LAWRENCE is number 2 on my all-time favorites list. But this happened over time. As I was too young to travel into the city on my own I was not able to see LAWRENCE after it premiered on December 16th 1962 at the Criterion as a 70MM Super Panavision Roadshow. This was during New York City’s great newspaper strike which lasted for months and because if it—at least in New York City—film reviews soon became a staple on Radio and Television. Thus, I learned bout the film not from reading newspapers but through radio and TV reports and advertising. The main selling tag being “From The Creators Of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.” It was a pretty good pitch because five years earlier after BRIDE ON THE RIVER KWAI opened at the RKO Palace as a Roadshow in the fall of 1957 it became a massive hit and even won a best picture Oscar. Lawrence would do the same as well as bringing a second Oscar to David Lean, the film’s director.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’S roadshow engagement at the Criterion continued on into the later part of the summer before it was put into general release in the fall of 1963. A week into the film’s initial run it was cut by David Lean and then cut further (without Lean’s knowledge) by producer Sam Spiegel reducing a 3 hour 42 minute movie to 3 hours 15 minutes. Critics and others had complained that the film was two long and, as the Evening showing was at 8:00, it meant that audiences would be catching a late subway or buses and not getting home until 1:00 or later. This meant that weekday evening performances would be losing some audience. At least that was the argument for the cuts at the time. (That 3hr 15min was pretty much the running time until the 1970 re-release when it was cut to 3 hours 7 Minutes.)
I finally saw the film in June 1965. It was playing for a week at the Capital Theater which had a huge Super-Cinerama screen and I thought this would be the best place for me to see it. It wasn’t a 70MM print but it would be big. By this time I was regularly taking the train into the city and viewing films in first run at either the massive Broadway Theaters or the Eastside “art” theaters. In this way I could now see films in the best possible circumstances on the biggest screens with the best sound before some were cut for general release.
Unfortunately, when I reached the Capital, the theater was closed preparing for the Premiere the following night of Cinerama’s summer Roadshow release of THE HALLELUIAH TRIAL I was of course disappointed but checking the paper I discovered that the film had been moved to an art house a few blocks north on Broadway near Lincoln Center. Let me tell you this theater was not the Capital and the screen was nothing even approaching a Super-Cinerama screen but it was all I had, so I sat in the middle of the sparsely filled matinee showing and watched the movie. Compared to the 1970 release (I managed to finally see it in 70MM at a Chicago theater) and the 1989 restoration the color was lacking and, although I sat through to the end, I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about. In short, I hadn’t gotten it and, truth be told, I thought (and please God don’t send lightning bolts at me) I found the film pretty boring.
I didn’t have a chance to see the film again until 1970 when it was released at a few minutes over three hours. This time it was in 70MM on a massive screen with full stereo. Sitting in the center of the first row let me tell you, I was Goddamn blown away and sat through the film twice. It wasn’t a film, it was an experience. I was in the desert with Lawrence. I was in the middle of those battles and most importantly I was able to finally understand the character. (My poor wife had to go to the bathroom at least four times during these showings but I was so engrossed that my bladder held out until the end of the first showing.)
At that reduced length a lot of the psychological elements regarding Lawrence were removed and what was left, in my opinion, was the greatest adventure film ever made. I was right there beside Lawrence as using intelligence and cunning he brought the Arab tribes together for first time and created an Army that, in desert warfare, rivaled the British. All the great scenes were there: “No Prisoners”, “I come for Arenze” “The crossing of the Negive” “Taking Agaba” and all the rest of what I considered magic film moments. In my 20s I could now understand, or better, appreciate what Lean and everyone else had accomplished with this film. After I left the theater the film stayed with me for weeks. I mean, I thought it was everything that a film should be and in some cases much more than that. It became for me what every film should aspire to.
Two years later Lawrence was on Network TV (I think ABC) in a two part two night pan and scan showing filled those goddamn commercials. It simply wasn’t the same movie or better yet, experience. While watching it my heart sank and I could really appreciate why David Lean found watching his films On TV so painful and disheartening. They simply weren’t the films he had struggled to make. Besides the endless commercial interruptions Lean and Cinematographer Freddy Young’s beautifully framed images (each frame could stand in for a paining) were ruined. It was hard for me to watch the film this way, so I had to force myself to sit through it. Within a few years it was on local TV and the worst of the worst was when it was shown in five parts during a week-long showing on an afternoon movie. This time I refused to watch it as I believed it to be cinematic sacrilege.
When LAWRENCE finally came out as a VHS Tape I immediately purchased a player and bought the film. It was still pan and scan but it did have stereo sound, the color was decent and no commercials. That alone made the nearly $100 I paid for that VHS tape worth it. (Commercial pre-records were very expense back in the late 70s/early80s.) But watching on my 25 inch, 480 CRT TV I couldn’t help thinking that this was the manner in which many people would be watching the film in years to come. Consequently they would never know what this film really was. I found this disheartening but back then I thought there was nothing that could be done about it and it was sure better than a local TV afternoon movie five-part presentation.
The calendar pages flicker past and I read that the film was in the process of being restored to its original premiere length and David Lean was even involved. He was involved creating what would later be called a “The Director’s Cut.” Interestingly, he had to edit the film in a very short time back in 1962 to make the December premiere and he was never satisfied. Before directing Lean had been the best film editor in England and so cutting was his forte’. For the restoration Lean actually cut a few minutes out—a few frames here and a few frames there—thereby tightening the film’s overall pace and achieving the cut he was unable to do 27 years earlier. It was a director’s dream.
I saw the film at the Ziegfeld the day after the Restoration Premiere was held at that theater. I was front row center and watching it on that massive screen the film was everything I remembered as well as what it should be and much, much more. A lot of questions I had regarding the 1970 re-release was answered and this was just more of a good thing. The color was as good, if not better than it had been when I saw it in 1970 and, restoring the parts that had been cut, not only enlarged the film’s length but also brought the characterizations into better focus and finally allowed me (and almost everyone else) to finally see the film as the really great achievement it is. The reviews which were mixed in 1962 (The New York Times calling it nothing more than an overblown horse opera) in 1989 were uniformly laudatory.
I am not going to discuss the themes and the films subtext as well as what was restored. There are several books on the subject that cover this material far better than I could here. (If you are interested you can try Lawrence Of Arabia: The 30th Anniversary Pictorial History, David Lean by Stephan M. Silverman and Kevin Brownlow’s wonderful bio of David Lean; David Lean: A Biography. You can pick them up cheap on Amazon or eBay.)
What I will talk about is one of the aspects to the film that simply staggers me today especially with the advent of CGI. Except for two scenes shot in a studio, the film was made entirely on location. If they are in the desert, they ARE IN THE DESERT. If there is a 10,000 man Arab army, THERE ARE 10,000 EXRAS on screen. What you are watching is real. Hollywood just doesn’t do that anymore. Also, the length of time that the film was in production is something un-imaginable today. Lawrence begin filming in the winter of 1961 and wasn’t finished until the fall of 1962. Peter O’Toole was fond of saying that during the film in one shot he was one age. In the next he was two years older and in the third he was two years younger.
Lean took his camera to parts of the world few westerners had ever seen much less shot a Super Panavision film in. The first half of the film was filmed for the most part in Jordon. During a break in production in late 1962 so that Lean and writer Robert Bolt could finish the second part of the script, several of the actors went off to make other films. (Guinness and Quayle in “Damn The Defiant” and Quinn in “Requiem For A Heavyweight.”). When production resumed the filming was now done in Southern Spain where Moorish structures stood in for Cairo as well as Damascus. This is where the Agaba sequence was filmed as well as most of the film’s post intermission sequences. The “No Prisoners” sequence was shot in Morocco during the summer of 1962.
O’Toole often said that on this one he just wasn’t just making a film, he had embarked and participated on a great adventure. O’Toole who was a big complainer said there were times when he had-had it—you should hear what he has to say about ridding camels—and was ready to go home. But when he arrived back at camp, he would see David Lean—feet in a pail of water so he could cool off—intently concentrating on the script preparing for the next day’s shoot. Seeing this O’Toole would say to himself, “If Lean can get through this, so can I.” He was simply too ashamed to do otherwise and that’s what kept him going.
When O’Toole was on the Dick Cavett show promoting THE RULING CLASS in the early 70s he was asked about LAWRENCE and he suddenly pulled out his wallet and took from it a two paragraph review. Cavett thought it was a review for THE RULING CLASS because in those two paragraphs the writer basically dismissed the film; calling it nothing more than psychological hogwash wrapped up in an overblown and unconvincing plot that wasted the time of anyone who went out to see the film. No one was more surprised than Cavett to learn that it was a review of LAWRENCE that O’Toole had been carrying in his wallet for all these years. O’Toole commented, “I carry this around in my wallet because it puts these sorts of thing into perspective. I spent two years of my life on this film and this fellow dismisses it all two paragraphs.” Food for thought, ah!
I could write more, but just watch the movie. It says everything that needs to be said far better than I ever could. I would just like to say, watching the film on my big screen TV—sitting three feet in front of it—the film in Blu-Ray is a heartening experience. This is how people will see the film in the future on even bigger TV screens and thus can now appreciate a once in a lifetime movie for what it is. Nothing like it will ever be made again although many have tried but few have succeeded. In short it is the gold standard.
An interesting side note. Michel Rey, the child/teen actor who affectively played Farraj (the boy who survives the crossing of the Sini but is killed because he mishandles the detonator) spent so much time on the film that it adversely affected his schooling. So he quit acting, eventually attended Harvard, went into finance and over the years became one of the wealthiest men in England. Maybe a film should be made about him called, “Rey of England.” Today Michel Rey could cover the budget of a LAWRENCE OF ARABIA out of his pocket change.
Aside 1. I have the 3:15 in Laser and CED I bought in the 80s. I compared it to the restored version and besides the reinserted cuts, I couldn’t find (except for one or two places) where Lean had made those cuts during the restoration. In truth, it really was a few frames here and a few fames there. Unnoticeable to the viewer but affected the pacing of the film. Lean was a really great editor
Aside 2 Ridley Scott did his LAWRENCE with KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (Director’s Cut) and as it’s third on my favorites list, I believe that he pulled it off. Both are massive productions and truly great films.
Aside 3 Here and a few frames from the film. Great cinematographers have the uncanny ability to realize the directors intentions/vision on screen. They’re job is to serve the director which is why some cinematographers work over and over again with certain directors. Freddie Young did Lean’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO as well as RYAN’S DAUGHTER and along with LAWRENCE these three are among the most visually impressive films ever made and all three won Young Oscars. On KWAI and PASSAGE TO INDIA Lean worked with different cameraman and (and although quite good) these films do not have the visual richness of Young’s work. This is interesting because with other directors Young’s work wasn’t nearly as compelling. Consequently, Lean and Young were a match made in Heaven.
Aside 4 Here is Albert Finny when he was being tested for LAWRENCE. If this can be believed he turned down the part because he didn’t want to be under long term contract to Sam Spiegel. Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif felt differently. Fortunately for Finny he made TOM JONES which won the best picture Oscar the year following LAWRENCE winning its best picture Oscar.
Finally, there was an April 1964 MAD Magazine Parody on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (the film was now in general release) called FLORENCE OF ARABIA and if you remember the film; when Lawrence he’s wearing his Arab garb for the first time and parading around, MAD Magazine, in a parody of the scene, has him singing “I feel pretty.” (It’s MAD’s subtle way of telling us that Lawrence was a Gay exhibitionist.) In a stupid way, the MAD parody is quite funny and always leaves me laughing. So, enjoy.