inside the infernal shooting of lawrence of arabia

Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish in Lawrence of Arabia – Allstar/Alamy

Towards the end of the first half of Lawrence of Arabia, a dusty and discouraged TE Lawrence, fresh from his struggle through the Sinai desert, is confronted by a motorcyclist on the other side of the Suez Canal. The horseman shouts: “Who are you? As Lawrence looks at him with a mixture of confusion and fear, it’s clear that TE Lawrence – archaeologist, scholar and warrior – has no idea who he is anymore.

Yet the same could be said of the actor who played Lawrence, Peter O’Toole, who endured one of the longest and most grueling filming schedules in movie history. At the end of filming, he barely knew who he was either.

At the time of his casting, aged 28, O’Toole had enjoyed a successful first season with the RSC at Stratford and had appeared in bit parts in a few lesser films. Yet Lawrence’s director David Lean had seen him play debonair Captain Monty Fitch in the cuddly 1960 film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, and said afterwards “I got it. !”

Producer Sam Spiegel wasn’t sure. He’d had previous form with O’Toole, who ruined his screen test for the Suddenly Spiegel picture last summer, apparently on a whim. Playing the role of a brain surgeon, O’Toole turned to the camera and said, “It’s all right, Mrs. Spiegel, but your son will never play the violin again.” Not only did he not get the role, but Spiegel’s reaction to Lean’s intention to cast him was, “I’m telling you, he’s no good. I know that.”

O’Toole was paid £12,500 for the role. It was a pittance for a leading man – supporting actor Jose Ferrer was paid double – but a fortune for the still unknown actor. As soon as he accepted it, he had to extricate himself from an agreed season with the RSC, causing a permanent enmity between him and the artistic director at the time, Peter Hall, then headed to Jordan , where the film was to be shot, in early 1961. The notoriously hellish actor, who had already earned a reputation for heavy drinking and unreliability, arrived in the country hungover and questioned by Anthony Nutting, a former diplomat who served as the film’s technical advisor. “You’re the only actor we have for Lawrence,” Nutting told him. “And if you get brought home, that’s the end of the movie, and that’s probably the end of you.”

Notorious Hell-raiser: Peter O'Toole has dedicated himself to Lawrence of Arabia after receiving a stern warning over his behavior - Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Notorious Hell-raiser: Peter O’Toole has dedicated himself to Lawrence of Arabia after receiving a stern warning over his behavior – Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

O’Toole took him at his word, immersing himself in Lawrence’s character. He spent months doing everything from learning to ride a camel to hanging out with Bedouin tribesmen, all in scorching heat that made normal movement nearly impossible. Lean encouraged this dedication, telling O’Toole, “Physical discomfort is the price of authenticity.” The fact that Lean had his air-conditioned Rolls Royce shipped to the desert at great expense suggests that his own commitment to this discomfort was less genuine than his leader’s.

When production began on May 15, 1961, Lean deliberately subjected the actor to dozens of takes in the extreme heat in an effort to “cut the wind from his sails”, and refused to praise his performance. This drove O’Toole to despair; beneath his bravado and charisma, the actor was deeply uncertain about his first leading screen role and believed he was incompetent. One night, angered by what he saw as his limitations, O’Toole punched the window of a trailer, badly cutting himself.

Eventually, it became clear that filming in Jordan, miles from civilization, was impractical. The cast and crew were beset by frequent outbreaks of dysentery and scarlet fever, often resulting in actors being unavailable for filming in what was becoming an increasingly heavy production schedule. As a result, in December 1961 filming moved to the more manageable surroundings of Spain.

Lights, camera, tension: O'Toole and director David Lean on set - George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Lights, camera, tension: O’Toole and director David Lean on set – George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

O’Toole celebrated the move to Europe by getting wildly drunk, and afterwards he was a far less malleable presence. Alec Guinness, who played the cunning Prince Faisal, was initially impressed with him, writing in his diary: “[O’Toole] has great temperamental charm and is wonderfully good as Lawrence. He is dreamy and he has a lot of personal charm and cheerfulness. But seeing this gaiety up close in Spain was a less pleasant experience. After O’Toole misbehaved while drunk at a party and threw a glass of champagne in his host’s face, Guinness wrote: “Peter could have been killed, shot or strangled. And I’m starting to think it’s a shame he wasn’t.

By this point in production, O’Toole was increasingly restless and addicted to outrageous ad libs. One of the film’s pivotal scenes occurs when Lawrence is kidnapped and whipped by the Turkish Bey: it’s loaded with homoeroticism, and the implication is that the sexually ambivalent Lawrence has been raped. When O’Toole and Jack Hawkins, as Lawrence’s superior general, General Allenby, had to act out a long and complex scene in which they discussed Lawrence’s abuse, Lean demanded several takes, and ultimately an irritated O’Toole shouted: “I was f— -d by Turks. Hawkins, ever suave, who became a good friend and drinking companion of O’Toole, took him in his stride and replied:” What a pity.”

O’Toole’s relationship with Spiegel did not improve during production, and he later said of the producer, “The destruction was Sam’s game…I couldn’t stand that man.” Yet Spiegel’s masterstroke, seeing that Lean had practically come native during production, was to announce that the film would have a Royal Command performance on December 10, 1962, which means that, given that filming was completed on August 18, Lean would only have four months to put together a four-hour film. O’Toole reluctantly admired Spiegel’s decision: “I have to say, it was a masterstroke on Sam’s part…[he] knew we were going too long; David and I had started to forget we were making a movie. After two years, it had become a way of life.

Producer Sam Spiegel (left) and director David Lean (right) on set filming Lawrence of Arabia - Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Producer Sam Spiegel (left) and director David Lean (right) on set filming Lawrence of Arabia – Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

It had taken a psychological and physical toll on the actor: he suffered a wide range of injuries, including a sprained groin, third-degree burns, a sprained neck, cracked ankles, torn ligaments and a vertebral dislocation. There were, overall, easier ways to earn £12,500.

Nonetheless, when the film premiered, it was apparent that Lean had created a masterpiece, aided immeasurably by his star’s intensely engaged performance. At the premiere, Noel Coward approached O’Toole. The sweeter memory of their meeting makes Coward say, “If you were prettier, darling, the movie should have been called Florence of Arabia.” While the more risque version had him say, “If Lawrence had looked like you, Peter, there would have been a lot more 12 Turks lining up for the b—-ring session.”

Lawrence of Arabia was both a massive box office hit and huge Oscar success, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and many other awards. It made its frontman a star and ensured that, until the end of his career, he grimaced gracefully as Lawrence’s Maurice Jarre theme music accompanied his entrance onto countless awards stages and canapes of chat show.

Yet Spiegel never liked it. “You make a star, you make a monster,” he said. And Lean avoided the role of mentor one might have expected him to assume in O’Toole’s life and career. He called O’Toole “a real dope” to a friend, referring to the actor’s drunken appearances on chat shows – which could have cost him the Oscar – and his inability to fulfill his publicity commitments due to hangover.

But O’Toole remained committed to Lean. At the director’s funeral, he recited John Donne’s poem Death, be not proud. And when asked about their relationship, he replied: “The most important influence in my life has been David Lean. I graduated in Lean, got my BA in Lean, working with him practically day and night for two years. The results speak for themselves, 60 years later.

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