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It has been sixty years since the filming of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia began. The filming began on this day in 1961 and lasted nearly a year and a half, until September and October of 1962. At this point, the desert scenes were merely establishing shots for the main body of the film. The scenes involving Zia Mohyeddin and Peter O’ Toole in this scene were not yet ready for filming. That work was only a small part of the process of making the film, which took David Lean the better part of three years to complete, though this isn’t necessarily the longest gestation period for a sixties film. One could reasonably point out it took Kubrick longer (four years) to bring 2001 to the screen. Nevertheless 2001 and Lawrence are the best films of the sixties.

In terms of concept, both films were about the vastness of those areas that were inhospitable to humanity. Space. As in the cosmos. And the oppressively hot and suffocating desert. Both environments are hostile to humans and, in fact, require significant adaptation for anyone to live in either. Surprisingly, deserts are also used in science fiction films to represent landscapes on other worlds – and this is because the landscapes of other worlds (such as Mars or Venus) resemble our own earthbound deserts! As Lean once said:

‘I used to go out at night. If there was no moon I’d walk across the flats and see the vague shape of these pyramids – not man made but wind made. And countless stars that one’s never realised before. When you are in the desert, you look into infinity. Its no wonder that nearly all the great founders of religion came out of the desert. It makes you feel terribly small, and also in a strange way quite big.’ (The Epic Films of David Lean.)

David Lean was right. The desert conveys an impression of infinity in a way that is true of space itself, not only that the vastness of a desert means there’s no light pollution and one can see infinity forever as the stars spread right across the night sky. Apparently Lean said to O’Toole that very first day of filming, ‘Pete, this could be the start of a great adventure!’ (Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean.)

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Freddy Young and David Lean during shooting of the film. Source: Twitter

Many sources on the film do mention that its first day of the cameras rolling was the 15th May of 1961 (some two months behind schedule.) But what they don’t say is these early scenes were possibly filmed in Arabia itself (that is according to Adrian Turner who wrote a substantial book, The Making of Lawrence of Arabia, published 1994.) If these were not at least filmed in Arabia they may have been filmed with Arabia itself forming a background. What is known however is the crew were right on the border of Jordan and Arabia thus they could have simply chosen to film in the latter country as there was nothing to stop them in those days. The site is known as Jebel el Tubeiq, ‘an insufferably remote location for a Hollywood film’ (Deep Focus Review) and reputed to be one of the most remote locations ever chosen for a major film. Turner tells us ‘it seems likely that the Lawrence unit were actually on location in Saudi Arabia rather than Jordan, since in those days the borders were less rigorously protected than they are today, and the Saudis did not possess the sophisticated radar equipment or the air force that would have immediately alerted them to an incursion, however harmless, on their northern frontier.’

‘Principal photography on Lawrence commenced in Jordan on May 15, 1961, in one of the most remote locations ever selected for a commercial Hollywood film: the arid, desolate area in the Jordanian desert called Jebel el Tubeiq, which had been uninhabited since some monks abandoned their dwelling there in the seventh century. Yet here was Freddie Young with his seventy-millimetre Panavision camera, recording the first shot for the film, which was in the can by mid afternoon. It was a spectacular image of the desert, radiating heat as if from a blast furnace.’ (Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean.)

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Jebel el Tubeiq where the scenes involving Lawrence deep in thought were filmed. (Screencap from the film.)

The idea of using this location was to give maximum impact for the film’s audiences. ‘This would be he audience’s first view of the desert, and Lean had determined that it should create a vivid impression, even gasps, from the audience when they saw the extraordinary savage beauty of the place.’ (Turner, 1994.)

According to some, the star of the film was not Thomas Edward Lawrence (or Peter O’Toole for that matter), but the Arabian desert itself. On the big screen, the vastness of the desert is breathtaking, and one almost feels as if they are there. There were no backdrops, CGI, or tricks of any kind, not even for the mirage scenes. They are genuine, as captured by the cameras. Few have achieved such timeless quality capturing reality.

As has been noted Jebel el Tubeiq was a hell hole for the westerners who choose to film here. The film crews hated it. Shooting took place here from 15th May until early June, with some of the later scenes to be filmed here being those where O’Toole is sat in deep thought and his servants try to play a trick by rolling a stone down the sandy bank with the intent of surprising Lawrence. After just three days shooting the crews nearly mutinied. A list of demands and conditions was set out to John Palmer, Lean’s Production Manger for the film:

1: A definite hardship is created by living under canvas in extreme heat and dusty conditions which continually prevail. This is injurious to the members’ health. When the heat of the day declines, members are constantly annoyed by all manner of flying insects. It was generally understood that aluminium huts would be provided on this location ofr accommodation of members.

2: The prevailing conditions makes it impossible for catering staff to offer food uncontaminated by flies and sand.

3: Toilet arrangements in forward shooting areas are totally inadequate and primitive, i.e., wash houses and showers are unroofed and open to all weather conditions. Only cold showers are available for bathing. WCs consist of trench type and no flushing facilities, resulting in unpleasant odours and a definite health risk.

(The above list of demands, by no means complete, comes from Turner, 1994.)

The list of complaints continues and among the other demands was the crew were asking for an additional two guineas a day (£2.10 in old money.) John Palmer refuted many of these complains and pointed out the crew were in fact well catered for. However he did authorise hardship payments after the crews had been working in the desert for twenty one weeks as opposed to the sixteen weeks specified in their contracts.

The next set of scenes were filmed in yet another totally different location. This was Al Jafr, noted for its vast salt flats. Here the celebrated mirage scene and that where Lawrence goes back to find Gassim who had fallen off his camel unnoticed to the party he was traveling with. These scenes were filmed on 12 and 13 June 1961 and were the first set of scenes the venerable Omar Sharif (as Sheriff Ali) took part.

Although filming officially took place from May 1961 to September 1962, further filming was undertaken on 6th October 1962 when David Lean decided one scene needed reworking. O’Toole was called back to do those. This was done at Shepperton studios and it was a retake of the desert mirage scene involving a close up of O’Toole delivering a speech (to Sheriff Ali.) There was no need for the other actors to be present. O’Toole wryly said of this later shooting of the mirage scene meant he was ’27 in the first shot, 29 in the second, and 27 in the third. The difference was astounding. I’d lost the bloom of youth. We’re in a strange situation, film actors. We can watch the process of decomposition in the flesh.’ (Turner, 1994.)

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Albert Finney in one of his extensive screen tests undertaken during August 1960 for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as the film was originally to be called. Source: Twitter

After Albert Finney, the original lead role, or so Lean and Spiegel thought he would be, blew the opportunity, Peter O’ Toole was chosen. According to most sources, Finney simply took a screen test and then decided he didn’t want to be committed to a film project for an extended period of time. Turner, on the other hand, claims Finney spent two days filming screen tests – but it was either two or four days, depending on which section of his book you read!

Finney’s screen test was said to be one of the most expensive ever conducted. It was shot on high-quality colour 35mm film for £100,000! Lean and Spiegel were convinced Finney would be their Lawrence of Arabia, which is why they spent so much money on the film’s production at this early stage. Finney’s screen test was conducted almost two and a half years before the film was even completed! The screen test took place in August 1960. Not surprisingly, Lean and Spiegel were distraught when Finney rejected the role. Finney’s excuse for turning down the role in the film (which at the time was to be known as Seven Pillars of Wisdom) was ‘I hate being committed – to a girl, or a film producer, or to being a certain kind of big-screen image.’ (Turner, 1994.)

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The film’s two leading characters, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. (Screencap from the film.)

I’ve been a big fan of the movie since we saw it in the summer of 1963. The vastness of the desert was depicted spectacularly, and Peter O’ Toole and Omar Sharif were the main draws for me, despite the fact that I did not fully comprehend the storey as a small child. Lawrence was the first mega-movie I’d ever seen; previous fare had been those such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, In Search of the Castaways, and Doctor No. We’d only recently begun to have television, and adventure TV shows were still a rarity – despite the fact that we’d already had The Avengers and had just begun to get the first of The Saint series – so the cinema was still the big draw, particularly the Saturday Matinee Movies, which I’m sure inspired many to become film buffs! Lawrence, as some say, does not have a fast pace, but there is enough to keep one’s interest simply in awe of the entire film. Even the opening credits were simple in concept yet a precursor of how creative the film’s direction would be. In fact like a lot of the film no sort of dialogue was needed, yet the visuals were conveyed powerfully.

Of course, there are some cultural sensitivity issues in the film, with one of the worst offenders being Alec Guinness miscast as Sheik Faisal. It’s said that Speigel cast Guinness in that role, and Lean was furious; however, that storey is said to be apocryphal. Regardless, Guinness’ (and Quinn’s) roles are bound to make the discerning viewer uneasy. There are other concerns as well; in fact, some Arab countries banned the film (including Jordan, which had allowed it to be filmed there), which we can attribute to the Western world’s stereotype of Arabs.

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The horror of it! Alec Guinness as a misappropriated Sheikh posing for the camera along with Lean and O’Toole. Source: Twitter

In terms of the film’s photography, a recent viewing of the movie led me to muse upon the fact that Lean and Young compressed the film’s many stupendous scenes slightly (as well as blurring the background ever so slightly even in those scenes that are not in the desert.) When one thinks about it there’s not that many scenes which are actually in full focus. To be honest they do look in focus but they’re very slightly off compared to the main subject. Its often been said if a photograph was fully in focus throughout it would be somewhat boring. Indeed, I think Lean and Young were most aware of that, and I think this very subtle use of focus in fact elevated the huge cinematic factor the film is recognised for. As an example the first ever meeting between Lawrence and Colonel Brighton is in full field focus, and that had a purpose which was to convey both the importance of the meeting as well as the impressive towering cliffs in the area. In fact for the scenes where Ali emerges out of the mirage in the distance, its said a special one off lens was used for this – the 450mm f8 Panavision Sphero Panatar Lens in order to convey a considerably narrowed field of focus. Evidently the focus too was all about how much story the desert itself could lend to the film. Lawrence of Arabia is naturally of great merit because of its cinematic presentation and stupendously staged scenes, and its why Lean’s biopic remains high in the ratings and in almost every film director’s esteem.

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