The film depicts Lawrence's experiences in Arabia 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 violence in war (especially the conflicts between Arab tribes and the slaughter of the Turkish army), his personal identity ("Who are you?" is a recurring line throughout the film), and his divided allegiance between his native Britain and its army, and his newfound comrades within the Arabian desert tribes. The film is unusual in having no women in speaking roles.
The movie then flashes back to Cairo during World War I, where Lawrence is a misfit British lieutenant, notable only for his insolence and knowledge of the Bedouin. Over the objections of a skeptical General Murray (Donald Wolfit), he is sent by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau to assess the prospects of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) in his revolt against the Turks.
On his journey, his Bedouin guide is killed by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking from his well without permission. Just outside Feisal's camp, he encounters his superior officer, Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment and then leave. He promptly ignores these commands when he meets Feisal. His fine intellect and outspokenness piques the prince's interest.
Brighton advises the Arab leader to retreat after a major defeat, but Lawrence proposes an alternative, an attack on Aqaba. If taken, the town would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies for the rebellion, but it is too strongly guarded against a naval assault. However, Lawrence proposes an assault on the lightly-defended landward side. He convinces Feisal to provide fifty men on camels, led by Sherif Ali. As they prepare to leave, two teenage orphan boys, Daud (John Dimech) and Farraj (Michel Ray), attach themselves to Lawrence as his servants. They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. Gasim (I. S. Johar) succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. The rest make it to an oasis, but Lawrence turns back for the lost man, risking his own life. When he rescues Gasim, the Bedouin are impressed, even the formerly-skeptical Sherif Ali.
Having crossed the desert, Lawrence meets with Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, and convinces him to turn against the Turks. Lawrence's plans are almost derailed when one of Ali's men kills one of Auda's because of a blood feud. Since no Howeitat can retaliate without angering Ali's followers and sparking further bloodshed, Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. He is stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, the man whose life he had saved, but he shoots him regardless. The intact alliance then sweeps into Aqaba and captures it in a surprise attack. Auda is less than pleased though, as the captured Turkish funds are in the form of paper notes, not gold as Lawrence had claimed.
Lawrence heads to Cairo, to inform Dryden and the new commanding general, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), of his victory. Crossing the Sinai Desert, his servant Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted two ranks to major and given arms and money to support the Arabs. He asks Allenby whether the Arabs' suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia after the Turks are driven out have any basis; the general says at first that he's not a politician, then when pressed, that they don't.
Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) makes him world famous by publicizing his exploits. With winter approaching, many of the tribesmen go home for the year, leaving fewer and fewer die-hard supporters to continue fighting. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured when the detonator he is carrying blows up prematurely. Unwilling to leave him for the Turks to torture, Lawrence is forced to shoot him before fleeing.
Down to twenty men, he scouts the enemy-held city of Daraa with Ali, but is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the decadent Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer). For striking the Bey after he is covetously ogled and prodded, Lawrence is severely beaten and then thrown out into the street. Though the matter is controversial, historians and biographers (including Lawrence's authorized biographer, Jeremy Wilson) say that the rape implied by Seven Pillars of Wisdom and other sources is also implied in the film. Traumatized by the experience, Lawrence abandons the fight and makes a futile attempt to return to ordinary life.
In Jerusalem, Allenby urges him to go back to the fighting to support his "big push" on Damascus, but Lawrence is a changed, tormented man and, at first, does not want to return. Lawrence relents and recruits an army, including many known killers and cutthroats motivated by money, rather than the Arab cause. They come upon a column of retreating Turkish soldiers, who have just slaughtered the inhabitants of the village of Tafas. One of Lawrence's men is from the village; describing the village, he cries "No prisoners!" before he charges the Turks on his own and is killed. Lawrence takes up the cry, "No prisoners!" - resulting in a massacre. Lawrence's men then take Damascus before Allenby.
The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but they are tribesmen, not a nation. Unable to maintain the electricity, telephones, and waterworks, and clashing constantly with each other, they soon abandon most of Damascus to the British. Lawrence is promoted to colonel and then immediately deactivated and sent home, his usefulness at an end. The negotiations are left to Feisal and the British and French diplomats. A morose, dejected Lawrence rides in a staff car on his way back to England.
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).
Sherif Ali - A combination of numerous Arab leaders, particularly Sherif Nassir — Feisal'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 Sherif Ali ibn Hussein, a young leader in the Harith tribe, though that Ali played a very small part in the Revolt.
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 Feisal and became involved with the Revolt. This character is also partially based upon Lawrence's archaeologist friend, D.G. Hogarth, as well as Mark Sykes and 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. Stewart 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 forced to surrender to the Turks in 1916, though he later escaped. Also, like Brighton, Newcombe was not well-liked by the Arabs, though he remained friends with Lawrence. (It should be noted that in Michael Wilson's original script, he was Colonel Newcombe, while 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 honorable 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. Though the incident was mentioned in Lawrence's autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a few historians have conjectured that this event never happened. This is not the view of Jeremy Wilson, The Authorised Biography of T. E. Lawrence (ISBN 0-689-11934-8) or the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography A Prince of Our Disorder, John E. Mack, (ISBN 0-316-54232-6).
Jackson Bentley - Based on famed American journalist Lowell Thomas, who did help make Lawrence famous with accounts of his bravery. However, Thomas was at the time a young man 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 man who is present during the whole of Lawrence's later campaigns. Bentley was the narrator in Michael Wilson's original script, but Robert Bolt reduced his role significantly for the final script. It should also be stated that Thomas did not start reporting on Lawrence until after the end of World War I, and genuinely held Lawrence in high regard, unlike Bentley, who seems to hold him in contempt.
Some scenes — such as the attack on Aqaba — were heavily fiction, while those dealing with the Arab Council were inaccurate, in as much as the council remained more or less in power in Syria until France deposed Feisal in 1920. The theme (in the second half of the film) that Lawrence's Arab army deserted almost to a man as he moved further north was completely fictional. The film's timeline of the Arab Revolt and World War I, and the geography of the Hedjaz region, are frequently questionable. For instance, Bentley interviews Feisal in late 1917, after the fall of Aqaba, saying the United States has not yet entered the war; yet America had been in the war for several months by that point in time. Further, Lawrence's involvement in the Arab Revolt prior to the attack on Aqaba — such as his involvement in the seizures of Yenbo and Wejh — is completely excised. The rescue and execution of Gassim is based on two separate incidents which were conflated together for dramatic reasons.
The screenwriters depict Lawrence as an egotist. Lawrence actually shunned the limelight, as evidenced by his attempts after the war to hide under various assumed names. Even during the war, Lowell Thomas wrote in With Lawrence in Arabia that he could only take pictures of him by tricking him (though he did later agree to pose for several pictures 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 in Seven Pillars of Wisdom to support the argument that he was egotistical.
Lawrence was aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement,contrary to the film, but he hoped that the Arabs' contribution to the Allied victory would convince the Allies to grant the Arabs their independence. Lawrence was, as the film suggests, torn between loyalty to the British and his promises to the Arabs, but by omitting his knowledge of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the film removes the catalyst for this conflict.
The depiction of Auda abu Tayi as a man only interested in loot and money is also at odds with the historical record. While Auda did at first join the Arab Revolt for monetary reasons, he quickly became a steadfast supporter of Arab independence and only abandoned the cause after the collapse of the Arab government in Damascus. He was present with Lawrence from the beginning of the Aqaba expedition, and in fact helped plan it along with Feisal I of Iraq.
Feisal, far from being the middle-aged man depicted, was in reality in his early thirties at the time of the revolt. While Feisal was considered by Lawrence to be a wise and insightful man, he also had a nasty sense of humour (often involving practical jokes) which is not evident in the film. He also did not speak English, whereas in the film he is quite fluent.
A particularly telling fact of the film's inaccuracies are the reaction of those who knew Lawrence and the other characters. The most vehement critic of the film's inaccuracy was Professor A.W. Lawrence, T.E.'s younger brother and literary executor who had given the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom to Sam Spiegel for ƒ25,000. Lawrence went on a campaign in the US and Britain denouncing the film, famously saying that "I should not have recognized my own brother". Lowell Thomas was also critical of the portrayal of Lawrence and most of the film's characters, feeling 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 their ancestor. Descendants of Auda abu Tayi and the real Sherif Ali (despite the fact that the film's Ali was fictional) went further, actively suing Columbia due to the portrayal of their ancestors. The Auda case went on for almost ten years before it was finally dropped.
Michael Wilson wrote the original draft of the screenplay. However, David Lean was dissatisfied with Wilson's work, primarily because his treatment focused primarily on the historical and political aspects of the Arab Revolt. Lean hired Robert Bolt to re-write the script in order to make it a character study of Lawrence himself. While many (if not most) of the characters and scenes are Wilson's invention, 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 in the movie directly recall Ford's film, most notably Ali's entrance at the well and the composition of many of the desert scenes, most notably the exit from Wadi Rumm. Lean biographer Kevin Brownlow even notes the physical similarity between Rumm and Ford's Monument Valley.
The desert scenes were shot in Jordan and Morocco, as well as Almería and Doñana in Spain. The film 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. During the production of the film, in fact, Hussein met and married Toni Gardner, who was working as a switchboard operator in Aqaba. One of the film's technical advisors/horse wranglers in Jordan was a descendant of Auda abu Tayi. The only tension occurred when local Jordanian officials learned that English actor Henry Oscar, who did not speak Arabic, would be filmed reciting the Qur'an; permission was granted only on condition that an imam be present to ensure that there were no misquotes.
In Jordan, Lean planned to film in, among other places, the real Aqaba and the archaeological site at Petra, which the real 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 (one of the more stirring and memorable scenes in the movie with a spectacular pan shot of dust rising up from behind the charging Arabs while Turkish cannons are aimed harmlessly out to sea) was reconstructed in a dried river bed in southern Spain; it consisted of over 300 buildings and was meticulously based on the town's appearance in 1917. The execution of Gassim and the train attacks were filmed in the Almeria region, with the former's filming being delayed because of a flash flood. The city of Seville was also used to represent Cairo and Jerusalem, with the appearance of the Alcázar of Seville and the Plaza de España. All of the film's interiors were shot in Spain, including Lawrence's first meeting with Feisal 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 was unable to film as much as he wanted because the soldiers were uncooperative and impatient. One of the second-unit directors for the Morocco scenes was Andre de Toth, who suggested a shot wherein bags of blood would be machine-gunned, spraying the screen with blood. Assistant director Nicholas 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, unusually, the film started shooting without a finished script. After Wilson quit early in the production, Bolt took over, with playwright Beverley Cross working on the script in the interim (although none of his 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 Bolt to sign a recognizance of good behaviour in order 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 Bedouins nicknamed O'Toole "Ab al Isfanjah"[Correct transliteration required] (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 fortunately, it stood over him, preventing the horses of the extras from trampling him. (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 hand during filming by punching through the window of a caravan. A brace or bandage can be seen on his left thumb during the first train attack scene, presumably due to this incident.
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 theme song for Lean's previous film, Bridge on the River Kwai.
The original release ran for 222 minutes (plus overture, intermission, and exit music). A later theatrical re-release ran for 202 minutes; an even shorter cut of 187 minutes briefly surfaced in the 1970s. 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 would later pass blame for the cuts onto then-deceased producer Sam Spiegel.
The current "restored version", undertaken by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz (under the supervision of director David Lean), 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 - Brighton's briefing of Allenby in Jerusalem prior to the Deraa scene and the British staff meeting in the field tent - were completely excised, and the former 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, where Feisal is interviewed by Bentley, and the later scene, in Jerusalem where Allenby convinces Lawrence not to resign, existed in only fragmented form; they were restored to the 1989 re-release. Some of the more graphic shots of the Tafas massacre scene - the lengthy panning shot of the corpses in Tafas, and Lawrence shooting a surrendering Turkish soldier - were also restored. 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 in that scene more overt. Other scripted scenes exist, most notably a conversation between Auda and Lawrence immediately after the fall of Aqaba, 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 done Hawkins' voice for several films after the former developed throat cancer in the late 1960s).
The film runs 216 minutes in the most recent Director's Cut available on DVD.
It is today regarded as a masterpiece of world cinema and is often featured highly on critical lists of best films. It was rated the fifth greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute in 1997 (a thoughtful but puzzling accolade, given the film is entirely British-made and -financed); in its 2007 Tenth Anniversary Edition list, the film dropped to seventh. In the 2008 AFI's 10 Top 10, it was ranked as the greatest epic film. In 1991, this 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 it came 3rd in a BFI poll of British films, while in 2004 the magazine Total Film named it the 8th greatest British film of all time. In a Sight and Sound poll, it came in the top ten Best Films of all time as voted by directors. O'Toole's performance has also often been considered one of the greatest of all time, topping lists made by both Entertainment Weekly and Premiere.
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The main musical title of the film was used in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) in the scene where Roger Moore and Barbara Bach's characters wander through the desert after their car breaks down. This was done as a joke by one of the editors who liked to play music from the film during the daily rushes.
Film director Steven Spielberg considers this his favorite movie of all time, and the one which convinced him to become a film maker. Screenwriter William Monahan, who scripted Kingdom of Heaven and The Departed, among others, is a fan of Robert Bolt and has stated on numerous occasions that viewing Lawrence is what inspired him to be a screenwriter.