The Middle East awoke this morning to hear the sad news that Peter O’Toole, the legendary lead actor from undeniably the most celebrated film about the region, had died at the age of 81.
While O’Toole failed to win an Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia (he famously received a further seven nominations before finally being handed an Honorary Academy Award in 2003), it was a breakthrough role that would come to define this Irish-born, UK-raised icon and, even 50 years on, the director David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece is still the first port of call for many when considering the words “Middle East” and “film”.
Albert Finney was actually Lean’s first choice to play the part of Thomas Edward “T E” Lawrence, the British army officer and scholar renowned for aiding the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1917, but Finney turned it down. Marlon Brando did the same, before it eventually went to a virtually unknown, classically trained 6’2” actor with blond hair and mesmerising blue eyes.
And O’Toole threw himself into the role with the sort of gusto he would become known for. He read as much as he could about Lawrence, he studied Bedouin culture and lived in a Bedouin tent. He even taught himself the basics of Arabic and learnt to ride a camel. Among the numerous stories to emerge from the epic production was that he found his saddle uncomfortable and used a piece of foam rubber, bought from a market in Amman. The extras reportedly followed suit and rubber can be seen on many of the camels in the film, while the Bedouins gave O’Toole the nickname “Ab al-‘Isfanjah”, meaning “Father of the Sponge”. Perhaps as a hat tip to his debut, O’Toole said it was time to “chuck in the sponge” when he retired from acting just one year ago.
Despite being largely shot in Jordan – still today a booming hub for international productions (Zero Dark Thirty and Transformers being just two major films shot in the country recently) – Lawrence of Arabia was eventually banned from being screened there. While King Hussein had reportedly been hugely helpful with logistical arrangements and providing extras and locations, the film was deemed to be disrespectful towards Arab culture. In fact, the only Arab country to give the film a wide release was that of its other breakthrough star, Omar Sharif. The Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser reportedly agreed with its Arab nationalist tones.
But times have changed. Last year, a beautiful, digitally restored print of Lawrence of Arabia screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, marking half a century since its first release.
“The remarkable actor Peter O’Toole was essentially unknown before the director David Lean gave him his big break,” says the Abu Dhabi Film Fest director Ali Al Jabri. “They then worked together for two years when making Lawrence of Arabia. It was a leap of faith and imagination on both their parts to create a film experience that is forever stirring and visionary.”
The region is yet to see another acclaimed big-budget epic since O’Toole, Lean, Sharif and company landed in Jordan all those years ago. There have been attempts, though. 2011’s Doha-funded Black Gold was a similarly bold historic adventure set across the sand dunes, shot in Tunisia and Qatar and billed as a Lawrence of Arabia for the 21st century. But the movie fell foul of the critics and failed to make the box-office dent that had been hoped for.
And despite the rise of Arab actors such as Amr Waked and Ali Suliman in Hollywood circles, Omar Sharif, now 81, is still considered the Middle East’s biggest star..
Whether we’ll see a film about the region hit the same heights as Lawrence of Arabia isn’t looking probable in the foreseeable future. The film is a regular presence towards the top of lists of best films ever made, ranked seventh by the American Film Institute and first in a list of the “epic” genre. In 1999, the film came third in a poll by the British Film Institute of the best British films. And O’Toole’s performance is often considered among the greatest of all time, having topped lists made by Premiere and Entertainment Weekly.
In a film landscape awash with remakes, there’s very good reason why nobody has attempted to take on Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia again: it would be impossible.