Wins Best Picture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia combined an epic portrayal of war in the Arabian Peninsula with a complex portrait of a tormented hero. The film won seven Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture.

Summary of Event

T. E. Lawrence was a British archaeologist who became a lieutenant in the army in 1914 and was assigned to gather intelligence on the activities of Turkey in the Middle East during World War I. He urged his superiors to support the Arab revolt against the Turks, who controlled many of the Arab countries. Lawrence quickly became an expert military tactician, leading hit-and-run guerrilla attacks behind the Turkish lines. In November, 1917, he was briefly captured by the Turks. Lawrence then helped the Arab forces secure the cities of Aqaba and Damascus and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. Following World War I, Lawrence campaigned for Arab independence while American journalist Lowell Thomas conducted illustrated lectures about Lawrence’s adventures. Lawrence published his own account as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The (Lawrence) (1926). He later joined the Royal Air Corps as an enlisted man. He was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months after his discharge from the service. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean) Academy Awards;Best Picture Cinema;epics Epic films [kw]Lawrence of Arabia Wins Best Picture (Apr. 8, 1963) [kw]Best Picture, Lawrence of Arabia Wins (Apr. 8, 1963) Lawrence of Arabia (Lean) Academy Awards;Best Picture Cinema;epics Epic films [g]North America;Apr. 8, 1963: Lawrence of Arabia Wins Best Picture[07590] [g]United States;Apr. 8, 1963: Lawrence of Arabia Wins Best Picture[07590] [c]Motion pictures and video;Apr. 8, 1963: Lawrence of Arabia Wins Best Picture[07590] Lean, David O’Toole, Peter Young, Freddie Bolt, Robert Wilson, Michael Guinness, Alec Quinn, Anthony Sharif, Omar Spiegel, Sam Thomas, Lowell Lawrence, T. E.

Following Lawrence’s death, many efforts were made to bring his compelling story to the big screen. Producer Alexander Korda Korda, Alexander tried to launch a project in the 1930’s but was dissuaded by Winston Churchill Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] , who did not want to antagonize Turkey, a possible ally in the coming war with Germany. J. Arthur Rank Rank, J. Arthur came much closer to producing a film in the 1950’s, casting Alec Guinness as Lawrence, but the production was canceled a month before shooting was to begin, possibly because the British government’s 30 percent entertainment tax made costs prohibitive. (Guinness eventually portrayed Lawrence in Terence Rattigan’s 1960 play Ross.)

In 1959, Veteran Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, who won Academy Awards for On the Waterfront (1954) and The Bridge on the River Kwai Bridge on the River Kwai, The (Lean) (1957), approached David Lean, director of the latter film, about adapting The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Though Lean had planned to film the life of Mahatma Gandhi, Spiegel convinced him that Lawrence, “a man in conflict with his destiny,” was a more compelling subject.

The project’s initial problems included legal obstacles to obtaining the rights to Lawrence’s book, finding a screenwriter who could capture the filmmakers’ vision of their hero, and casting the role. Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando Brando, Marlon as his star, but the actor chose the ill-fated Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) instead. The part was then offered to the then-little-known, young English actor Albert Finney, who told Lean that he did not want to be a star. The role finally went to Peter O’Toole, an equally unknown Irish actor, chosen after Spiegel saw him in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960).

French actor Maurice Ronet was initially set for the second largest role, that of Sherif Ali, Lawrence’s closest Arab friend and adviser, but Lean felt him unsuitable and went with another unknown, Omar Sharif, who had made twenty-one films in his native Egypt. Anthony Quinn was chosen to play the bandit Auda abu Tayi, Arthur Kennedy Kennedy, Arthur played an American reporter based on Thomas, Jack Hawkins Hawkins, Jack portrayed the British commander General Allenby, and Guinness was cast as Prince Feisal, whose support is central to the Arab revolt in the film.

Screenwriter Michael Wilson, best known for A Place in the Sun (1951), was hired to write the screenplay. Wilson had been blacklisted Blacklisting, Hollywood McCarthyism[Maccarthyism];black listing for his liberal politics during the McCarthy era, but he kept working without receiving credit for his work. Indeed, he had written, with fellow outcast Carl Foreman, the screenplay for Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean rejected Wilson’s script for the Lawrence project, however. He felt Wilson’s work was “too American” and failed to present a psychological portrait of the complex protagonist.

After seeing A Man for All Seasons (1960), Robert Bolt’s dramatization of Thomas More’s battle of principles against Henry VIII, Spiegel hired the playwright to complete the screenplay. Bolt finished the script in seven weeks and asked for sole credit. Several sources have compared the efforts of the two screenwriters and concluded that Bolt’s version was deeply indebted to Wilson’s. Although only Bolt’s name appears in the credits, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided in 1995 that Wilson’s contributions warranted his sharing the Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with Bolt. After shooting began, Beverley Cross Cross, Beverley and David Garrett Garrett, David also worked on the screenplay.

Filming began May 15, 1961, in Jordan. Though Lean wanted to shoot the entire film in the Middle East, Spiegel later moved the location to Spain to control escalating production costs. Shooting finally ended in Morocco on October 20, 1962. Lawrence of Arabia received a royal premiere before Queen Elizabeth II in London on December 10, 1962, and opened at New York City’s Criterion Theater on December 16.

Initial reviews complained about the film’s length and languid pace. Other commentators were drawn to political and historical perspectives. Although reassessment of British colonial history had begun following the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Lawrence of Arabia was controversial in some quarters for its anticolonial stance and sympathetic portrayal of Arabs. Because of these qualities, the film has appeared differently to succeeding generations who perceive it through the filter of their own place in history.

Lawrence of Arabia was also controversial for presenting a deeply flawed hero. Lawrence not only outrages many of his fellow officers by identifying with the Arabs but evolves into a sadomasochist and is represented as possibly gay as well. Lawrence’s brother, Arnold, protested this interpretation in a letter to The Times of London, yet the complexity of the protagonist at a time when most movie heroes were unambiguous was precisely what excited many viewers.

During the 1950’s and much of the 1960’s, expensive Hollywood films opened slowly in major American cities and often took months to appear in smaller venues. This “roadshow” or “platform” method of releasing films was meant to build anticipation in potential moviegoers. Columbia Pictures Columbia Pictures executive Abe Kronenberg Kronenberg, Abe visited one hundred high schools across the country to tell students about Lawrence, World War I, and the film.

Lawrence of Arabia did only moderate business before it received ten Academy Award nominations. When it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Academy Awards;Best Director Best Cinematography, Academy Awards;Best Cinematography Best Film Editing, Academy Awards;Best Film Editing Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color, Academy Awards;Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color[Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Color] Best Sound, Academy Awards;Best Sound and Best Score, Academy Awards;Best Score the box office increased substantially. The film’s $15 million production costs were recouped by its earning $37,495,000 in the United States alone during its initial release.


Following such films as Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia proved that big-budget extravaganzas did not necessarily require all-star casts, elaborate sets and costumes, and a setting in the distant past. The film showed that such spectacles could engage the intellect as well as the senses by having a tortured, all-too-human protagonist. In capturing Lawrence’s neurotic nuances, O’Toole made an indelible impression. In 2006, Premiere magazine named his performance the best of all time.

Lawrence of Arabia is the most beautifully photographed of these spectacles, with Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young, shooting in 70mm, capturing the humanity of characters thrown against the immense backdrop of the desert. To film one of the most famous scenes, Lean positioned Sharif one-quarter mile from a waterhole. He first appears on the screen as a tiny speck that approaches, becoming slowly larger, until the image of a man on a camel emerges. The audacity of a director forcing his viewers to be patient, watch, and think profoundly affected the generation of filmmakers that began emerging in the late 1960’s.

The influence of Lawrence of Arabia can be seen in numerous films: It would not be an exaggeration to say that David Lean’s work permanently and decisively influenced the film epic. Hollywood studio system;epics This is especially evident in the films of Steven Spielberg Spielberg, Steven , who has been quite frank in his desire to imitate the epic scope and power of Lean’s film in his own work. Spielberg’s style, as well as that of his primary composer, John Williams, were indelibly affected by Lean’s work in general, but especially by Lawrence of Arabia.

Following the 1962 premieres, Spiegel induced Lean to cut twenty minutes from the film, because many critics felt it was overly long. Lean cut fifteen more minutes in 1970 for a televised version. Most viewers did not have an opportunity to see Lawrence of Arabia in its entirety until film restorer Robert Harris Harris, Robert returned it to its original splendor for the version released in 1989. This restoration affirmed the film’s position as one of the greatest ever made. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean) Academy Awards;Best Picture Cinema;epics Epic films

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean. New York: St. Martin Press, 1996. Massive biography, possibly the best ever of a director. Most detailed look, based on extensive interviews, at the production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caton, Steven C.“Lawrence of Arabia”: A Film Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Thorough examination of the historical background. Argues that the film is an allegory about anthropologists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser-Cavassoni, Natasha. Sam Spiegel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Biography of the producer that provides details about the casting of Lawrence of Arabia and the difficulties of shooting on location.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodson, Joel C. Lawrence of Arabia and American Culture: The Making of a Transatlantic Legend. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Tells how Lowell Thomas and others have exploited and distorted the Lawrence myth. The chapter on the film emphasizes the Wilson and Bolt screenplays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, L. Robert, and Lawrence Raskin.“Lawrence of Arabia”: The Thirtieth Anniversary Pictorial History. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Hundreds of photographs of Lawrence, shots of the production process, stills from the film, posters, and pictures from the premiere, the Oscars, and the 1989 re-release. Describes failed Lawrence projects. Forward by Martin Scorsese.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Adrian. The Making of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Limpsfield, Surrey, England: Dragon World, 1994. Lavishly illustrated account of the production. Analyzes differences between scripts by Wilson and Bolt and contributions of other writers. Includes scene-by-scene summary of Wilson’s final draft.

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Categories: History