|When Marlon Brando wasn’t keen on riding camels, producer Sam Spiegel lavished £100,000 on testing Albert Finney - in full costumes and sets - over four days! The end result was adjudged superb by everyone except Albie. Four days was fine, but not a seven-year contract with Spiegel. [Horizon Pictures (II)/Columbia Pictures, 1961]
“The best of them won't come for money - they’ll come for me.”
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
David Lean . 1961
Peter O'Toole reckoned that David Lean talked to everyone. "Brando, Finney... even Garbo!" Just like Korda before him...
Thomas Edward Lawrence (TEL) had no wish to be "celluloided." Except this was the hero described by Lowell Thomas as having "a genius for backing into the limelight." And indeed, TEL apparently tried to instigate a project in 1926 with a disinterested London producer, Herbert Wilcox.
Hollywood director Rex Ingram (David Lean's mentor) tried to buy The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, TEL's own 1922 account of leading the Arab revolt against the Turks in the Middle East during 1915-1918. When the teenage Lean got his first film industry job at the Gaumont studio in London in 1927, his future cinematographer Freddie Young was there, waiting to shoot MA Wetherell's Lawrence project, Revolt in the Desert (title of the abbreviated Wisdom book) if a budget came through. It didn't.
On 1934, the King Kong makers, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, had been keen on such a film at RKO and asked Howard Hawks to direct Ronald Colman as TEL. Nothing happened except much of their desert footage turned up behind George Sanders in Action In Arabia, 1943. Oh, and Hawks won a $260,000 RKO contract. Hawks of Arabia came up again at RKO in 1937 while he was preparing Gunga Din and Bringing Up Baby. With Leslie Howard back in contention – until the Turks objected.
During the 30s and 40s, that most British of all Hungarians, Alexander Korda, proved the most persistent producer. He got the Wisdom rights, a script by John Monk Saunders (husband of King Kong's girl, Fay Wray) and Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929) to direct. At last, TEL was keen. He approved the star: Leslie Howard. For awhile. Then, he persuaded Korda to halt production "till I die or welcome it." Four months later, May 19, 1935, Lawrence was dead in a motor-cycle crash and… Korda announced Walter Hudd as the desert hero.
Hudd had also been approved by TEL upon seeing him as the Lawrentian figure in Shaw's Too True To Be Good. That Korda plan collapsed when Palestine's British governor got cold or racist feet about about scenes requiring too many Arabs in one place.
By 1938, candidates included…
John Clements (a future desert hero
in Korda’s Four Feathers, 1939),
Robert Donat, Welshman Clifford Evans,
Trevor Howard, opward, Laurence Olivier - or,
in a co-production with Columbia, Cary Grant.
By 1949, Burgess Meredith (Rocky's future old trainer!) was favourite... and in 1952, the crude Columbia czar Harry Cohn offered the film to an "excited" Lean... He did Summertime, 1954, instead as Hollywood found negotiation with TEL's brother and literary executor, Professor AW Lawrence, was close to impossible. Cohn, by the way, apparently wanted John Ford to direct - aw shucks! - John Wayne! (Ironically, just as Spielberg and Lucas, among others, would worshipfully gaze at Lean’s films to help their own, Lean watched Ford’s The Searchers for Lawrentian inspiration).
Next suggestion: Richard Burton in 1957... He remained that. A suggstion.
The TEL saga was resuscitated by the Russian-born UK writer-producer Anatole De Grunwald, with a 1958 script by by the leading UK playwright, Terence Rattigan. He was gay and fascinated by the possibly gay Lawrence, hiding from his fame as John Hume Ross in the Royal Air Force in 1922 (and when discovered there, joining the Royal Tank Corps as TE Shaw). The scenario was called Ross, and dealt wih Lawrence's homosexuality - alleged or otherwise. (In truth, he was asexual and a masochist) The Rank Organisation bought it, somewhat surprisingly as the staid boss, J Arthur Rank, was a highly moral Methodist,. His studio did not dare touch homosexuality until Victim in 1960 - the first film that dared to speak its name. It starred Dirk Bogarde (also gay). He was Rank’s #1 heartthrob and Ross whad been bought for him…. and David Lean! The project blew up.
"Rattigan was not all that pleased," said Bogarde. "I was, at the time, more popular than Rock Hudson and Doris Day in England… but hardly the person one would have thought of to play Lawrence." For more than a year, Bogarde absorbed everything written by or about TEL, met his friends, was fitted for blonde wigs (more expensive than the one he would use in Modesty Blaise in 1965).
Lean never really considered Bogarde,
preferring “an actor not a movie star.”
Besides, he was not pleased with what the movie star had done to Lean's once cherished project, The Wind Cannot Read, 1958 (known to the crew as The Illiterate Fart). Lean quit. Anthony Asquith took over - as did, in another fashion, the Iraqi revolution...
The studio offered Bogarde The Captain’s Table comedy. His love affair with Rank was over. "My biggest disappointment, the greatest part I had ever been asked to do." Asquith agreed. "No one can look like Lawrence but you can probably make us feel how he felt. Much more important." Asquith and De Grunwald kept the faith and made Bogarde’s next two films for MGM, a pair of period pieces, The Doctor’s Dilemma and Libel.
Rattigan reworked his scenario into a 1960 West End play, starring Alec Guinness, who wanted to play TEL again for Lean, but was 15 year too old. On stage, he could get away with it. On-screen, never. (He played Prince Faisal).
In Hollywood, Richard Zanuck offered Lawrence
to actor-turned mogul Robert Evans. As a prank.
The time for joking was over…
At London’s Claridges Hotel on February 17, 1960, Spiegel announced his film of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom... He had played TEL’s younger brother, Professor Arnold Walter Lawrence, like a trout, netting the Wisdom rights "for a song," £22,000 instead of £100,000). In a scarlet velvet smoking jacket, "Sammy Boy," as Spiegel often referred to himself, also said Brando would play TEL.
AW was against any film but won by Spiegel's famous kleine Aufmerksamkeit, a German expression for many attributes - courtesy, flattery, above all, attentiveness - or in Sammy Boy’s case, an over attentiveness…such as arranging a special screening for AW of Lean-Spiegel’s 1956 Bridge on the River Kwai. That settled it! (AW later paid Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures $5,000 to drop the book’s title when displeased by the rough cut (sans music, etc). Lawrence of Arabia was the much better title, of course, so it is quite possible that AW was deliberately shown the roughest of cuts, resulting in Spiegel getting a better title… and $5,000.
"Sam was a charming buccanneer, " commented Lady Edith Foxwell, "who could have slit your throat and convinced you that it was necessary."
Come the autumn, UK producer Herbert Wilcox (usually desgining vehicles for his actress wife, Anna Neagle) suddenly announced Lawrence of Arabia - with Laurence Harvey in a version of Rattigan's Ross. This was the same Wilcox who had not been interested, 35 years earlier, in dealing with the real TEL Now, he said, his version would open a year ahead of Spiegel's.
Sam saw this promise as a threat. There was no time to meet Wilcox and stage one of his "heart attacks" - as many as required to help get his way. ("He’s a better actor than I’ve got on the set." Lean used to say). Instead, Sammy Boy took out an immediate High Court injunction. Wilcox’s City of London financiers fled, scared by the prospect of litigation and Wilcox lost £100,000. Ross has never been filmed. Obviously, as Spiegel bought Wilcox’s rights in March 1961, plus all pertinent books to avoid any other surprises - including TE’s Revolt in the Desert, Lowell Thomas’ With Lawrence in Arabia and Goodbye To All That by Lawrence’s poet friend at Oxford, Robert Graves…who had talked AW into at least hearing Spiegel’s offer.
TE Lawrence . Spiegel could think only of Brando, the star of his On The Waterfront. "They are very much alike," said Spiegel of actor and TEL. "Both have that mystic, tortured quality of doubting their own destiny." Lean fell for him - "an absolute god" - in single scene of The Young Lions
Brando wasn't so keen.Tired out after directing his own excessive Western, One-Eyed Jacks, and not wanting "to ride a fucking camel for two years," he quit. He climbed aboard the Mutiny on the Bounty instead - and sank it. With such reprehensible, childish and costly behavour that made director Carol Reed quit. Veteran Lewis Milestone (nearly a Lawrence director in 1934) had to try and finish the MGMess.
Montgomery Clift offered his services, He didn't stand a chance. Spiegel had a low opinion of him and his drinking problems. Alec Guinness was plainly too old, whether be liked to hear it (or even believe it!) or not. When such names as Olivier, and David Niven started being rung up several flagpoles, Spiegel made it clear, he didn’t want stars, baby. "Lawrence is The Star."
Albert Finney was perfect, then. Well, Lean called him a beatnik and reckoned he might "just about drag him through it." Before the public saw his breakthrough in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Spiegel lavished £100,000 on a Finney test - in full costumes and sets, opposite London actors Ferdy Mayne as Feisal and Laurence Payne as Sherif Ali. Lean directed, with Geoffrey Unsworth on camera - over four days! The end result was adjudged superb to everyone but Finney. Four days was fine, but a seven-year contract with Spiegel - no way. "I'm not a marketable product like a detergent… I don't want to become a star." But that is what happened on becoming Tom Jones, 1963. His TEL test is the most requested item at the National Film Archive inn London.
Enter: his RADA classmate and understudy of his hit play, The Long, The Tall and The Short… Peter O'Toole. Fortunately for Peter, he had Katharine Hepburn in his corner as Spiegel had vowed the Irishman would never work for him after his Suddenly Last Summer test. As Dr Cukrowicz, PO’Toole suddenly quipped: "It’s all right, Mrs Spiegel, your son will never play the violin again"!
Hepburn had memorably co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in Spiegel's The African Queen, 1950, Her determination had already made a star of Judy Holliday in Hollywood. Now she fought for…. well, she said: Get O'Toole! David Lean, who directed her in Summertime, 1954, agreed. Lean had also been impressed by O'Toole in The Day They Robbed The Bank of England, produced by O'Toole’s US manager Jules Buck, who by sheer happenstance happened to be a former Spiegel cohort at Horizon Pictures. More keen on international stardom than Finney, O'Toole even got a nose job at Nic Roeg’s suggestion. (As in: You wanna be an actor or a star?) Lean loved his test and declared: "This is Lawrence!" Certainly, O'Toole’s resemblance to TEL in Arab robes was uncanny.
If Finney was too young,
the 6ft 2in O’Toole was too tall.
Just how tall is proved by one Hollywoodian's ambition to film the Lawrence saga - Alan Ladd! In the 50s, Ladd usually had a dog-eared copy of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with him on location and knew well the Lowell Thomas description of him, "carrying his 5ft 3ins with dignity, marking him every inch a king... as blond as a Scandinavian..." Ladd was, officially, 5ft 5in.
Prince Faisal . Due to his National Theatre commitments, Olivier had to pass the future king to Alec Guinness who really ached to play Lawence, as he had done in the Rattigan play. Spiegel signing Guinness almost made Lean quit the production after all their rows during River Kwai.
General Allenby . Laurence Olivier was next asked to be Lawrence’s commanding officer, but preferred - indeed, Spiegel said he was “champing at the bit” - to play Prince Faisal or Auda abut Tayi. In the event, his stage work ruled out all three roles. Anyway, Cary Grant had always been Spiegel's first choice. Having refused the title role in 1935, Grant still expected his name above the title - even for a cameo. (He confessed being in need of a swift $300,000 plus ten percent). Lean's reaction was typically short and swift. "Bugger that and blast the star system." He then sent for Jack Hawkins - due to his previous work in Lean-Spiegel’s River Kwai.
Sherif Ali . Remembering the importance of having a youngster in the cast (a la Geoffrey Horne in River Kwai), Plan A was the German James Dean, Horst Buchholz. Spiegel promised life on his yacht and a chopper to work each day, but the actor refused to renege on his One, Two, Three deal with director Billy Wilder. (The same Wilder who once called Spiegel a modern day Robin Hood, "he steals from the rich and he steals from the poor.").
Sam looked to Paris… (Lean had already fallen for the nouvelle vague style of cutting). Despite being Brando's longtime lover, Christian Marquand' s Engleesh was not good enough. Alain Delon tested better than he coped with brown contact lenses. Maurice Ronet s Enghlish was no better than that of Delon (they were the lookalike co-stars of René Clément's Plein soleil/Purple Noon, 1959). Plus was the problem of Ronet’s costume. "Blue-eyed and in Arab dress,” said Lean, “he looked like me walking around in drag," Ronet also refused the contacts - hating the way even a slight wind could blow sand inbetween them and his eyes
He found this out when he actually began playing what became Omar Sharif's breakthrough as TEL's ally, Ali.
Lean knew India and Indian actors but one of the greatest (over five decades), the Pakistan-born Dilip Kumar declined. By which time, Spiegel had found Sharif in an Egyptian movie. "He was really quite first rate, " Sam wrote to Lean, "and while committed to half a dozen Egyptian pictuers, some of which are being made by his own company, he is willing to chuck them all if we have a good part for him." Lean suggested Tafas (Lawrence's younger desert guide), as he wasn't sure Sharif had " the mocking, aristocratic, fine eyebrowed desert hawk quality Robert [Bolt[ has written" for Sherif. Bolt, however, thought Omar had "quite a high opinion of himself." (What star doesn’t).
"All the time I didn't know what part I was being tested for," recalled Sharif, "because there was another actor doing it there in the desert." He'd also heard about Tafas. Sharif tested by playing Anthony Quinn's role in scenes - opposite Ronet, who had no idea what was afoot. Sharif never had an agent, nor needed one. In Egypt where he was a full blown star (22 films in seven years), "we just talked on the phone. How much do you want? More than last time!" He had little hesitation, therefore, in signing a seven-year contarct - for Columbia and/or Horizon Pictures - the exact kind of contract refused by Finney. "It turned out it was a kind of slave contract." He was paid $12,725 - or half Jose Ferrer’s fee for being the sadistic Turkish Bey (and he got a brand new Porsche, as well). Ronet was signed for $50,000… ! That is where agents came in, Omar! He had his revenge, with a quickie affair with the third Mrs Spiegel. Ronet, a future son-in-law of Chaplin, kept his salary and was given two French films for Columbia.
Rather like General Allenby's family disapprovingh of how he was portrayed, of Sherif Ali’s kind were upset - and sued the studio. The case dragged on for 10 years before being evaporating. As for Professor AW Lawrence, he said he couyls not recognise his own brother in what the told the New York Times was "a psychological recipe. Take an ounce of narcissism, a pound of exhibitionism, a pint of sadism, a gallon of blood-lust and a sprinkle of other aberrations and stir well. "
Jackson Bentley . No such kin rumblings here…. Bentley does not exist; his matrix did, being the famed photo-journalist and travel expert Lowell Thomas, who first put Lawrence into the world headlines. Edmond O'Brien was cast and suffered a heart-attack on location after his first scenes. Anthony Quinn, alraeady playing Auda Abu Tayi, recommended Arthur Kennedy to Lean. Kennedy had taken ovcer from Quinn as King Henry II in Becket on Brroadway. (Henry was O'Toole's very next role in the Becket film opposite one of the many suggested TELs, Richard Burton).
In an earlier version of the scenario, the "Thomas" role was larger. Enough so to interest Kirk Douglas …er, dependfing on a sizeable cheque and second billing to O’Toole. With that, the role was suddeny pruned,
Auda Abu Tayi . Recognising "we need some glitter and bravura in this picture," Lean reached out to Olivier (yet again). Having recently stunned audiences as Othello on stage, Olivier was also eager to show off some more as Tayi… the main Bedouin Arab leader fighting alongside TEL in the Great Arab Revolt. However, as in 1935, Olivier spurned everything and Tayi went to Anthony Quinn… with a new (false) nose.
Tafas . At first, the role was set for Omar Sharif. When he was promoted to the finest (482m lens) entrance scene in screen history. (Lean always maintained that part of a director’s job was "tickling the talent"). TE's young guide went to the Pakistani UK actor Zia Mohyeddin
Colonel Harry Brighton . Jack Hawkins was booked until Lean won him as Allenby. David Niven passed and Anthony Quayle won although he read Brighton as an idiot, Not at all, said Lean, Brighton was the only honorable character in the film. This did not go down well with the Allenby clan.
"Dunes, baby, I want dunes," said Spiege (in the best line of the production!). He was explaining why the film had be made more in Jordan rather than Isarel. Much like Apocalypse Now, shooting conditions of sun, sand and camel saddle ache - over 14 months in Jordan, Morocco, plus the train attack in Spain - helped make everyone, in Coppola's famous phrase, "insane." Or close.
Footnote: Anthony Perkins always insisted he was on Lean's short-list for Lawrence. Maybe so. Perhaps, therefore, it is Perkins and not Dirk Bogade who was the butt of Lean's alleged line - if it ever was a Lean line as it is more usually attributed to Noel Coward about O'Toole…
“If he’d been any prettier,
they would have to call it
Florence of Arabia.”