T.E. Lawrence's brother, A.E. Lawrence, who was also executor of his will, wasn't keen on the film's representation of his brother so he didn't allow the use of his sibling's autobiography title "Seven Pillars of Wisdom".
King Hussein of Jordan lent an entire brigade of his Arab Legion as extras for the film, so most of the "soldiers" are played by real soldiers. Hussein frequently visited the sets and became enamored of a young British secretary, Antoinette Gardiner, who became his second wife in 1962. Their oldest son, 'Abdullah II King of Jordan', ascended to throne in 1999.
To film Omar Sharif's entrance through a mirage, Freddie Young used a special 482mm lens from Panavision. Panavision still has this lens, and it is known among cinematographers as the "David Lean lens". It was created specifically for this shot and has not been used since.
The film was banned in many Arab countries as they felt they were misrepresented. Omar Sharif arranged with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to view the film to show him there was nothing wrong with the way they were portrayed. Nasser loved the film and allowed it to be released in Egypt where it went on to become a monster hit.
During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962) in the 1970s, Peter O'Toole was describing just how long the movie took to make by referring to the scene when T.E. Lawrence and Gen. Allenby, after their meeting, continue talking while walking down a staircase. According to O'Toole, part of the scene had to be reshot much later, "so in the final print, when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I'm a year older than I was when I started walking down them."
Peter O'Toole finally mastered his camel-riding technique by adding a layer of sponge rubber under the saddle to ease his bruised backside...a practical innovation quickly adopted by the actual Bedouin tribesmen acting as extras during the desert location filming.
For the 1989 reconstruction and restoration, many scenes of dialog were missing. As a result Peter O'Toole and a number of living principals returned and re-recorded dialog from more than 20 years previously. For principals who had died in the intervening years sound alike actors were employed (for instance for Jack Hawkins).
Musically, Maurice Jarre was hired to write the dramatic score, Aram Khachaturyan was handling the eastern themes and Benjamin Britten was to provide the British imperial music. Neither Khatchaturian or Britten were able to properly get involved so Sam Spiegel hired Richard Rodgers to fill in the musical gaps. When Spiegel and Lean heard Rodgers' compositions, they were hugely disappointed, so they turned to Jarre to see what he had done. The minute Lean heard Jarre's now-classic theme, he knew they had the right composer. Jarre was given the job of scoring the whole film - in a mere six weeks.
While filming, Peter O'Toole bonded with co-star Omar Sharif. Recalls Sharif, "Peter and I were like brothers immediately. He said to me, 'Your name is not Omar Sharif - no one is called Omar Sharif. Your real name is probably Freddy something!' And for the rest of the film and the rest of our lives, he's never called me Omar. He calls me Freddy."
Initially the production used white plastic cups for its drinking water but the wind would frequently pick up and blow them into the desert. After having numerous shots ruined due to errant white plastic cups, David Lean had them banned and replaced with ceramic mugs instead.
The 35mm master interpositive produced by Technicolor in 1966 had reel 2A flipped so that left and right became reversed on screen in all prints, including initial video releases. During the Harris restoration, David Lean himself pointed out this error and it was corrected.
Peter O'Toole was nearly killed during the first take of the Aqaba scene. A gun (used to signal the beginning of the scene) went off prematurely, and O'Toole's camel panicked, throwing him to the ground, while the extras on horseback began charging. Fortunately for O'Toole, his camel stayed still and stood over O'Toole, saving him from being trampled.
Anthony Quinn applied his own make-up and would often arrive in real Arab clothes. At one point, David Lean mistook him for a native on the studio lot and so he sent his assistant to tell Quinn that he had replaced by this new arrival.
David Lean hoped to film in the real Aqaba and the archaeological site at Petra. Much to his regret, however, the production had to be moved to Spain because of cost overruns and outbreaks of illness among the cast and crew before these scenes could be shot.
Peter O'Toole won his career-making (and legendary) part as Lawrence of Arabia after it was turned down by superstar Marlon Brando and a then-unknown Albert Finney. Both director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel (who produced On the Waterfront (1954), the movie for which Brando and Spiegel won their first Oscars) wanted Brando, but he turned the role down (allegedly saying he didn't want to spend two years of his life riding on a camel). Their second choice Finney was put through extensive screen-tests costing 100,000 pounds, but refused to sign a seven-year contract demanded by Spiegel. O'Toole signed the seven-year contract and got the part.
Peter O'Toole and Jack Hawkins became close friends on set, much to David Lean's consternation; Lean thought Hawkins should maintain a fatherly distance from O'Toole to help with the part, but Hawkins "didn't see the point" of Lean's advice. The two frequently went drinking after shooting concluded, including one instance in a Seville restaurant (where Alec Guinness was also present) where a drunken O'Toole threatened a waiter, backing down when the waiter produced a knife. O'Toole and Hawkins would also frequently improvise humorous dialogue on set (often during takes), which infuriated Lean.
David Lean personally supervised the first cuts that brought the film down to 3 hours as he wanted it to enjoy more showings per day. During the 1989 restoration, he would later pass blame for the cuts onto the then deceased Sam Spiegel.
Soldiers from the Moroccan army were employed as extras without pay, which they understandably resented. During off-hours they actually took potshots at cast and crew, Lean included. Others deserted between takes and never came back.
General Allenby's Jersualem headquarters was filmed at the Moorish mansion, Casa de Pilatos, in Seville. While setting up there, the lighting crew accidentally smashed a centuries old statue. Fortunately, the authorities were appeased and filming was allowed to continue.
When film conservationists Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten got permission from Columbia to restore David Lean's film, four tons of extraneous footage was delivered to their door. It took them nearly a year to get through all the material.
The famous cut from Lawrence blowing out a match to the desert sunrise was originally just going to be a dissolve. But editor Anne V. Coates suggested to David Lean that he use the cut in the fashion of the then current French New Wave.
So long was the production schedule that Sam Spiegel insisted on a 2 month break. This afforded him the chance to find a filming location that was less arduous than Jordan, ultimately settling on Spain. Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif all took advantage of the break to work on other films.
Robert Bolt's original writing contract with Sam Spiegelwas for three months as he was needed to work on another play. But due his immersion on material, he ended up working for 14 months on the script and totally forgot his work on the play.
Production was halted to move to Spain, but filming did not resume for three months because writer Robert Bolt had been jailed for participating in a nuclear disarmament demonstration. He was released only after Sam Spiegel persuaded him to sign an agreement of good behavior.
When he first heard that the movie was going to be produced, Lowell Thomas (on whom the Jackson Bentley character was based) offered to give producer Sam Spiegel a large amount of background material on T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt that he had collected, but was rejected by Spiegel.
An urban myth stated that T.E. Lawrence's watch switches from his left wrist to the right in the film. Restorer Robert A. Harris actually found this to be true, but only because the second reel of film had been spliced in reverse.
The Allenby family lodged a formal complaint against Columbia about the portrayal of their ancestor. The descendants of Auda abu Tayi and the real Sharif went even further and actively sued the studio. The case dragged on for 10 years before being dropped.
Sam Spiegel was much taken with Robert Bolt's successful play A Man for All Seasons. When he and David Lean weren't happy with Michael Wilson's stab at the screenplay, he sent it to Bolt for rewriting. Bolt found the script lacking in good dialog and also character depth. He essentially rewrote the whole thing, using T.E. Lawrence's book 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' as his starting point.
Because filming was not possible in the complete darkness of night, the night scenes were filmed during the day with light filters on the lenses; this is also the reason there is shadows from the camels during the night scenes.
Marlon Brando, who had won an Oscar in the Sam Spiegel-produced On the Waterfront (1954), was desired for the title role by both producer Spiegel and director David Lean. Still involved in the editing of his directing debut One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando turned the offer down, saying he didn't want to take two years out of his life riding a camel in the desert. Ironically, Brando signed for the role of Fletcher Christian in the Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) remake, which ran way over budget and way over schedule. Whereas "Lawrence of Arabia" was a great success, "Mutiny on the Bounty" was considered a flop and damaged Brando's career. Keen to work with Brando, Lean later offered him the role of Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago (1965) and the schoolteacher married to Ryan's Daughter (1970) in the eponymous film. Brando did not respond to either offer. (Rod Steiger, who played Brando's brother in "Waterfront", played Komarovsky, while Robert Mitchum appeared in "Ryan's Daughter".)
Sam Spiegel, the producer of this film, was once known as S.P. Eagle. He had an amazing talent for finding unusual material and hiring exactly the perfect director to execute it. He produced one of Orson Welles's few commercial successes The Stranger (1946). David Lean, the director of this masterpiece, was a well-respected director of moderate-budgeted English films when Spiegel brought him to international prominence with Lean's direction of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He also worked with John Huston, first on We Were Strangers (1949) and most notably on The African Queen (1951). Finally he found the funding from Harry Cohn at Columbia for Elia Kazan's controversial On the Waterfront (1954). Perhaps no other independent producer has been associated with so many brilliant film directors on so many diverse and original stories.
At one point when filming was progressing far too slowly for his liking, producer Sam Spiegel invited William Wyler to visit the set. He wanted Wyler to encourage Lean to rely more on his second units for filming additional scenes, as he had done on Ben-Hur (1959). The visit was to no avail, however, as Lean was too much of a perfectionist to relinquish control.
Arthur Kennedy replaced Edmond O'Brien in the role of Jackson Bentley, the photo-journalist character based on Lowell Thomas, after O'Brien had a heart-attack on location after filming some scenes. 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. However, Douglas wanted a star salary and second billing after Peter O'Toole. Douglas' demands were rejected by producer Sam Spiegel and the Oscar-winner O'Brien was cast in the part. O'Brien filmed the Jerusalem scene, and supposedly Jackson's political discussion with Omar Sharif's character Ali before being felled by his heart attack. He was replaced on short notice by Kennedy, who was recommended to director David Lean by Anthony Quinn. Kennedy had replaced Quinn as King Henry II on Broadway in the play Becket (1964). (Ironically, when "Becket" was made into a film, it was Peter O'Toole who was cast as Henry.)
The role of Sherif Ali was originally intended for Horst Buchholz but he was forced to turn it down owing to his commitment to Billy Wilder's movie One, Two, Three (1961). Second choice Alain Delon tested successfully but suffered problems with the brown contact lenses required for the role. Maurice Ronet was then cast but was replaced after difficulties with his French accent and his Arabian dress (Lean complained "He looked like me walking around in drag").
Contrary to some sources, Richard Burton was never offered the lead role, due to the financial failure of Look Back in Anger (1959) which had caused 20th Century Fox to release him from his film contract.
Elaborate screen tests with Albert Finney as Lawrence were shot at a cost of 100,000 pounds. Finney later balked at producer Sam Spiegel's demand that he sign a seven-year contract if he accepted the role, and dropped out, replaced by Peter O'Toole, already under contract to Speigel.
The film credits list Sir Adrian Boult as the conductor. According to the liner notes on the Varese Sarabande (VSD 5263) release of the original soundtrack, composer Maurice Jarre actually conducted every note of this recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Adrian's name was listed for contractual reasons, apparently because he was the chief conductor of the orchestra at that time.
Peter O'Toole is considerably taller and better looking than the real T.E. Lawrence (6'2" to Lawrence's real life height of 5'5"). Noel Coward is rumored to have said, on seeing the premiere, "If he'd been any prettier, they'd have had to call it Florence of Arabia."
José Ferrer was initially very unsatisfied about the small part he was offered. He only accepted on condition that he be paid $25,000 - more than Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif combined - plus a factory made Porsche. Ironically Ferrer once said about his tiny role that he considered it to be the finest acting of his career.
The film took longer to make than it did for the real T.E. Lawrence to go from lieutenant to colonel, to see the desert tribes united and tip the balance in the Allies' favor against the Turks in World War I.
José Ferrer had to be talked into taking the role of the sadistic Bey, dubious about it being such a small part. David Lean convinced him that the Bey was a pivotal character in T.E. Lawrence's history.
The real T.E. Lawrence was actually riding from the Bovington Army Camp to his cottage in Cloud Hill when his tragic accident occurred. The scenes where Lawrence was tortured and assaulted by the Turks was actually from the book "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom," the supplementary material of "Revolt in The Desert." Due to the humiliation which he suffered, Lawrence refused to publish "The Seven Pillars," his life's work, but did publish it exclusively for 120 people only. The 120 people who read the book were delighted with it, and the book was published sometime after Lawrence died.
The moment when T.E. Lawrence - freshly adorned in his new flowing white robes - raises his dagger to look at his reflection was an improvisation by Peter O'Toole. The moment would be repeated at the end of the film in a wholly different context when a battered Lawrence looks at his bloodied dagger after the battle for Damascus.
In an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992), Peter O'Toole confessed quite proudly that, out of fear of falling off during a big camel riding scene, he and Omar Sharif decided to get absolutely hammered and then tied themselves down on the camels before shooting. By his own admission, he was so drunk he had no idea where he was or what he was doing for the entire scene (attack on Akaba).
Although women have no lines in the film, they occasionally can be seen in the background of some scenes. For the Arabian ones, tradition forbade Bedouin women from being photographed so costume designer Phyllis Dalton had some Christian women dress up in the flowing robes.
When first telecast (by ABC-TV), the film was shown in two parts on two successive nights because of its four-hour length. Even so, it was edited so that Lawrence's torture by the Turks was even less explicit (and less comprehensible) than in the original film.
In his autobiography and in a letter to George Bernard Shaw's wife, there are indications that T.E. Lawrence was forced to perform homosexual acts for the Turkish governor of Deraa, something which this film skimmed over. However, both friends and enemies of the governor alike vehemently dismissed Lawrence's claims as fantasies and insisted the governor was not a homosexual.