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.” 


 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) always decreed he 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 C 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 in 1943   behind George Sanders  in Action In Arabia – RKO’s answer to Casablanca   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 suggestion.

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!  

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 his  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…   

For more than a year, the actor  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). “Rattigan was not all that pleased,” revealed  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.”

Then, Rank suddnely backed away from the project. “My biggest disappointment,” saidf Bogarde, “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.”

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.

In 1960, Herbert Wilcox changed his mind about TEL and bought Ross for  £130,000 – with  Laurence Harvey in mind. However, David Lean  then  dropped his Gandhi project for his childhood hero, joining forces with his Bridge on the River Kwai producer, Sam Spiegel..Rattigan, meanwhile,  reworked his scenario into a 1960 West End play, starring Alec Guinness,  who wanted to play TEL but was 15 years  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 buccaneer, ” 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.”

This line  gives some credence to a French legend insisting that the impressive French star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, was signed as TEL.  This is hardly likely as his English was not good enough. Anyway, the UK tabloids would have gone crazy  – a frog as as English hero! But that was the plan, it seems. With  Alan Delon as Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali. The story continues that JLT was paid off – and handsomely – when his deal was sundered by Columbia and Sam Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures.

Lean had never wanted Brando – it would become Brando of Arabia. Didnlt want Bogarde, either, preferring “an actor, not a movie star.” Besides, he was not pleased with what this movie star had done to Lean’s once cherished project, The Wind Cannot Read, 1958 (known to the crew as The Illiterate Fart). 

Next in line Richard Burton (who later made Beckett with O’Toole) or Anthony Pertkins.

Montgomery Clift offered his services, He didn’t stand a chance. Spiegel had a low opinion of him and his drinking problems. (Monty’s life was summed up  by his acting teacher Robert Lewis as  “the longest suicide in Hollywood history”). When such names as Olivier, and David Niven started  being rung up several flagpoles, Spiegel followed Lean’s lead and suddenly  didn’t want stars, baby.   “Lawrence is The Star.”

This line  gives some credence to a French legend insisting that the always impressive French star,  Jean-Louis Trintignant , was signed as  TEL.  This is hardly likely as his English was not good enough and the UK tabloids would have gone crazy  – a frog as as English hero! But that was the plan, it seems. With  Alan Delon as Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali. The story continues that JLT was paid off – and handsomely – when his deal was sundered by Columbia and Sam Spiegel’s Horizon Pictures.

But the very thought of Jean-Lou, if there had beren such a thought, provided the  pefect solution. It made more sense to go with an unknown Lancashire lad called Albert Finney – not yet seen in his blistering breakthrough,  Saturday Night andf Sunday Morning.

Well, Lean called him a beatnik  but reckoned he might “just about drag him through it.”  in August 1960, Spiegel lavished   on a Finney test – a most elaporate and expensive affair n 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. (Otherwise he woiuld have stuck in tSammy Boy’s dreadful Night of the Generals, 1966, the way O ‘Toole andf Sharif were).   “I’m not a marketable product like a detergent,” declare Albie. “ 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: Finney’s RADA classmate and understudy of his hit play, The Long, The Tall and The Short.  Peter O’Toole.  

Lean made a point of seeing at least one film per day and was impressed by O’Toole’s Guiards offficer in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.  “He’s no good,” snapped Sam. Taking no notice, Lean simply told the actor: “I want you to do Lawrence.”  “Who’s the producer?”  asked O’Tooole. New as he was to movies,  he knew  knew aoout producers. He was one,.himself.  He had basically co-produced the Bank of England caper with his American manager, Jules Buck… who by the sheerest  happenstance happened to be a former Spiegel cohort at Horizon Pictures.   Oh, the filmworld is a village…

Where were we… Ah, yes! “Who’s the producer?”  asked O’Toole.  “Sam Spiegel!,” said Lean.   “Not a chance!”  said O’Toole.   Oh yeah?   Lean tested O‘Toole on  November 7, 1960 – one day instead of Finney’s four  Spiegel still refused him and mentioned other possibilities. “I’ve forgotten who  they were,” said Lean years later. (Damn!).  if Finney was a beatnik for Lean, O’Toole was a tearaway for Speigel. “Sam  thought I lived in a tree.” .

Such enmity was caused by a previous test trhe rumbunctious O’Toole had made for a previous Spiegel venture, Suddenly Last Summer, in 1959.  Holding  up an x-ray as  Dr Cukrowicz, O’Toole suddenly quipped: “It’s all right, Mrs Spiegel, your son will never  play the violin again”!


Sammy Boy was furious!

He vowed he’d never ever hire O’Toole.

Except, hang on  a minute…  this was the best Hamlet  and Jimmy Porter (in Look Back In Anger at Bristol, 1950) of his generation. Co-star Sheila Allen reported: “I’d swear that ectoplasm was coming out of him on that very first night – extraordinary.”

Fortunately, for Peter, he had Katharine Hepburn in his corner. They’d first met when she had called with congratulations at his stage dressingroom during The Long and the Short and the Tall…  just when he was pissing in a sink. (They later made The Lion in Winter, together in 1967). And 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..

O ‘Toole rapidly joined  the hell-raisers: Richard Burton, Albert Finney anfd  The Mixster as Peter called Richard Harris. “They all wanted to be Robert Mitchum,” commented assistant director David Tringham.  Ironically, O’Toole replaced Mitchum in Otto Preminger’s Rosebud,  1975,

More keen on international stardom  than Finney (that explains having a US manager), 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, when  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. but was still willing to sacrifice his next assigments, Antonioni’s The Eclipse and Visconti’s The Leopard (but Visconti wasn’t). Maurice Ronet’s  English was  no better than Delon’s (they were the  lookalike co-stars of René Clément’s Plein soleil, 1959).  Plus there 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.