Sunday 6 December 2015

Who Has Played Lawrence of Arabia On Screen?

Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, is an endlessly fascinating fellow.

Though there are several books by him, and countless books about him (a small sample of which are for sale in Withnail Books' Little Shop), it is of course Peter O'Toole's portrayal in David Lean's film which continues to be the image of Lawrence which most people are familiar with.

It's an image which veers some way from the truth — O'Toole was about a foot and half taller than the real Lawrence, for a start — but it's not the only one. Who else has played T. E. on screen? 

Firstly, let's have a look at the real Lawrence on film. There is no recording of his voice (apparently he giggled like a girl!), but here's a couple of links which handily compile all the existing newsreel footage of the man himself.

There were several attempts to make a film of Lawrence's life before Lean's. Fabled producer/director Alexander Korda initially entered into negotiations with Lawrence himself to acquire the film rights to Revolt in the Desert. Actors considered for the part, all top-flight leading men of the day, included:

Laurence Olivier

Robert Donat

Leslie Howard, who was officially announced as playing the role, and gave an interview about his plans for the part, which is reproduced in the excellent book Filming T. E. Lawrence: Korda's Lost Epic.

Another nearly-T.E. who was considered, and even (for a short while) cast in the part by Korda was Walter Hudd.

Walter Hudd

Mainly a stage actor, Hudd had played Private Meek, a character based on Lawrence, in George Bernard Shaw's play Too True To Be Good. He'd corresponded with Lawrence (who approved), and got as far as costume tests for the proposed film, as this photo shows:

Alas, Hudd never got the chance, and neither did Dirk Bogarde, who was cast in a later attempt to mount the film. 

Bogarde, who also got as far as costume and hair tests, later wrote that the cancelled film was "my greatest regret."

Dirk Bogarde, around the time he was cast as Lawrence.

(The script for this version, by Terence Rattigan, ultimately became the stage play Ross, which originally starred Alec Guinness as Ross/Lawrence, but that's another story.)

Alec Guinness as Lawrence.
He went on to play Feisal in the David Lean movie, of course.

Yet another attempt to film Lawrence's story was set to star Laurence Harvey.

Laurence Harvey. Only the name was similar.

Now we finally get to the Lean epic. After a huge search, the director finally found his man. The actor performed an elaborate screen test, which took four days to film, but ultimately he didn't want to sign the multi-year contract producer Sam Spiegel required, and declined the role.

His name? Albert Finney.

Albert Finney in costume as Lawrence, from the screen test he filmed. 
Yes, O'Toole was second choice...

If you've never seen Peter O'Toole's performance as Lawrence, you really should track the film down and watch it immediately, preferably on the largest screen you can find. 

O'Toole never quite escaped this, his breakthrough role, and no wonder — he's mesmerising.

Here's a version of one of the more memorable moments of Lean's film that you probably haven't seen before...

After O'Toole, the idea of anyone else playing Lawrence seemed ridiculous, and indeed there has not been a major cinema film based on his life since.

There are still a few Lesser Lawrences to be spotted though...

Voyagers! was a short-lived US TV series in 1982-3, which was a sort of not-particularly-good cross between Doctor Who and Quantum Leap. In the episode 'A World Apart', Judson Scott guest-starred as T. E. Lawrence...

Here's the episode in full:

In 1992 the British TV movie A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia starred Ralph Fiennes as T. E., in the nearest anything has come to being a sequel to the Lean film. The plot revolves around the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (with the odd flashback to the war in the desert), and while the film certainly has its faults, Fiennes gives an excellent performance, well matched by a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Alexander Siddig as Feisal.

Fiennes was evidently fascinated by the real Lawrence. Here's a short film he made about visiting Lawrence's cottage, Cloud's Hill, for the BBC programme One Foot in the Past:

Lawrence of Arabia: The Battle for the Arab World is a very good two-part documentary from 2003, directed by James Hawes (these days better known for helming dramas such as Doctor Who and Penny Dreadful). Hawes included some dramatised recreations, using a couple of actors in the role of Lawrence. Well, one actor, and a crew member who looked the part.

George Pagliero

Michael Maloney, as the post-war Lawrence.

It's not really a surprise that Indiana Jones was good mates with Lawrence. The TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles featured Indy meeting up with him in two episodes:

'The Curse of the Jackal', played by the late Joseph A. Bennett

'Daredevils of the Desert', played by Douglas Henshall

An oddity: Lawrence Al-Arab, a Syrian TV series starring Jihad Saad in the title role.

You can watch episode one of the series online here. I've seen no Western writing on this series at all, and alas my Arabic is non-existent, so I'm not about to start... I'd love to hear from anyone who has seen and understood it. From a very cursory view, it does not appear to be anti-Lawrence (though it certainly looks anti-Turk!).

Coming more up to date, here's RPatz himself, Robert Pattinson, playing a supporting role as Lawrence in Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog's Gertrude Bell biopic, which has so far only received a spotty release worldwide (garnering some pretty spotty reviews). Mind you, a pro-Arab film is a tough sell these days, sadly.

Finally, a couple of 'tributes'.

David McCallum in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode 'The Arabian Affair', in which Kuryakin claims to be Lawrence's son, to help get an Arab tribe on side against THRUSH.

... and Michael Fassbender as the android David in Ridley Scott's Prometheus. I wish I could find this bit of fan art in a big enough scan to put on a t-shirt...

So, who have I missed out? There's bound to be many, especially if one counts spoofs and tributes, but are there any other 'proper' on-screen portrayals of the historical T. E. Lawrence to add? Do let me know...


  1. How about his voice in Japanese dubs? Takao Inoue (1935-1994) voiced many of O'Toole's parts in Japanese, alongside a lot of the movie work of Rock Hudson. However, he is not the only man to dub O'Toole's Lawrence into Japanese as this was also done in some versions by Shin Kishida (1939-1982) who can also be found voicing Richard Harris and Terence Stamp. Most recently, Lawrence has been redubbed yet again by Koichi Yamadera (1961- ), who has done a shedload of voices, but in movies has done a lot of Jim Carrey and Eddy Murphy:


  2. Thanks JC. Any and all info along these lines welcomed...

  3. Loved this. The Young Indy episode information is a bit erroneous -- three episodes, and the last bit, at Paris with Feisal, is from "Winds of Change."

  4. There was a TV adaptation of Ross with Ian McKellen as Lawrence made in the '70s, but so far as I know it's unavailable on video.

    1. Wow. I'd never heard of that! Love to see it one day.

  5. Great survey, I'm sure you're getting a great response. flat screen printing machine