Behind the Scenes: “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – 60th Anniversary

As unlikely as it sounds, John Wayne was once the leading contender to play Lawrence of Arabia. On January 14, 1953, the trade newspaper Variety reported that Cinerama, only known at the time for travelogs, was planning to move into feature filmmaking with productions of the hit Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon and Lawrence of Arabia, the latter with Wayne in the frame. Cinerama, as discussed in a previous Blog, was the sensation of the 1950s, the saviour of a movie industry eroded by television, prompting the boom in big-budget widescreen movies that were the hallmark of the next two decades.

It was a three-screen process, which meant filming with three cameras, somewhat unwieldy for working with actors. But This Is Cinerama, its first film, was the top earning film of 1952, even though it only played in a handful of cinemas. The driving force behind the idea was assistant board chairman Lowell Thomas, who, more than 30 years before, had single-handedly created the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Thomas had been a journalist covering the Middle East during the First World War. He had photographed the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in 1918 of the British forces led by General Allenby. The following year Thomas spun this event into a lecture that was launched in August in London to sensational results. Originally it was entitled ‘With Allenby in Palestine’, but after sensing the public was more interested in the unknown T E Lawrence, who he had photographed in Arab headdress, he changed the name to ‘With Allenby in Palestine and With Lawrence in Arabia’.

The show was so successful that when it came to the end of its run at the Covent Garden theatre, the owners offered 70% of the box office receipts to keep it on. Eventually, over five million people in Britain and the United States paid to see the lecture. And the Lawrence of Arabia industry was born. Thomas turned his lecture into a book which appeared in 1924 followed three years later by A Boy’s Life of Colonel Lawrence. Lawrence himself contributed to the legend with the publication of The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (1926) and a shortened, easier-to-read, version called Revolt In The Desert (1926). Various best-selling biographies followed including Lawrence Of The Arabs (1928) by Robert Graves (Goodbye To All That), two tomes by military historian Capt Basil Liddell Hart, T E Lawrence: In Arabia And After (1934) and Colonel Lawrence, The Man Behind The Legend (1934) and Reginald H Kiernan’s Lawrence of Arabia (1935).

The first film on the subject was announced in 1929 by director Sydney Olcott for Supremacy Films, but the project came to nothing. In 1933 there was a US four-part serial by Jock Lawrence (no relation) called Flying Lawrence In Arabia, based on the exploits of Lawrence’s pilot during the war, Capt John H Norton. Two full-length feature films were announced the same year. First out of the gate was The Uncrowned King from RKO to feature top Hollywood star John Barrymore. Director Ernest Schoendanck spent several months in Mesopotamia shooting background material and by the time he returned the film had a new name, Fugitive From Glory.

In Britain movie magnate Alexander Korda’s London Films put Lawrence Of Arabia into production with Walter Hudd in the lead. Korda had acquired the rights to the biographies by Graves, Liddell Hart and Kiernan as well as Revolt In The Desert and an agreement from Lawrence’s trustees to use incidents from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. After seeing British actor Walter Hudd in the George Bernard Shaw play The Apple Cart, Lawrence had declared Hudd was his personal choice for the part. But Korda agreed to delay production until after Lawrence’s death.

That came sooner than anyone expected, in a motorcycle accident in 1935 and generated such enormous public demand in the adventurer that publisher Doubleday Doran printed a limited edition of only a dozen copies of Lawrence’s last unpublished 76,000-word book The Mint for sale at an astonishing $500,000 each. U.S. producer Sherman S. Krellberg planned a serial based on Lawrence and a play was written by Mary K. Brookes. Korda moved quickly, getting financial backing from the Bank of America, acquiring the rights to the Thomas book and taking on the author as a technical adviser. The film was to be directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan, who spent months in Jerusalem scouting locations, with a $400,000 budget. It was going to be momentous for another reason – it was planned as the first British film in color. In preparation, Korda sent to Hollywood for 8,000 items of color make-up and Natalie Kalmus of Technicolor was dispatched from the U.S. to supervise the process.  

But it took another two years before Korda received the go-ahead from the UK government to film in Palestine, where there was political unrest. In the meantime, the first British color film had been released, Wings Of The Morning starring Henry Fonda. Hudd had been replaced by movie star Leslie Howard and Zoltan by U.S. director William K. Howard and the film was now being produced for Paramount. By then The Uncrowned King, produced now by Transamerica, had reached the screen, but only as a 10-part serial starring Lionel Atwill and with a 16-voice choir instead of an orchestra supplying the music. More importantly, the delay also allowed other U.S. studios to catch up.

Twentieth Century Fox dispatched director Otto Brower to Britain to begin a rival production and MGM was planning a film to star either Clark Gable or Paul Muni. In the end a Fox subsidiary New World became involved in the Korda film, but the project was called off after, it was rumored, severe government pressure. In 1938, the situation changed again. The sensation of the year was a claim by an Egyptian woman Nour Dahabi in Cairo to have found 3,500ft of film showing Lawrence on maneuvers in Arabia.  MGM teamed up with Gaumont-British. And it was all change for Korda. His Paramount deal hit the rocks and he switched to United Artists, returned later in the year to the original studio, only to go back to UA who promised an increased budget. But, of course, in 1939 the beginning of the Second World War scuppered everyone’s plans.

After the war. Korda’s rights to Revolt In The Desert lapsed and he did not renew them. The American studios also gave up. John Sutro, who had helped found London Films, took over and, resurrected the project in 1947 at Rank under the banner of his Ortus Films. Although Rank was the biggest film company in Britain, involved in film production and exhibition, the film languished in development hell until 1953 when Cinerama appeared on the scene. Lowell Thomas had been instrumental in setting up the company in conjunction with Michael Todd. Thomas was the public face of the process and when projectors broke down in the middle of a Cinerama film, a short starring Thomas would fill the screen until the problem was solved.

But, as ever, the minute one company announced a Lawrence project, more popped up. David Rose claimed he was close to concluding a deal for the rights to Revolt In The Desert. British-based Anatole De Grunwald had a script by top British playwright Terence Rattigan who had written David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1951).  

In 1953 De Grunwald did a deal with Paramount who wanted Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck, who bore a likeness to Lawrence, in the lead, while De Grunwald pressed for Richard Burton. In the end the John Wayne project was shelved.  By 1956 De Grunwald had approached American director King Vidor, and the film was due to roll in March 1957 but Vidor pulled out, Rank re-entered the equation, investing £2 million in a De Grunwald production with Anthony Asquith as directing Dirk Bogarde. In April 1958, Rank pulled the plug. Re-enter Twentieth Century Fox with Mark Robson helming.

But in July 1959 Columbia made a deal with Sam Spiegel and David Lean who had turned  Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)  into the studio’s biggest hit. Meanwhile, Rattigan had turned his screenplay into the play Ross with Alec Guinness in the title role. Spiegel targeted Marlon Brando for Lawrence with a start date of summer 1960.

Spiegel had hired blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson, incurring the wrath of Columbia. Lean hired playwright Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) to rewrite it.  Meanwhile, Rank announced it had Alec Guinness for the lead.  

In July 1960 Brando pulled out. While Spiegel scoured Hollywood for a replacement, British producer Herbert Wilcox spent $364,000 on the rights to Ross with Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, 1960) to star. Lean went after British actor Albert Finney (Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, 1960) but the actor baulked at a long-term contract.  His replacement was unknown Irishman peter O’Toole.  Just as unknown, Omar Sharif was fifth choice for the pivotal role of Sherif Ali.

Filming was delayed until April 1961.  Oscar-winner Alec Guinness, albeit in a supporting role, was crucial to bring cachet to the picture. The presence of two other Oscar winners, Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, bolstered the marquee.

Finally, filming got underway in May in Jordan, despite an incomplete script. But conditions were horrific. Swarms of locusts hampered transport, temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit,  the nearest water was 150 miles away. After a break, filming resumed in Spain on December 15 but Seville, chosen for its distinctive Arabian heritage, had just suffered the worst floods in a century, delaying production. The final location was Morocco and in July 1962 four planes flew 104 cast and crew there. Conditions there were as bad as in Jordan. After a few weeks in England, filming on the 313-day schedule ended on September 21, 1962. But with the world premiere set for December 10, it was panic all the way, especially after original composer Richard Rodgers of South Pacific fame quit.

Worse, ticket sales for the roadshow were poor, in part caused by the absence of a female in the cast. By mid-October sales for the U.S. opening stood at a paltry $11,424, compared to an advance of $700,000 for Exodus and $500,000 for How the West Was Won.

 The world premiere of Lawrence Of Arabia took place in front of Her Majesty the Queen on December 10 at the flagship Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End. The American premiere occurred on December 16 at The Criterion in New York.

But the public and the critics responded. On its first Saturday in London with only two performances, it set a new one-day record of $7,200. The Criterion’s opening week in New York was $46,000 which Variety described as ‘little short of amazing.’ The film was edited shortly after  launch, the original prints cut by 20 minutes.

In the end it was both a box office and critical powerhouse, winning seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, making stars out of O’Toole and Sharif, and for the past 60 years being acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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