisoners!" When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man's battle cry; the result is a slaughter in which Lawrence himself participates. Afterwards, he regrets his actions.
Lawrence's men take Damascus ahead of Allenby's forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city but the desert tribesmen prove ill-suited for such a task. Despite Lawrence's efforts, they bicker constantly. Unable to maintain the public utilities, the Arabs soon abandon most of the city to the British.
Lawrence is promoted to colonel and immediately ordered back to England, as his usefulness to both Faisal and the British is at an end. Lawrence leaves Damascus in a British staff car. As he leaves the city, his automobile is passed by a motorcycle, which leaves a trail of dust in its wake.Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence. Albert Finney was a virtual unknown at the time, but he was Lean's first choice to play Lawrence. Finney was cast and began principal photography but was fired after two days for reasons that are still unclear. Marlon Brando was also offered the part, and Anthony Perkins and Montgomery Clift were briefly considered before O'Toole was cast. Alec Guinness had previously played Lawrence in the play Ross and was briefly considered for the part, but David Lean and Sam Spiegel thought him too old. Lean had seen O'Toole in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and was bowled over by his screen test, proclaiming "This is Lawrence!" Spiegel disliked Montgomery Clift, having worked with him on Suddenly, Last Summer; after Finney and Brando had rejected the role, he acceded to Lean's choice. Pictures of Lawrence suggest also that O'Toole bore some resemblance to him, in spite of their considerable height difference. O'Toole's looks prompted a different reaction from Noël Coward, who quipped after seeing the première of the film, "If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia".
Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal. Faisal was originally to be portrayed by Laurence Olivier. Guinness performed in other David Lean films, and he got the part when Olivier dropped out. Guinness was made up to look as much like the real Faisal as possible; he recorded in his diaries that, while shooting in Jordan, he met several people who had known Faisal who actually mistook him for the late prince. Guinness said in interviews that he developed his Arab accent from a conversation that he had with Omar Sharif.
Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi. Quinn got very much into his role; he spent hours applying his own makeup, using a photograph of the real Auda to make himself look as much like him as he could. One anecdote has Quinn arriving on-set for the first time in full costume, whereupon Lean mistook him for a native and asked his assistant to ring Quinn and notify him that they were replacing him with the new arrival.
Jack Hawkins as General Allenby. Sam Spiegel pushed Lean to cast Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier (who was engaged at the Chichester Festival Theatre and declined). Lean, however, convinced him to choose Hawkins because of his work for them on The Bridge on the River Kwai. Hawkins shaved his head for the role and reportedly clashed with Lean several times during filming. Guinness recounted that Hawkins was reprimanded by Lean for celebrating the end of a day's filming with an impromptu dance. Hawkins became close friends with O'Toole during filming, and the two often improvised dialogue during takes to Lean's dismay.
Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. The role was offered to many actors before Sharif was cast. Horst Buchholz was the first choice, but had already signed on for the film One, Two, Three. Alain Delon had a successful screen test but ultimately declined because of the brown contact lenses he would have had to wear. Maurice Ronet and Dilip Kumar were also considered. Sharif, who was already a major star in the Middle East, was originally cast as Lawrence's guide Tafas, but when the aforementioned actors proved unsuitable, Sharif was shifted to the part of Ali.
José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey. Ferrer was initially unsatisfied with the small size of his part and accepted the role only on the condition of being paid $25,000 (more than O'Toole and Sharif combined) plus a Porsche. However, he afterwards considered this his best film performance, saying in an interview: "If I was to be judged by any one film performance, it would be my five minutes in Lawrence." Peter O'Toole once said that he learned more about screen acting from Ferrer than he could in any acting class.
Anthony Quayle as Colonel Harry Brighton. Quayle, a veteran of military roles, was cast after Jack Hawkins, the original choice, was shifted to the part of Allenby. Quayle and Lean argued over how to portray the character, with Lean feeling Brighton to be an honourable character, while Quayle thought him an idiot.
Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden. Lawrence is Dryden's protégé.
Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. In the early days of the production, when the Bentley character had a more prominent role in the film, Kirk Douglas was considered for the part; Douglas expressed interest but demanded a star salary and the highest billing after O'Toole and thus was turned down by Spiegel. Later, Edmond O'Brien was cast in the part. O'Brien filmed the Jerusalem scene, and (according to Omar Sharif) Bentley's political discussion with Ali, but he suffered a heart attack on location and had to be replaced at the last moment by Kennedy, who was recommended to Lean by Anthony Quinn.
Donald Wolfit as General Murray.
Michel Ray as Farraj. At the time, Ray was an up-and-coming Anglo-Brazilian actor who had previously appeared in several films, including Irving Rapper's The Brave One and Anthony Mann's The Tin Star.
I. S. Johar as Gasim. Johar was a well-known Indian actor who occasionally appeared in international productions.
Zia Mohyeddin as Tafas. Mohyeddin was one of Pakistan's best-known actors.
Gamil Ratib as Majid. Ratib was a veteran Egyptian actor. His English was not considered good enough, so he was dubbed by Robert Rietti in the final film.
Ian MacNaughton as Michael George Hartley, Lawrence's companion in O'Toole's first scene.
John Dimech as Daud.
Hugh Miller as the RAMC colonel. Miller worked on several of Lean's films as a dialogue coach and was one of several members of the film crew to be given bit parts (see below).
Fernando Sancho as the Turkish sergeant.
Stuart Saunders as the regimental sergeant major.
Jack Gwillim as the club secretary. Gwillim was recommended to Lean for the film by close friend Quayle.
Kenneth Fortescue as Allenby's aide.
Harry Fowler as Corporal Potter.
Howard Marion-Crawford as the medical officer. Marion-Crawford was cast at the last possible minute during the filming of the "Damascus" scenes in Seville.
John Ruddock as Elder Harith.
Norman Rossington as Corporal Jenkins.
Jack Hedley as a reporter.
Henry Oscar as Silliam, Faisal's servant.
Peter Burton as a Damascus sheik.
The crew consisted of over 200 people, with the cast and extras included this number would increase to over 1000 people working to make the film. Various members of the film's crew portrayed minor characters. First assistant director Roy Stevens played the truck driver who transports Lawrence and Farraj to the Cairo HQ at the end of Act I; the Sergeant who stops Lawrence and Farraj ("Where do you think you're going to, Mustapha?") is construction assistant Fred Bennett, and screenwriter Robert Bolt has a wordless cameo as one of the officers watching Allenby and Lawrence confer in the courtyard (he is smoking a pipe). Steve Birtles, the film's gaffer, plays the motorcyclist at the Suez Canal; Lean himself is rumoured to be the voice shouting "Who are you?" Continuity girl Barbara Cole appears as one of the nurses in the Damascus hospital scene.Nonfictional characters
T. E. Lawrence
Auda ibu Tayi
Farraj and Daud, Lawrence's servants
Gasim, the man whom Lawrence rescues from the desert
Talal, who charges the Turkish column at Tafas
Sherif Ali: A combination of numerous Arab leaders, particularly Sharif Nassir—Faisal's cousin—who led the Harith forces involved in the attack on Aqaba. The character was created largely because Lawrence did not serve with any one Arab leader (aside from Auda) throughout the majority of the war; most such leaders were amalgamated in Ali's character. This character was, however, almost certainly named after Sharif Ali ibn Hussein, a leader in the Harith tribe, who played a part in the Revolt and is mentioned and pictured in Lawrence's memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Mr Dryden: The cynical Arab Bureau official was based loosely on numerous figures, including Sir Ronald Storrs, who was head of the Arab Bureau and later the governor of Palestine. It was largely Storrs' doing that Lawrence first met Faisal and became involved with the Revolt. This character is also partially based upon Lawrence's archaeologist friend D. G. Hogarth, as well as Henry McMahon, who historically fulfilled Dryden's role as a political liaison. He was created by the screenwriters to "represent the civilian and political wing of British interests, to balance Allenby's military objectives."
Colonel Brighton: In essence a composite of all of the British officers who served in the Middle East with Lawrence, most notably Lt. Col. S.F. Newcombe. Newcombe played much the same role as Brighton does in the film, being Lawrence's predecessor as liaison to the Arab Revolt; he and many of his men were captured by the Turks in 1916, but he later escaped. Also, like Brighton, Newcombe was not well liked by the Arabs, though he remained friends with Lawrence. (In Michael Wilson's original script, he was Colonel Newcombe; the character's name was changed by Robert Bolt.) Brighton was apparently created to represent how ordinary British soldiers would feel about a man like Lawrence: impressed by his accomplishments but repulsed by his affected manner. (Lean argued that Brighton was "the only honourable character" in the film, whereas Anthony Quayle referred to his character as an "idiot".)
Turkish Bey: The Turkish Bey who captures Lawrence in Deraa was—according to Lawrence himself—General Hajim Bey (in Turkish, Hacim Muhiddin Bey), though he is not named in the film. The incident was mentioned in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Some biographers (Jeremy Wilson, John Mack) argue that Lawrence's account is to be believed; others (Michael Asher, Lawrence James) argue that contemporary evidence suggests that Lawrence never went to Deraa at this time and that the story is invented.
Jackson Bentley: Based on famed American journalist Lowell Thomas, who helped make Lawrence famous with accounts of his bravery. However, Thomas was a young man at the time who spent only a few days (or weeks at most) with Lawrence in the field—unlike Bentley, who is depicted as a cynical middle-aged Chicago newspaperman who is present during the whole of Lawrence's later campaigns. Bentley was the narrator in Wilson's original script, but Bolt reduced his role significantly for the final script. Thomas did not start reporting on Lawrence until after the end of World War I, and held Lawrence in high regard, unlike Bentley, who seems to view Lawrence in terms of a story that he can write about.
Tafas: Lawrence's guide to Faisal is based on his actual guide Sheikh Obeid el-Rashid of the Hazimi branch of the Beni Salem, whom Lawrence referred to as Tafas several times in Seven Pillars. Tafas and Lawrence did meet Sherif Ali at a well during Lawrence's travels to Faisal, but the encounter was not fatal for either party. (Indeed, this scene created much controversy among Arab viewers.)
Medical officer: This unnamed officer who confronts Lawrence in Damascus is based on an officer mentioned in an incident in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence's meeting the officer again while in British uniform was, however, an invention of Wilson or Bolt.
Most of the film's characters are based on real characters to varying degrees.
Some scenes were heavily fictionalised, such as the attack on Aqaba, while those dealing with the Arab Council were inaccurate, inasmuch as the council remained more or less in power in Syria until France deposed Faisal in 1920. Little background is provided on the history of the region, the First World War, and the Arab Revolt, probably because of Bolt's increased focus on Lawrence (while Wilson's draft script had a broader, more politicised version of events). The second half of the film portrayed a completely fictional depiction of Lawrence's Arab army deserting almost to a man as he moved further north. The film's timeline is frequently questionable on the Arab Revolt and World War I, as well as the geography of the Hejaz region. For instance, Bentley interviews Faisal in late 1917, after the fall of Aqaba, saying that the United States has not yet entered the war, yet America had been in the war for several months by that time. Further, Lawrence's involvement in the Arab Revolt prior to the attack on Aqaba is completely excised, such as his involvement in the seizures of Yenbo and Wejh. The rescue and execution of Gasim is based on two separate incidents, which were conflated for dramatic reasons.
The film shows Lawrence representing the Allied cause in the Hejaz almost alone with only one British officer—Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle)—there to assist him. In fact, there were numerous British officers such as colonels Cyril Wilson, Stewart Francis Newcombe, and Pierce C. Joyce, all of whom arrived before Lawrence began serving in Arabia. In addition, there was a French military mission led by Colonel Edouard Brémond serving in the Hejaz, of which no mention is made in the film. The film shows Lawrence as the sole originator of the attacks on the Hejaz railroad. The first attacks on this began in early January 1917 led by officers such as Newcombe. The first successful attack on the Hejaz railroad with a locomotive-destroying "Garland mine" was led by Major Herbert Garland in February 1917, a month before Lawrence's first attack.
The film shows the Hashemite forces as consisting of Bedouin guerrillas, whereas in fact the core of the Hashemite forces was the regular Arab Army recruited from Ottoman Arab POWs, who wore British-style uniforms with keffiyahs and fought in conventional battles. The film makes no mention of the Sharifian Army, and leaves the viewer with the impression that the Hashemite forces were composed exclusively of Bedouin irregulars.
Many complaints about the film's accuracy concern the characterisation of Lawrence. The perceived problems with the portrayal begin with the differences in his physical appearance: the 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) Peter O'Toole was almost 9 inches (23 cm) taller than the 5-foot-5-inch (1.65 m) man whom he played. His behaviour, however, has caused much more debate.
The screenwriters depict Lawrence as an egotist. The degree to which Lawrence sought or shunned attention is debatable, as evidenced by his use, after the war, of various assumed names. Even during the war, Lowell Thomas wrote in With Lawrence in Arabia that he could take pictures of him only by tricking him, although Lawrence did later agree to pose for several photos for Thomas's stage show. Thomas's famous comment that Lawrence "had a genius for backing into the limelight" referred to the fact that his extraordinary actions prevented him from being as private as he would have liked. Others disagree, pointing to Lawrence's own writings to support the argument that he was egotistical.
Lawrence's sexual orientation remains a controversial topic among historians. Bolt's primary source was ostensibly Seven Pillars, but the film's portrayal seems informed by Richard Aldington's Biographical Inquiry (1955), which posited Lawrence as a 'pathological liar and exhibitionist', as well as a homosexual. This is opposed to his portrayal in Ross as 'physically and spiritually recluse'. The film's depiction of Lawrence as an active participant in the Tafas Massacre was disputed at the time by historians, including biographer Basil Liddell Hart, but most current biographers accept the film's portrayal of the massacre as reasonably accurate.
The film does show that Lawrence could speak and read Arabic, could quote the Quran, and was reasonably knowledgeable about the region. It barely mentions his archaeological travels from 1911 to 1914 in Syria and Arabia, however, and ignores his espionage work, including a pre-war topographical survey of the Sinai Peninsula and his attempts to negotiate the release of British prisoners at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916.
Furthermore, in the film, Lawrence is only made aware of the Sykes–Picot Agreement very late in the story and is shown to be appalled by it, whereas the real Lawrence knew about it much earlier, while fighting alongside the Arabs.
Lawrence's biographers have had a mixed reaction towards the film. Authorised biographer Jeremy Wilson noted that the film has "undoubtedly influenced the perceptions of some subsequent biographers", such as the depiction of the film's Ali as the real Sherif Ali rather than a composite character, and also the highlighting of the Deraa incident. (In fairness to Lean and his writers, the Deraa connection was made by several Lawrence biographers, including Edward Robinson (Lawrence the Rebel) and Anthony Nutting (The Man and the Motive) before the film's release). The film's historical inaccuracies are, in Wilson's view, more troublesome than what can be allowed under normal dramatic licence. At the time, Liddell Hart publicly criticised the film, engaging Bolt in a lengthy correspondence over its portrayal of Lawrence.
The film portrays General Allenby as cynical and manipulative, with a superior attitude to Lawrence, but there is much evidence that Allenby and Lawrence respected and liked each other. Lawrence once said that Allenby was "an admiration of mine" and later that he was "physically large and confident and morally so great that the comprehension of our littleness came slow to him". The fictional Allenby's words at Lawrence's funeral in the film stand in contrast to the real Allenby's remarks upon Lawrence's death: "I have lost a good friend and a valued comrade. Lawrence was under my command, but, after acquainting him with my strategical plan, I gave him a free hand. His co-operation was marked by the utmost loyalty, and I never had anything but praise for his work, which, indeed, was invaluable throughout the campaign." Allenby also spoke highly of him numerous times and, much to Lawrence's delight, publicly endorsed the accuracy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Allenby did manipulate Lawrence during the war, but their relationship lasted for years after its end, indicating that in real life they were friendly, if not close. The Allenby family was particularly upset by the Damascus scenes, where Allenby coldly allows the town to fall into chaos as the Arab Council collapses.
Similarly, General Murray was initially sceptical of the Arab Revolt's potential, but he thought highly of Lawrence's abilities as an intelligence officer; indeed, it was largely through Lawrence's persuasion that Murray came to support the revolt. The intense dislike shown toward Lawrence in the film is in fact the opposite of Murray's real feelings, although for his part Lawrence seemed not to hold Murray in any high regard.
The depiction of Auda abu Tayi as a man interested only in loot and money is also at odds with the historical record. Auda did at first join the revolt for monetary reasons, but he quickly became a steadfast supporter of Arab independence, notably after Aqaba's capture. He refused repeated bribery attempts by the Turks (though he happily pocketed their money) and remained loyal to the revolt. He was present with Lawrence from the beginning of the Aqaba expedition and in fact helped plan it along with Lawrence and Prince Faisal.
Faisal was far from being the middle-aged man depicted and was in his early 30s at the time of the revolt. Faisal and Lawrence respected each other's capabilities and intelligence. They worked well together.
The reactions of those who knew Lawrence and the other characters say much about the film's veracity. The most vehement critic of its accuracy was Professor A. W. (Arnold) Lawrence, the protagonist's younger brother and literary executor, who had sold the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom to Spiegel for £25,000. Arnold Lawrence went on a campaign in the United States and Britain denouncing the film, famously saying, "I should not have recognised my own brother". In one pointed talk show appearance, he remarked that he had found the film "pretentious and false". He went on to say that his brother was "one of the nicest, kindest and most exhilarating people I've known. He often appeared cheerful when he was unhappy." Later, Arnold said to the New York Times, "[The film is] a psychological recipe. Take an ounce of narcissism, a pound of exhibitionism, a pint of sadism, a gallon of blood-lust and a sprinkle of other aberrations and stir well." Lowell Thomas was also critical of the portrayal of Lawrence and most of the film's characters, believing that the train attack scenes were the only reasonably accurate aspect of the film.
The criticisms were not restricted to Lawrence. The Allenby family lodged a formal complaint against Columbia about the portrayal of him. Descendants of Auda abu Tayi and the real Sherif Ali went further, suing Columbia despite the fact that the film's Ali was fictional. The Auda case went on for almost 10 years before it was dropped.
The film has its defenders. Biographer Michael Korda, author of Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, offers a different opinion. The film is neither "the full story of Lawrence's life or a completely accurate account of the two years he spent fighting with the Arabs," yet Korda argues that criticising its inaccuracy "misses the point": "The object was to produce, not a faithful docudrama that would educate the audience, but a hit picture." Stephen E. Tabachnick goes further than Korda, arguing that the film's portrayal of Lawrence is "appropriate and true to the text of Seven Pillars of Wisdom". British historian of the Arab Revolt David Murphy wrote that, though the film was flawed due to various inaccuracies and omissions, "it was a truly epic movie and is rightly seen as a classic".
Previous films about T. E. Lawrence had been planned but had not been made. In the 1940s, Alexander Korda was interested in filming The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, or Robert Donat as Lawrence, but had to pull out owing to financial difficulties. David Lean had been approached to direct a 1952 version for the Rank Organisation, but the project fell through. At the same time as pre-production of the film, Terence Rattigan was developing his play Ross which centred primarily on Lawrence's alleged homosexuality. Ross had begun as a screenplay, but was re-written for the stage when the film project fell through. Sam Spiegel grew furious and attempted to have the play suppressed, which helped to gain publicity for the film. Dirk Bogarde had accepted the role in Ross; he described the cancellation of the project as "my bitterest disappointment". Alec Guinness played the role on stage.
Lean and Sam Spiegel had worked together on The Bridge on the River Kwai and decided to collaborate again. For a time, Lean was interested in a biopic of Gandhi, with Alec Guinness to play the title role and Emeric Pressburger writing the screenplay. He eventually lost interest in the project, however, despite extensive pre-production work, including location scouting in India and a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru. Lean then returned his attention to T. E. Lawrence. Columbia Pictures had an interest in a Lawrence project dating back to the early '50s, and the project got underway when Spiegel convinced a reluctant A.W. Lawrence to sell the rights to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom for £22,500.
Michael Wilson wrote the original draft of the screenplay. Lean was dissatisfied with Wilson's work, primarily because his treatment focused on the historical and political aspects of the Arab Revolt. Lean hired Robert Bolt to re-write the script to make it a character study of Lawrence. Many of the characters and scenes are Wilson's invention, but virtually all of the dialogue in the finished film was written by Bolt.
Lean reportedly watched John Ford's film The Searchers (1956) to help him develop ideas as to how to shoot the film. Several scenes directly recall Ford's film, most notably Ali's entrance at the well and the composition of many of the desert scenes and the dramatic exit from Wadi Rum. Lean biographer Kevin Brownlow notes a physical similarity between Wadi Rum and Ford's Monument Valley.
The film was made by Horizon Pictures and Columbia Pictures. Principal photography began on 15 May 1961 and ended on 21 September 1962.
The desert scenes were shot in Jordan and Morocco, as well as Almería and Doñana in Spain. It was originally to be filmed entirely in Jordan; the government of King Hussein was extremely helpful in providing logistical assistance, location scouting, transportation, and extras. Hussein himself visited the set several times during production and maintained cordial relationships with cast and crew. During the production of the film, Hussein met and married Toni Gardner, who was working as a switchboard operator in Aqaba. The only tension occurred when Jordanian officials learned that English actor Henry Oscar did not speak Arabic but would be filmed reciting the Qur'an. Permission was granted only on condition that an imam be present to ensure that there were no misquotations.
In Jordan, Lean planned to film in the real Aqaba and the archaeological site at Petra, which Lawrence had been fond of as a place of study. However, the production had to be moved to Spain, much to Lean's regret, due to cost and outbreaks of illness among the cast and crew before these scenes could be shot. The attack on Aqaba was reconstructed in a dried river bed in southern Spain (at 37°1′25″N 1°52′53″W); it consisted of more than 300 buildings and was meticulously based on the town's appearance in 1917. The execution of Gasim, the train attacks, and Deraa exteriors were filmed in the Almería region, with some of the filming being delayed because of a flash flood. The Sierra Nevada mountains filled in for Azrak, Lawrence's winter quarters. The city of Seville was used to represent Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus, with the appearance of Casa de Pilatos, the Alcázar of Seville, and the Plaza de España. All of the interiors were shot in Spain, including Lawrence's first meeting with Faisal and the scene in Auda's tent.
The Tafas massacre was filmed in Ouarzazate, Morocco, with Moroccan army troops substituting for the Turkish army; however, Lean could not film as much as he wanted because the soldiers were uncooperative and impatient. One of the second-unit directors for the Morocco scenes was André de Toth, who suggested a shot wherein bags of blood would be machine-gunned, spraying the screen with blood. Second-unit cinematographer Nicolas Roeg approached Lean with this idea, but Lean found it disgusting. De Toth subsequently left the project.
The film's production was frequently delayed because shooting commenced without a finished script. After Wilson quit early in the production, playwright Beverley Cross worked on the script in the interim before Bolt took over, although none of Cross's material made it to the final film. A further mishap occurred when Bolt was arrested for taking part in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration, and Spiegel had to persuade him to sign a recognizance of good behaviour for him to be released from jail and continue working on the script.
Camels caused several problems on set. O'Toole was not used to riding camels and found the saddle to be uncomfortable. While in Amman during a break in filming, he bought a piece of foam rubber at a market and added it to his saddle. Many of the extras copied the idea and sheets of the foam can be seen on many of the horse and camel saddles. The Bedouin nicknamed O'Toole "'Ab al-'Isfanjah" (أب الإسفنجة), meaning "Father of the Sponge". The idea spread and, to this day, many Bedouins add foam rubber to their saddles.
Later, during the filming of the Aqaba scene, O'Toole was nearly killed when he fell from his camel, but it fortunately stood over him, preventing the horses of the extras from trampling him. Coincidentally, a very similar mishap befell the real Lawrence at the Battle of Abu El Lissal in 1917. In another mishap, O'Toole seriously injured his left hand during filming by punching through the window of a caravan while drunk. A brace or bandage can be seen on his left thumb during the first train attack scene, presumably due to this incident.
Along with many other Arab countries, Jordan banned the film for what was felt to be a disrespectful portrayal of Arab culture. Egypt, Omar Sharif's home country, was the only Arab nation to give the film a wide release, where it became a success through the endorsement of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who appreciated the film's depiction of Arab nationalism.
To shoot Lawrence, Super Panavision technology was used meaning spherical lenses were used instead of anamorphic ones, and the image was exposed on a 65mm negative, then printed onto a 70mm positive to leave room for the soundtracks. As the montage-like rapid cutting was more disturbing on the wide screen, filmmakers had to apply longer and more fluid takes. Shooting such a wide ratio produced some unwanted effects during projection, such as a peculiar 'flutter' effect, a blurring of certain parts of the image. To avoid the problem, the director often had to modify blocking, giving the actor a more diagonal movement, where the flutter was less likely to occur. When asked whether he could handle cinemascope, David Lean said that “If one had an eye for composition, there would be no problem.”
The film score was composed by Maurice Jarre, little known at the time and selected only after both William Walton and Malcolm Arnold had proved unavailable. Jarre was given just six weeks to compose two hours of orchestral music for Lawrence. The score was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Adrian Boult is listed as the conductor of the score in the film's credits, but he could not conduct most of the score, due in part to his failure to adapt to the intricate timings of each cue, and Jarre replaced him as the conductor. The score went on to garner Jarre his first Academy Award for Music Score—Substantially Original and is now considered one of the greatest scores of all time, ranking number three on the American Film Institute's top twenty-five film scores.
Producer Sam Spiegel wanted to create a score with two themes to show the 'Eastern' and British side for the film. It was intended for Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian to create one half and British composer Benjamin Britten to write the other.
The original soundtrack recording was originally released on Colpix Records, the records division of Columbia Pictures, in 1962. A remastered edition appeared on Castle Music, a division of the Sanctuary Records Group, on 28 August 2006.
Kenneth Alford's march The Voice of the Guns (1917) is prominently featured on the soundtrack. One of Alford's other pieces, the Colonel Bogey March, was the musical theme for Lean's previous film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
A complete recording of the score was not heard until 2010 when Tadlow Music produced a CD of the music, with Nic Raine conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic from scores reconstructed by Leigh Phillips.
The film premiered at the Odeon Leicester Square in London on 10 December 1962 (Royal Premiere) and was released in the United States on 16 December 1962.
The original release ran for about 222 minutes (plus overture, intermission, and exit music). A post-premiere memo (13 December 1962) noted that the film was 24,987.5 ft (70 mm) and 19,990 ft (35 mm). With 90 ft of 35 mm film projected every minute, this corresponds to exactly 222.11 minutes. Richard May, VP Film Preservation at Warner Bros., sent an email to Robert Morris, co-author of a book on Lawrence of Arabia, in which he noted that Gone With the Wind was never edited after its premiere and is 19,884 ft of 35 mm film (without leaders, overture, intermission, entr'acte, or walkout music), corresponding to 220.93 min. Thus, Lawrence of Arabia is slightly more than 1 minute longer than Gone With the Wind and is, therefore, the longest movie ever to win a Best Picture Oscar.
In January 1963, Lawrence was released in a version edited by 20 minutes; when it was re-released in 1971, an even shorter cut of 187 minutes was presented. The first round of cuts was made at the direction and even insistence of David Lean, to assuage criticisms of the film's length and increase the number of showings per day; however, during the 1989 restoration, he passed blame for the cuts onto deceased producer Sam Spiegel. In addition, a 1966 print was used for initial television and video releases which accidentally altered a few scenes by reversing the image.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and at the 2012 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The current "restored version" was undertaken by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten under the supervision of director David Lean. It was released in 1989 with a 216-minute length (plus overture, intermission, and exit music).
Most of the cut scenes were dialogue sequences, particularly those involving General Allenby and his staff. Two whole scenes were completely excised—Brighton's briefing of Allenby in Jerusalem before the Deraa scene and the British staff meeting in the field tent—and the Allenby-briefing scene has still not been entirely restored. Much of the missing dialogue involves Lawrence's writing of poetry and verse, alluded to by Allenby in particular, saying "the last poetry general we had was Wellington". The opening of Act II existed in only fragmented form, where Faisal is interviewed by Bentley, as well as the later scene in Jerusalem where Allenby convinces Lawrence not to resign. Both scenes were restored to the 1989 re-release. Some of the more graphic shots of the Tafas massacre scene were also restored, such as the lengthy panning shot of the corpses in Tafas, and Lawrence shooting a surrendering Turkish soldier. Most of the still-missing footage is of minimal import, supplementing existing scenes. One scene is an extended version of the Deraa rape sequence, which makes Lawrence's punishment more overt in that scene. Other scripted scenes exist, including a conversation between Auda and Lawrence immediately after the fall of Aqaba, a brief scene of Turkish officers noting the extent of Lawrence's campaign, and the battle of Petra (later reworked into the first train attack), but these scenes were probably not filmed. The actors still living at the time of the re-release dubbed their own dialogue, though Jack Hawkins's dialogue had to be dubbed by Charles Gray, who had already provided Hawkins' voice for several films after Hawkins developed throat cancer in the late 1960s. A full list of cuts can be found at the Internet Movie Database. Reasons for the cuts of various scenes can be found in Lean's notes to Sam Spiegel, Robert Bolt, and Anne V. Coates. The film runs 227 minutes in the most recent director's cut available on Blu-ray Disc and DVD.
Lawrence of Arabia has been released in five different DVD editions, including an initial release as a two-disc set (2001), followed by a shorter single disc edition (2002), a high resolution version of the director's cut with restored scenes (2003) issued as part of the Superbit series, as part of the Columbia Best Pictures collection (2008), and in a fully restored special edition of the director's cut (2008).
Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg helped restore a version of the film for a DVD release in 2000.
An 8K scan/4K intermediate digital restoration was made for Blu-ray and theatrical re-release during 2012 by Sony Pictures to celebrate the film's 50th anniversary. The Blu-ray edition of the film was released in the United Kingdom on 10 September 2012 and in the United States on 13 November 2012. The film received a one-day theatrical release on 4 October 2012, a two-day release in Canada on 11 and 15 November 2012, and was also re-released in the United Kingdom on 23 November 2012.
According to Grover Crisp, executive VP of restoration at Sony Pictures, the new 8K scan has such high resolution that when examined, showed a series of fine concentric lines in a pattern "reminiscent of a fingerprint" near the top of the frame. This was caused by the film emulsion melting and cracking in the desert heat during production. Sony had to hire a third party to minimise or eliminate the rippling artefacts in the new restored version. The digital restoration was done by Sony Colorworks DI, Prasad Studios and MTI Film.
A 4K digitally-restored version of the film was screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, at the 2012 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, at the V Janela Internacional de Cinema in Recife, Brazil, and at the 2013 Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose California.
Upon its release, Lawrence of Arabia was a huge critical and financial success and it remains popular among viewers and critics alike. The film's visuals, score, screenplay and performance by Peter O'Toole have all been common points of acclaim; the film as a whole is widely considered a masterpiece of world cinema and one of the greatest films ever made. Additionally, its visual style has influenced many directors, including George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, who called the film a "miracle".
The American Film Institute ranked Lawrence of Arabia 5th in its original and 7th in its updated 100 Years...100 Movies lists and first in its list of the greatest American films of the "epic" genre. In 1991, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 1999 the film placed third in the British Film Institute's poll of the best British films of the 20th century and in 2001 the magazine Total Film called it "as shockingly beautiful and hugely intelligent as any film ever made" and "faultless". It was ranked in the top ten films of all time in the 2002 Sight & Sound directors' poll. Additionally, O'Toole's performance is often considered one of the greatest in all of cinema, topping lists from both Entertainment Weekly and Premiere. T. E. Lawrence, portrayed by O'Toole, was selected as the tenth-greatest hero in cinema history by the American Film Institute.
In addition, Lawrence of Arabia is currently one of the highest-rated films on Metacritic; it holds a perfect 100/100 rating, indicating "universal acclaim," based on seven reviews. It has a 97% "Certified fresh" approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 77 reviews with an average rating of 9.1/10 from critics with the consensus stating, "The epic of all epics, Lawrence of Arabia cements director David Lean's status in the filmmaking pantheon with nearly four hours of grand scope, brilliant performances, and beautiful cinematography."
Some critics—notably Bosley Crowther and Andrew Sarris—have criticised the film for an indefinite portrayal of Lawrence and lack of depth. Film theorist Molly Haskell suggests the film is covertly misogynist.
Film director Steven Spielberg considers this his favourite film of all time and the one that inspired him to become a filmmaker.
In 1991 this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.
In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild listed the film as the seventh best-edited film of all time based on a survey of its membership.
In 1990, the made-for-television film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia was aired. It depicts events in the lives of Lawrence and Faisal subsequent to Lawrence of Arabia and featured Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence and Alexander Siddig as Prince Faisal.