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 eldest son, Abdullah II King Of Jordan, ascended to the throne in 1999.
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.
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.
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.
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."
In the actual Battle of Aqaba, Lawrence was nearly killed when his camel threw him after he accidentally shot it in the head. In a remarkable coincidence, Peter O'Toole was nearly killed himself when a gun used to signal "action" in the first take of the Aqaba scene went off prematurely, and O'Toole was thrown by his panicked camel in front of the charging horses. (Another account holds that O'Toole was temporarily blinded by pellets from an effects gun and lost control of his animal. In either event - and fortunately for O'Toole - the camel, trained for such situations, stood over O'Toole and saved him from being trampled.)
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.
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."
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).
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
T.E. Lawrence's rescue of the lost Gasim actually happened, as Lawrence recounts in his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Though in the film Lawrence is hailed for the heroism, he was in reality ridiculed and chided for what was seen as a waste of effort anyway.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert Bolt's original writing contract with Sam Spiegel was 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.
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.
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 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.
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").
When the restoration was being made, those involved had a hard time locating Arthur Kennedy. They had heard he was living in Savannah and phoned every Kennedy in the phonebook. The actor finally returned their call a rerecorded his dialogue on a 3/4" tape in a local TV station.
When the film was finally put together and shown to T.E. Lawrence's brother Professor A.W. Lawrence, he was horrified at what he considered liberties taken with history. He called it "an unholy marriage between a Western and a psychological horror," and refused to let them use the title Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He ended up donating most of the money he'd been paid for the rights to charity.
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.
While preparing the film for its 25 year restoration, David Lean pointed out that all the images had flipped. All of the TV and VHS versions are backwards because Technicolor made an error in 1966 when it created a 35mm anamorphic interpositive from which everything else was based. the entrance into the desert, which takes place about ten minutes into the film, and reversed, with no writing on the screen, so no one was able to catch the error.
While the team behind the restoration of the film in the late-1980s found all of the surviving footage cut after its premiere, they learned that the soundtrack to said footage had been lost. Thus, the team recruited the then-surviving members of the cast to re-record their lines for the scenes. David Lean complimented Peter O'Toole for his effort, telling him that he did a better job than in the original film. O'Toole replied: "After 25 years, I think I have learned enough to play the scene properly."
Sam Spiegel wanted David Lean to consider the cost-saving benefits of shooting in Southern California or the less volatile political climate in Israel. Lean, however, was determined to film the story where it had happened, in Jordan. One obvious problem was Spiegel's religion. Given the political situation in the Middle East, there was a good chance that a Jewish producer wouldn't even be allowed into the country. The production's British advisor, Anthony Nutting, who had been England's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the start of the Suez crisis, got around that problem by getting Spiegel a visa that listed his religion as Anglican. When the forthrightly Jewish producer protested, Nutting said, "Sam, just shut up! Here's your bloody visa."
On his first location scouting trip in Jordan, David Lean discovered the remains of the Turkish locomotives and railroad tracks Lawrence had destroyed during the Arab Revolution. After 40 years in the sun, they hadn't even rusted.
Many who had known T.E. Lawrence and other real figures featured in the film were horrified by the picture. Lawrence biographer Basil Liddell Hart wrote to warn many of the man's friends that they would be shocked by the depiction of the hero struggling with sadistic impulses. Lady Allenby, widow of General Allenby, wrote to The London Times: "Is there any way in which a film company can be stopped from portraying a character so inaccurately as that of the late Field Marshal Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia?...What can one do? What is the remedy? Or is there one
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. According to "Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean" by Gene Phillips, Sir Boult found conducting a film score so overwhelming that he handed the job over to Jarre. Sir Adrian's name was still listed for contractual reasons, apparently because he was the chief conductor of the orchestra at that time.
While assisting Robert Bolt with research, Anthony Nutting, who was working on his own biography of T.E. Lawrence, became convinced that the war hero had left something out of the final edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in his description of his capture and mistreatment by the Turkish police. He finally uncovered a rare 1922 edition of the manuscript and a letter to George Bernard Shaw's wife that strongly suggested that the Turkish Bey had actually raped Lawrence, a fact hinted at in the movie.
Anthony Nutting convinced King Hussein of Jordan that the film would boost tourism, thus bringing more money into the then-cash-starved nation. He also appealed to his sense of family. The king's great-grandfather, Sherif of Mecca, had launched the Arab Revolt with T.E. Lawrence in 1916. King Hussein quickly gave the film his blessing. Nutting even managed to talk down the original fee for the Jordanian Army's cooperation from one million pounds to 165,000.
In July 1961, the company moved to their first location, Jebel Tubeiq near the Saudi Arabian border. The spot was 150 miles away from the nearest water and had not been inhabited since a band of monks abandoned their monastery there in the seventh century A.D. Temperatures were so high in the summer sun that most thermometers couldn't even register them. In fact, the thermometers had to be cooled down.
During the desert location shoot, 300 Bedouins wearing sandals muffled in wool were charged with smoothing out the desert sands with palm fronds after each rehearsal and take so there would be no extraneous footprints in the sand.
Property manager Eddie Fowlie coordinated the move to Spain on a large tramp steamer. The strangest part of the cargo was 100 stuffed camels. He had bought the skins from a slaughterhouse in Jordan and had them stuffed in case they were needed for battle scenes, which they were.
In a dried riverbed, designers built the entire town of Aqaba, Jordan, circa 1916. Contemporary Aqaba had become too modernized to serve as a location. The set consisted of 300 separate building fronts and a quarter-mile-long sea wall. On a hillside behind that, they built a half-mile square Turkish Army camp and parade ground overlooking the town. Here they filmed the Arab charge of 150 camels and 450 horses through the Turkish camp.
Omar Sharif was already a big star in his native Egypt when he got the call to meet Sam Spiegel in a hotel in Cairo. When he agreed to make a screen test, Spiegel flew him to Jordan. In his autobiography, Sharif would marvel that a Jew from Hollywood had gotten something from the Egyptian government the native-born Sharif had been trying to get for years - an exit visa.
Anthony Nutting had to negotiate to hire the Bedouin tribesmen, who also wanted a million pounds. When he asked how they could ask so much, he learned that their representative, Sherif Nasser, had learned of a secret one million pound loan Sam Spiegel had taken out from the Arab Bank there. The bank director, as it turned out, was Sherif Nasser's uncle. Spiegel got the price down by pulling a ploy his associates were used to. He had a heart attack, which so threatened the production's future that the Bedouin lowered their price.
To accommodate the cast and crew while they were filming in the desert, the production company set up a small city of tents and trailers, complete with air conditioning and refrigerators. The location company started with 75 members and eventually rose to more than 400, most of them Jordanians. The leading actors each had personal servants to see to their needs, from laundry to cold drinks. A master chef was flown in from London to set up the company kitchen. On Saturday nights, they showed movies outdoors. And every 28 days, they were flown to the nearest city for two days of recreation. Both Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole separately enjoyed soaking in cold baths during their breaks, as they couldn't do that on location.
Throughout shooting, Sam Spiegel continued to feign heart attacks whenever he wasn't happy with the way things were going. At one point, he had himself strapped to a stretcher and flown by Red Cross helicopter to the desert location. Attendants carried him to Lean, to whom he said, "Don't worry about anything, David - not the budget, not the schedule, not my health. The picture - the picture is all that counts!" Then he was flown back out.
After five months shooting in Jordan, Sam Spiegel ran short on cash and moved the entire production to Spain, where he had frozen assets he could only spend in that country. David Lean was so unhappy about the move that he stayed in Jordan on his own after everyone else had left for a rest in England. Surveying one of the last scenes there, a desert panorama complete with camels, he complained, "Bloody well match that somewhere else in the world."
The first Spanish location was in Seville, where the company actually got to stay in hotels. The production took advantage of the city's Moorish architecture to re-create early 20th century Damascus, Cairo and Jerusalem, which had become too modernized for use in the film. Two thousand local extras turned out to film General Allenby's entry into Damascus in front of Seville's Archeological Museum.
After three months shooting in the Seville area, the company moved again, 350 miles southeast to the port city Almeria. The area comes closer to desert terrain than any other part of Europe. A special train carried the company overnight from Seville. Another train carried the trailers in which they had lived in Jordan, while a 48-truck convoy brought the props, costumes and technical equipment.
Because Jordan had had no snow the year before, they had to film scenes of Lawrence's trek through the mountains in Spain's Sierra Nevadas. A special sledge with ski-type runners was used to move the camera.
One of the major scenes shot in southern Spain was the attack on the Turkish railroad. The crew laid tracks and brought in German and Belgian locomotives from the early 20th century rented from the Spanish national railway system. Each of the two trains included eight passenger cars, 14 horse cars, two luggage vans and a guards' van.
It took impeccable planning to prepare the railroad attack. They could only film the sequence once. After careful testing, they determined that it would take ten pounds of guncotton to cut the rails and another ten to send the train cars careening off the track. To control their motion through the desert, they had to plant steel plates under the sand. The engineer set the locomotive at full throttle, then jumped off before the tracks exploded.
The final location for the film was in Morocco, where they moved to shoot the massacre of the Turkish army. The scene required an Arab army of 800 mounted on horses and camels and a Turkish army of 1,200 on carts and mules. David Lean started with long shots and moved to close-ups so they could gradually let people go throughout the day before they got too tired, a real danger shooting epic scenes of this nature.
David Lean had less than two months to prepare the film for its premiere after completing second unit work. As a result, the version shown at premiere was a few minutes longer than he might have liked. He had hoped to go back and cut a few frames from some shots he thought ran too long, but after the premiere, distributor Columbia Pictures asked him to cut 20 minutes from it so that exhibitors could squeeze in an extra showing each day. So instead of trimming a few shots, he had to cut whole scenes. For a 1971 re-issue, another 15 minutes were cut. Many critics have complained that this later version renders the action incoherent, particularly in the film's second half, which sustained the largest cuts.
In 1995, the Writers Guild decided that Michael Wilson had written enough material for the film to merit a screen credit. All versions of the film since then, including the DVD, credit the script to Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.
The film depicts the seizing of the port of Aqaba by the Arabs as a stirring sneak-attack that caught the Turks unaware. Actually most of the fighting for Aqaba involved the capture (and loss and recapture) of a small fort at Abu-al-Lasan, some fifty miles well inland. T.E. Lawrence and Sheikh Auda marched unopposed into Aqaba itself a few days later after British warships shelled the port into submission.
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 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.
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."
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).
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.
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.
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.
Despite the film's success, many people disliked this film due to its fictional elements (fictional characters in this film such as Sherif Ali, Colonel Brighton, Jackson Bentley, Mr. Dryden etc.). Another reason why others disliked the film has to do with the death of T.E. Lawrence in this film. Many people believed T.E Lawrence was murdered. One of the principal witnesses of the accident of T.E Lawrence was an army corporal named Catchpole who testified about a black van heading toward Lawrence. After the crash, the black van raced off down the road and the corporal ran over to T.E Lawrence who lay on the road with his face covered in blood. The corporal was instructed not to mention the van as being involved in the accident and the suspicions increased when it was reported that Catchpole killed himself shortly after testifying about the black van. Right before his death, Lawrence had been planning to see his friend Henry Williamson, who was facilitating a meeting between Lawrence and Adolf Hitler for making peace between England and Germany. T.E. Lawrence abhorred the idea of yet another war in Europe.