David Lean’s sprawling epic, Lawrence of Arabia, continues to stand as one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed films of all time. Anchored by an inspired performance from icon Peter O’Toole, it’s the real(ish) story of author T.E. Lawrence’s post World War I experiences on the Arabian peninsula. In 1962, the film’s rumination on the inherent evil of war, and the conflict of a divided loyalty were decades ahead of their time. A cast of Hollywood luminaries, a beautiful backdrop, and one of the most exciting true stories in the history of film all combine for one unforgettable, adventurous experience. Get ready for the story of T.E. Lawrence, the man who would be known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.
1. Both Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness Have Played Lawrence
While Peter O’Toole gets most of the recognition for playing the intrepid solider, Hollywood legend Alec Guinness actually played T.E. Lawrence on stage for an acclaimed play called Ross. Of course, Ross was less concerned with the life and times of Lawrence so much as it was concerned with one particular aspect of his character: his alleged homosexuality (which we’ll get to).
2. The John Ford Influence
When he was considering his aesthetic for Lawrence of Arabia, Director David Lean actually looked to one of Hollywood’s greatest minds, John Ford, the man responsible for more classics than you can count. In particular, Lean looked to The Searchers, the story of a man’s years-long search for his niece. Lean leaned heavily on Ford’s sweeping camera work when thinking about his own epic.
3. Actors Who Were Chosen Before Peter O’Toole
Peter O’Toole wasn’t the first person considered for the lead role of T.E. Lawrence. Hollywood legend Albert Finney was actually the first choice for the role, but he turned it down because he thought the film would be a flop. Behind him, Marlon Brando was considered (he, too, turned it down). Psycho star Anthony Perkins was also up for the role before Peter O’Toole got the part.
4. Alec Guinness Was the Spitting Image of Faisal
The man you know as Obi wan Kenobi was hired in Star Wars to lend the whole production some credibility. Guinness had a storied career of hits, Lawrence of Arabia among them. Guinness is the enterprising Prince Faisal. The English actor apparently made himself such a convincing replica that those who knew the prince actually got the two confused.
5. No One Was More Committed than Anthony Quinn
In order to get to the heart of his character, rebel leader Auda abu Tayi, Anthony Quinn spent hours applying his own makeup in order to look as much like his real life counterpart as possible. He was so successful in this endeavor that one story claims that the first time Quinn showed up on set in full costume, the film’s director offered him Quinn’s role, not knowing the actor was in costume.
6. Watch Out For the Crew
Throughout production, several members of the film’s technical crew actually popped up in bit parts all over the place. A first assistant director plays a truck driver, for example. A construction assistant actually got a line in the film, and the screenwriter can be seen smoking a pipe at one point.
7. A Quick Note About the Film’s Take on History
It’s not very good. While the people, places, and battles depicted are based on real life events, the actions depicted in the film, its take on the regions geography, and even the timeline in which several of the film’s events are portrayed are all a little off.
8. Was T.E. Lawrence Gay?
Okay, so one of the more controversial aspects of Lawrence’s portrayal on screen is the omission of his sexuality. Here’s the thing, though: his homosexuality is highly debated among historians, so there’s evidence on both sides. His family denies it, of course, but there are records of his having been summarily punished for soliciting other officers.
9. Lawrence Wasn’t David Lean’s First Choice
After directing the enormously successful Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean wanted to do something biographical. His first choice wasn’t Lawrence, though, it was Gandhi. Lean planned to cast Alec Guinness in the lead role; he did a good bit of pre-production, even going so far as to do some location scouting in India, before abandoning the idea.
10. The Film Helped Spawn a Future King
King Hussein of Jordan was so excited about the film’s production that he gleefully lent an entire legion of soldiers to the film as extras. Not only that, but he visited the set so often that he found a second wife in a young secretary named Antoinette Gardiner. Their son Abdullah II ascended to the throne in 1999.
11. Where the Ladies At?
Here’s a fun little throwback for you: There are no speaking roles for women in Lawrence of Arabia. In spite of the fact that the film is three hours and forty-seven minutes long, not one single woman talks. At all. Really, were there zero women walking around the Arabian front? Not one?
12. The Egyptian Smash Hit
Initially, Lawrence of Arabia was banned in several Arab countries, but Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who plays Sherif Ali, arranged to screen the movie for then-President Nasser. Nasser loved the film and allowed its release in Egypt where it went on to become a huge hit.
13. Roughing It On Set
David Lean was dead set on filming the movie in a real desert setting in order to achieve the right feel. So, he set up camp in Jordan for a good portion of the shoot. The location was so remote that every single drop of water was transported to the set. The nearest well was 150 miles away.
14. The Heroic Camel
While filming the scenes for the iconic battle of Aqaba, the signal gun used to trigger the start of filming went off prematurely and Peter O’Toole’s camel lunged ahead of the lines, throwing the actor. Fortunately, though, as the horses surged around him, O’Toole’s camel kept his calm and hovered over the actor, preventing him from coming to harm.
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