Even before the untimely death of T.E. Lawrence in 1935 – arse over tit off his motorbike in a dorset lane, aged only 46 – there were attempts to bring his story to the screen.
But no one succeeded until 1960, when David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel, buoyed by the success of The Bridge On The River Kwai, persuaded the late hero’s brother, Professor A.W. Lawrence, to grant them the right to T.E.’s account of his ‘desert war’, Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.
Despite having Lean’s prestigious name attached, the project was still quite a gamble.
Two unknowns (Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif) in the lead, no women, no love story (unless you count Lawrence’s infatuation with himself), a near-four-hour running-time and shot almost entirely on location (Jordan, Morocco and Spain).
And with a notoriously autocratic perfectionist at the helm, it was some two years in the making, going wildly overbudget.
Even the acting stalwarts swelling the cast - Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, etc - could provide no guarantee. But the gamble paid off, handsomely.
O’Toole’s career-making performance embodies the multiple contradictions of Lawrence’s enigmatic character; at once idealist and opportunist, hero and poseur, a man possessed of an overweening vision yet profoundly unsure of himself.
Lean’s direction, backed by Robert Bolt’s intelligent script, carries off the romantic sweep and excitement of the action (backed by Maurice Jarre’s yearning, ultra-romantic score) while sketching in the imperialist horse-trading and political skulduggery that put paid to Lawrence’s dreams of freedom and independence for his Arab allies.
And, of course, it all looks magnificent. if ever a film was made for Blu-ray, it was this one.
The great Freddie Young, working for the first time as Lean’s DoP, captures all the timeless majesty of the desert in glorious super Panavision 70.
The classic moments have become lastingly famous: the abrupt cut from the match flaming in Lawrence’s hand to the glory of sunrise over the desert; the first appearance of Omar Sharif’s Ali, a distant speck in a mirage, slowly and inexorably approaching over two minutes plus change; Lawrence’s triumphal stride along the roof of the captured Turkish train in his flowing white robes while his bedouin troops exultantly shout his name.
True, not everyone’s been impressed. The late taste-maker Andrew Sarris found it “dull, overlong and coldly impersonal”.
But if epics are your thing, they don’t come much grander.