The Resurrection of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ : The rise, fall and rebirth of David Lean’s epic is a saga as full of paradoxes as the subject himself
December 16, 1962: The nearly four hour epic, “Lawrence of Arabia” has just premiered at New York’s Criterion Theatre. Producer David Selznick takes David Lean, director of “Lawrence,” for a walk down 5th Avenue, puts his arm around him, and warns, “David, before you know it they’re going to want to cut this picture. They wanted to do the same with ‘Gone With the Wind’ and I resisted it. You’ve got to resist it, because it’s a wonderful picture. ‘Gone With the Wind’ is still the biggest grosser of any picture ever. They’re about to do the same to you, and it’s a lot of bull.”
The legendary David Selznick was no stranger to bull, having himself ridden the ups and downs of Hollywood’s whims. But unlike Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind,” “Lawrence” was cut. After going on to win seven Academy Awards, it was cut again. Within a decade it had lost about a fifth of its running time--and much of its reputation.
Now, nearly 27 years after its birth, “Lawrence of Arabia” rises again: A restored, Dolby-ed, new-Kodak-stocked, 70mm version headed for gala premieres in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles in the next two weeks.
Sandwiched between its triumphant return--and Selznick’s battle-weary advice to Lean decades ago--is a saga every bit as controversial, combative and intriguing as “Lawrence’s” paradoxical screen hero.
In fact, it is a yet-to-be-resolved blend of fact, fiction and myth--a quarter of a century in the making--that encompasses the following:
During the film’s Oscar awards sweep, including the year’s best picture and best director Oscars, none of the winners mentions that the hallowed winner’s original running time had been cut by almost half an hour. In ensuing years, the film would undergo additional cuts.
Lean today maintains that those first cuts were done behind his back by the film’s producer, the late Sam Spiegel. But both “Lawrence’s” editor and Spiegel’s longtime strategist have other recollections.
The most controversial of the truncated scenes--suggesting Lawrence’s homosexual and sadomasochistic tendencies--gained mythic proportion after it was trimmed. (The restored and very subtle scene proves an industry truism: that where there’s smoke there’s often just smoke.)
Once the restoration plans got underway, so did the drama--which included middle-of-the-night phone calls (footage presumed lost had been found!) and a $60 million lawsuit against Columbia Pictures by restoration producer Robert A. Harris. For awhile, it seemed “Lawrence” might not ride again.
Just like in a Hollywood movie, two heroes rode in and saved the day. The personal support of film makers--and stalwart “Lawrence” lovers--Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg helped to get the mammoth “Lawrence” restoration undertaking churning again.
As befits any whodunit, there are still more twists and turns in regard to the legend of “Lawrence.” There are also as many “takes” on what the film’s rebirth signifies as there are players involved.
To Harris, it’s about restoration and returning “Lawrence” to glory.
To Columbia president Dawn Steel, it’s about “what Columbia was and what Columbia can be.”
To former Columbia executive Doph, it’s about the disintegration of a once-great studio.
To Arthur Canton, who was a partner in the late Blowitz & Canton P.R. agency--which represented the legendary Spiegel-- it’s about a conflict between “a man who’s dead, and a man who’s alive.”
Then there are those who maintain that what the “Lawrence” restoration really symbolizes is classic Hollywood public relations/deal making, or, How to Win Over Martin Scorsese (so that he might one day make a deal with your studio).
Back to the Beginning
But first, flashback: It is 1959 and producer Spiegel and director Lean--who teamed for 1957’s Best Picture Oscar-winner “The Bridge on the River Kwai"--are looking for a worthy follow-up.
They consider both Thomas Edward Lawrence and Mahatma Gandhi. The latter is eventually dropped. As Lean recently recalled, “I gave it up because I didn’t think we got it good enough.” Speaking by phone from his London office, Lean freely admitted there were several failed Gandhi script attempts.
Spiegel’s motives were reportedly less pristine. Said Lean: “He didn’t think a picture about an Indian would be box office.”
As for T. E. Lawrence: his biographical “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” had long enticed Hollywood film makers. When rights to the project became available, Spiegel grabbed for them.
“A rugby scramble” is how (then first-time) screenwriter Robert Bolt dubbed the 18-month “Lawrence” scriptwriting process.
Unwieldy and ambitious material was a factor: The complex internal and external facts of Lawrence’s life had to be interwoven with an equally complicated Middle East political tableau.
(For those unfamiliar with Lawrence’s story: The Cairo-based map maker for British Intelligence went on to lead Arab tribesmen in their revolt against the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire during World War I.)
Then there was Spiegel himself. “Sam actually insisted on sitting in on all the scriptwriting processes, and he sat there day in, day out. And we spent half the day arguing Sam out of certain ideas he had,” remembered Lean.
But the real action was on the casting front. Mouths dropped when Peter O'Toole--then 28, and a virtual unknown to moviegoers--was named to the role of Lawrence. (At the time, O'Toole had had small roles in only a few films; in one, “The Savage Innocents,” his voice was dubbed.)
This after Spiegel had publicly vowed he’d never, ever use O'Toole. The reason: several years earlier, O'Toole had delivered an irreverent ad-lib in a Spiegel-ordered screen test for “Suddenly Last Summer.” In the end, casting went to runners-up and accidents. O'Toole was fourth choice, after Marlon Brando (who couldn’t do “Lawrence” because he was doing “Mutiny on the Bounty”), Anthony Perkins and Albert Finney (on whom a $100,000 screen test was lavished). Omar Sharif--at the time known only to Egyptian moviegoers--wound up playing Lawrence’s friend, the Harith sheik (Sherif Ali), after Spiegel went to Egypt to screen test Sharif’s then-wife, Egyptian movie queen Faten Hamama.
Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier were first choices for the part of General Allenby, commander-in-chief of the British forces in the Middle East; the role went to Jack Hawkins. Kirk Douglas was the choice for the role of the reporter (inspired by Lowell Thomas) who chronicles Lawrence’s rise (and personal fall); the role went to Arthur Kennedy. (Others in the prestigious cast: Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer and Anthony Quinn.)
Casting epilogue: Grant and Douglas lost out because of a billing dispute. “They wanted their names over the title of the picture,” reports Spiegel-consultant Canton. “And we all felt that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was the star of the picture.”
The facts of the “Lawrence” shoot have been much-chronicled: It encompassed 15-months in Spain, Morocco and Jordan, in temperatures that climbed to 130 degrees, and dropped below zero. The stars got trailers and air conditioners; the rest of the actors and crew lived in huts. Water was trucked in from 150 miles; food was flown in from Britain. The sprawling cast included thousands of Arab extras. And hundreds of camels. The whole thing came to a then-staggering price tag of $12.5 to $15 million.
The aforementioned underlines Lean’s film making passion and prowess. And his persistence in capturing the seemingly uncapturable. (Within the industry, Lean is known as a visionary who takes his time, and waits . . . and waits for just that right sunset. Whenever it might come!) After spending nine months in the desert of Jordan, Lean was unwilling to move onto the next phase of filming in Spain and Morocco. To this day, Lean maintains that filmmaking “is like a love affair.” Added Lean: “Once it gets into your blood, you can’t let go.”
Seed of Controversy
When shooting finally wrapped in August of 1962, 31 miles of footage had to be edited, in order to meet the December world premiere set for London, to be attended by the Queen herself.
The film’s original original cut is the source of controversy--the genesis, some believe, to the whole saga.
Anne Coates, film editor of both the original and restored “Lawrence,” recalled the original cut being compromised by speed: “We cut it very, very fast . . . for a three-hour, 40-minute version to open for the Queen. We could have done with another couple of months to get it really trimmed down . . . maybe by 10 minutes.”
But Lean said that, speediness aside, he got the cut he wanted. “It was quick. I’m quite quick. We worked like dogs cutting that picture. I remember no terrible pressure to get it on, except for the normal pressures, the interest adding up on the money.”
Told of Lean’s recollections, Coates expressed surprise. “That isn’t what he said to me (at the time).” What did he say? “That if he had had more time, the cut would have been--he didn’t say shorter--but different,” said Coates.
“Lawrence” was given its world launch before the Queen, as planned, on Dec. 10. The tony roadshow attraction opened in New York on the 16th and in Los Angeles on the 21st.
Critics raved . . . but there was also concern that the man had been lost in the midst of such spectacle. L.A. Times’ critic Philip K. Scheuer summed up the mood when he called “Lawrence” “one of the most magnificent--if not the most magnificent (film I’ve seen),” then went on to lament that it “makes such an aggravating question mark out of Lawrence himself.”
The major naysayer, the New York Times (which dismissed the movie as “camel opera”) would recant, come Oscartime, that the film “is brilliant--but misses.”
The industry itself was swept up in Lawrence-mania, with almost daily reporting of “Lawrence” promotions, advance sales, current sales, tie-ins and early box office grosses.
But those at work behind the scenes were less exultant. Exhibitors complained that the running time of nearly four hours cut out one showing per day--which substantially lessened the weekly take. There were concerns that once the film opened wide, general audiences would be discouraged by the length.
Recalled Coates: “Things were being said, like, the people literally couldn’t get home. The last trains and buses had gone, and they couldn’t get baby-sitters to stay that late. That sort of thing.”
So in late January 1963--barely a month after its heralded delivery--the divine child was unceremoniously amputated. After less than 50 performances in five theatres nationwide, “Lawrence” went from three hours 46 minutes to three hours 29 minutes.
Who authorized the cutting of the 17 minutes? Who did the cutting? Who knew about the cutting? Those questions are at the crux of the “Lawrence” controversy.
The studio--the perennial heavy of restoration stories--is not to blame, according to an emphatic Leo Jaffe, the Columbia account executive who was assigned to Spiegel in the late ‘50s and on into the ‘60s. “The studio did not have any artistic controls in the making of ‘Lawrence,’ ” declared Jaffe, Columbia’s chairman emeritus. “That was between David Lean and Sam Spiegel, and that was the contract we made. They had the final cut and the artistic controls. We had the right contractually to consult with them. We had the right to give them viewpoints, but they make the final decision what they want to accept or reject in its entirety.”
Lean places the black hat atop Spiegel’s head--and absents himself completely from the scene. “I was told it didn’t hold up for more than a week, and Sam started cutting it after that. I never knew the film was shortened. And then found out much later that it was.”
Editor Coates remembers the infamous January cuts. But she also remembers Lean being present . But, after double-checking with a colleague, Coates admitted in a follow-up phone call, “My memory must have been wrong. Somebody who would have known said that he definitely wasn’t there.”
Former publicist Canton is skeptical of Lean’s recollections. The man who “spent 10 hours a day with Spiegel” (this according to former “Lawrence” marketing manager Richard Kahn) insists that Spiegel told him that Lean was involved with the cuts. Canton believes that Spiegel is getting a bum rap: “This whole thing is generating into a (difference between a) man who’s dead, and a man who’s alive.”
Canton further questions why nobody--including Lean--complained at the time. “Why didn’t he say before, ‘It’s not my cut?’ ” says Canton. “C'mon, you walk up and accept the Oscar, hey c'mon, you know how many directors have said, ‘Oh, this is not my cut.’ Lean never objected to it, neither did any of the cast members. I never heard a complaint about the film in all those years.”
Lean does acknowledge authorizing--and participating in--the second cutting of “Lawrence.” According the Lean, the cuts were made at Spiegel’s request for the TV showing of “Lawrence.” And so, Lean said, he “managed to take out about five or six (more) minutes.”
Unbeknownst to Lean, the new version of “Lawrence” was reissued theatrically in 1971. And it was missing not five, but 15 more minutes. (That version went on to have a 1973 ABC-TV debut.) “(Those cuts) totally emasculated the picture,” declared restorer Harris, who added, “I mean, you can’t even tell what’s going on.”
Whose Idea Was It?
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s the “Lawrence” luster diminished--as did Lean’s. After 1970’s “Ryan’s Daughter,” he didn’t return to the screen until 1984 with “A Passage to India.” (But Lean, at 80, remains indefatigable. He is currently planning to film Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo.”)
In the interim, “Lawrence” receded into that category of faintly remembered epic warhorses, a relic of the old “roadshow” days of the ‘50s and ‘60s when “big” pictures were showcased with printed programs, musical overtures and intermissions.
But not everyone forgot “Lawrence’s” once-golden status.
Including Bob Harris--who had garnered worldwide attention for his restoration work on Abel Gance’s silent epic, “Napoleon.” Only 17 when he first saw “Lawrence,” Harris considered it “the finest film ever made.”
Said Harris: “I came up with the idea (of restoration) three years ago. I went to a gentleman named Dennis Doph, who was then head of Columbia’s classics division. He thought it was a terrific idea.”
Dennis Doph--who worked at Columbia from 1968 to 1988--remembers it differently. He had overseen the studio’s 1986 distribution of the restored “Lost Horizon.” (The American Film Institute did the restoration.) “I knew I had to follow this act with something, and the first thing that came to me was ‘Lawrence,” said Doph, who noted, “If you had to take the entire 1800-film Columbia library, and list the top five films in any order, ‘Lawrence’ would have to be on the list.”
But the studio still had to be persuaded. What better persuasion than commercial viability? “We put together a business plan, a proposal, to restore the film and release it as a special event,” explains Arthur Goldblatt, the former Columbia vice president of pay-cable and home entertainment. (“Lawrence” fell under his division’s aegis.)
“(We) pitched the idea to David Puttnam, who at that time said, ‘If you can do it under those terms, be my guest.’ ”
The biggest obstacle was verifying whether the cut footage still existed: Little wonder there was considerable tension in December 1986 and January 1987, as Harris sifted through 6,000 pounds of film bits and pieces.
It was beginning to seem like a futile search.
And then, Harris said, “In the middle of some cans of trims, we found the deletions. They’d been put back as trims, as if they’d never been in the film in the first place!”
Doph remembers a middle-of-the-night call. ‘(Bob) was almost delirious with joy. He told us he had it--he had all of it! It wasn’t in good condition. Some of it was outtakes, some of it wasn’t even sounded. But it was all there. We knew then that we had a real project.”
A real project warranted real contracts. (Harris’ two-month search, for which he worked unpaid, was conducted without any signed papers.) Puttnam wanted the restored “Lawrence” to screen at Cannes in May of 1987. While Harris toiled, attorneys went to work.
What had seemed a fait accompli fell apart in mid-February when, said Harris, the studio tried to back out of a 50-50 joint partnership agreement with him.
A week later, Harris retaliated with a $60 million lawsuit against Columbia and Goldblatt. (Today an independent producer, Goldblatt shrugs off past differences with Harris, saying, “We fell into some disagreement with Bob.”)
As the project languished, Martin Scorsese--who has spoken out publicly about the need for film preservation ventures--interceded on Harris’ behalf, to Puttnam. Nothing transpired. Six months passed, during which time Puttnam exited and Dawn Steel became studio president. Again, Scorsese entered the picture--this time with Steven Spielberg. Steel, who had been at the studio only three weeks, knew nothing about Harris. “The very first time I spoke with her,” Harris reports with amusement, “she wasn’t sure if I was suing her or they were suing us.”
Not long after, the studio and Harris came to terms--and the lawsuit was dropped. Both Goldblatt and Harris have called the settlement “amicable.” The terms? “Not a joint venture,” said Harris, who explained, “We were compensated to do the restoration.”
A month later, in March of 1988, Doph was axed in a round of studio firings.
Doph would not be entirely forgotten. On May 20, following a British Film Institute tribute dinner for Lean at Cannes, Puttnam gave him his due. This after Lean delivered a speech in which he praised Columbia for its restoration of “Lawrence,” heralding “backing to the hilt” by Dawn Steel and others.
As Puttnam reminded, the person (Doph) who was really responsible for the project was fired after the Puttnam regime was ousted by Steel’s. The Hollywood Reporter quoted Puttnam as saying, “He (Doph) spent a year working on putting it back together, and he got the bullet. Why didn’t (Lean) mention that in his speech?”
(Since his firing, Doph--who heads the acting company, Bitehas--has been active producing plays.)
For the restoration, Harris fastidiously constructed a blueprint of the original. He then went to work assembling, editing, duplicating, dubbing, refining, and so on. Scorsese acted as a surrogate director. “He was . . . basically standing in, in the beginning, for David,” explained Harris.
Then the “Lawrence” originals--director Lean, editor Coates, actors O'Toole, Guinness, Quinn and Kennedy--reunited. The actors had to re-dub dialogue, including a never-before-seen 20 to 30 seconds that comes at the beginning of Act Two.
At the culmination of Harris’ work, Lean devoted two weeks to approving the final restoration. Then, said Harris, Lean went to work, “totally recutting the whole picture to finally get his director’s cut.”
The result: a 216-minute version--with some never-before-seen footage--of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
For the most part, the new footage extends scenes that underwent trimming--including a sequence which leads to Lawrence being sodomized by a sadistic Turk (Jose Ferrer). But some “lost” (in the cutting room, in those hazy days following the film’s roadshow opening) moments have also returned--like the one which shows Lawrence to be a map maker who knows the Arab country. This is the scene that shows why Lawrence was selected to deal with the Arab armies.
These restoration efforts cost an estimated $600,000. That, plus an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million for the film’s reissue (that is, prints and advertising) would not seem like a huge financial investment--given today’s hefty budgets.
Then again, as per its first time out, “Lawrence’s” near four-hour running time could hinder the bottom line.
“Lawrence’s” box office performance in New York and Los Angeles will determine “the second tier” of the film’s release. But, Steel stressed, “Cost is not an issue in this project. This was done out of love and respect.”
She added: “This was a movie that was both artistically important, and commercially important. It proves that you can do both, that neither is mutually exclusive. It shows what Columbia was and what Columbia can be.”
What Columbia could be, surmised one cynical, former Columbia executive, could depend on friendships forged by projects such as “Lawrence.” Underlining an axiom that in Hollywood, philanthropy is an oxymoron, the executive--who was involved in the “Lawrence” restoration saga--remarked, “Maybe Dawn wanted to attract certain people that love this picture, like Martin Scorsese, to Columbia.”
But a classic film restoration is one of those rare instances in which, as carnival barkers used to scream, “There are only winners.”
Among those who stand to immediately gain from the project are AFI’s Preservation Center, which will reap the dividends of the opening night galas. And restoration producer Harris will co-produce, with partner Jim Painten and Scorsese--the next feature by the current darling of the British cinema, Stephen Frears. Certainly the reissue can’t hurt Lean--especially when the film is compared to the rest of the 1989 output.
Pointing out that he’s now happier than ever with the film, an impassioned Lean said, “I’m just longing for the modern audience to come in and see it . . . After all these years, it will be very exciting to see them coming in and filling theatres all over the place.”