'Lawrence Of Arabia,' Starring Peter O'Toole: Facts And Trivia About The Epic

Entertainment | August 2, 2020

Actor Peter O'Toole takes a break in the Jordanian Desert during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

At nearly four hours long, Lawrence of Arabia is a career defining performance by Peter O’Toole, and it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Directed by David Lean and also featuring Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, the film is based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence and his time in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The story follows the heroic military leader as he grapples with the horrors of war and the camaraderie of his fellow freedom fighters. The 1962 film swept award season, which the crew must have felt good about because they spent more than year working on the movie in the desert, succumbing to heat stroke, and stampeding horses.

Films about T.E. Lawrence were never able to get off the ground

source: Columbia Pictures

Following the death of T.E. Lawrence in 1935, a series of productions based on his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, went into pre-production but never got off the ground. It wasn’t until director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel, hot off The Bridge on the River Kwai, tried and failed to make a movie about Gandhi that they decided to shift their attention to Lawrence’s story.

After buying the right to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom for £22,500 the duo launched into a truncated pre-production in order to keep their momentum. On Lean’s part, he was unsure about how to film in the desert so he watched John Ford’s The Searchers to get an idea about how he wanted to handle the story.

Marlon Brando was nearly T.E. Lawrence

source: Columbia Pictures

Obviously the most important part of casting a film about T.E. Lawrence is to find the right actor. Initially, director David Lean wanted to cast Marlon Brando in the role, but the actor passed. Supposedly he quipped that he didn’t want to spend months burning up in the desert. After a few more failed attempts to hire notable actors, Lean and producer Sam Spiegel turned to the English stage where they found Peter O’Toole, who only started acting two years after he left the Royal Navy.

Standing at well over six feet, O’Toole towers over the real Lawrence, who was only about 5’5”, but that didn’t matter to Lean. What he wanted was someone who could tap into the right feeling. O’Toole later said, "I can’t imagine anyone whom I’m less like than T.E. Lawrence," but he suspected Lean wanted “someone who could act it rather than be it.

David Lean really wanted to film in the Middle East

source: Columbia Pictures

Sam Spiegel really wanted David Lean to film in Los Angeles. Not only is it a film hub, but the weather is far more predictable. Lean didn’t want to hear any of that, and instead opted to take the crew to Jordan and Morocco to film most of the desert sequences whenever possible. In order to do that the crew had to touch base with King Hussein, who turned out to be fairly amiable with the cast and crew.

Filming Lawrence of Arabia where the story really took place not only adds cool points to the film but it allows the cast to really get into their characters. Legend has it that while location scouting Lean actually stumbled upon some of the railroads that Lawrence helped destroy during World War I.

The production crew turned Spain into the Middle East

source: Columbia Pictures

Even though the production was allowed to film in some places in the Middle East, some scenes had to be filmed in Spain in order to keep costs down - and on top of that the crew was getting sick from the heat in Jordanian desert so the production had to move. Rather than film in Petra, the crew constructed a version of Aqaba in a dried river bed in Playa del Algarrobico, in southern Spain. The builders studied photos of Aqaba from 1917 and built some 300 buildings to match the city. This was a fix for the heat, but the crew still had to contend with flash floods that rocked the region during the year plus shoot.

The film started shooting without a finished script

source: Columbia Pictures

According to various sources at the onset of the film there was either a brief outline of a script, a 200 plus page script that David Lean deemed unshootable, or something in between. Screenwriter Michael Wilson was the first writer to work on the project but he quit early on in the production, and his work was picked up by playwright Beverley Cross.

Robert Bolt picked up where Cross left off and threw out his entire script. Meaning there was even bigger delay in filming. Bolt rewrote so much of the script that the actors and crew just had to sit around and wait. This game of hot potato with the script was bad enough, but when Bolt was arrested at an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration the film's production ground to a halt. Sam Spiegel had to force Bolt to sign a contract saying that he would be on his best behavior before he could be released from jail and get back to work.

Peter O’Toole hating riding his camel, but it still saved his life

source: Columbia Pictures

Peter O’Toole was an amazing actor and he was great at drinking, but he wasn’t so hot on riding camels. He was in so much pain during filming that he actually went out and used a piece of foam rubber on the saddle to provide some extra comfort. You can see it in the film if you pay close attention. He later told NPR:

I loved the desert, I really did. I was there three months before filming started and the idea was to learn to ride a camel. [It was] impossible. What you see is a European perched uneasily on the top of this huge brute, snorting and galloping. I found after a while my bottom was bleeding from bouncing up and down on this snorting great dragon.

As much as he didn’t like riding his camel, during the filming of the Aqaba scene the animal saved his life when he fell off of it and was nearly trampled by stampeding horses. Similarly, the real T.E. Lawrence was almost killed after being thrown from his camel at the actual Battle of Aqaba.

There was a ton of alcohol related injuries on set

source: Columbia Pictures

With so many hard living English actors in one place there’s going to be more than a few drinks had - unfortunately there were also more than a few injuries. Even though O’Toole bled from his bum while riding his camel and suffered sprains, burns, and cuts, the worst indignity was suffered by co-star Omar Sharif. O’Toole explained that one day he and Sharif were so drunk that they hatched the idea of tying themselves to their camels, but only Sharif actually went through with it. O’Toole told NPR:

Omar said I'm going to tie myself on. I thought, well, I don't want to tie myself on, not really. Tie yourself on a camel, no. I said no, I'm going to get drunk. He said, oh, I'm going to get drunk, too. So we both got a bottle of brandy, and we shoved it into milk, and we swallowed back the milky brandy, which made us feel not a lot of pain, hopped on our beasts and did it… It was rather nice, really, on the whole. And we made it. We got to the other end all right, right to the sea. And I stood on my camel, we stood in the water, and I looked, and to my right was Omar. And he was still tied to the camel but hanging on upside-down.

Peter O’Toole traveled through the desert to get into character

source: Columbia Pictures

Seeing as how he didn’t really look like T.E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole thought it best that he get into the headspace of the man by traveling through the desert to see what that kind of life is really like. O’Toole took a three months sojourn with the Bedouin camel patrol while thinking about Lawrence’s life. He later said of Lawrence:

He is a man in search of himself; he hates being nothing, and he turns instinctively in a direction where his intuition tells him he may at last discover himself.

 O’Toole gambled throughout the production

source: Columbia Pictures

Even though he was playing a morally upstanding man who was grappling with severe inner turmoil, that doesn’t mean that O’Toole had to do the same thing. Rather than researach ancient texts or explore his thoughts on world peace, during downtime on set (of which there was quite a lot of) O’Toole said that he was mostly drinking and gambling. He told NPR:

It took nine months in the desert of Jordan. We lived in tents; occasionally I had a caravan. We'd shoot for about 10 to 12 days and then we'd have two or three days off and I would go to Jerusalem or to Beirut, Omar [Sharif] and I, where we'd squander our pieces at poker.

I did gamble, quite a lot until I was about 30 or so, then it petered out. I mean, for instance, Omar Sharif and I ... we were in Beirut — Beirut in the better days and we were playing cards and we lost all the money we had earned in nine months, we lost in one night in Beirut. Then a year later, we were in Casablanca and all of the money we had earned in that year we had lost in two nights. We weren't sober, but neither were we unconscious. We were fully aware of the pain and agony of watching all of our pennies going down the swanny.

Tags: David Lean | Lawrence Of Arabia | Movies In The 1960s | Peter OToole | Rare Facts And Stories About History

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.