Lawrence of Arabia: The film that inspired Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s favourite film is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. When the film was first released in 1962 Spielberg went to see it at a small theatre in Phoenix, Arizona where he immediately fell in love with the epic tale of T.E. Lawrence. However, as the director explains, he wasn’t aware of the enormity of the film’s influence on him until much later.
He says, “I wasn’t able to digest it in one sitting. I actually walked out of the theatre stunned and speechless.” The young Spielberg, who was still is high school, adds that it wasn’t until months later that the impact of that one film began to sink in.
“It pulverised me,” he tells film historian and documentary filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau. “I went out and bought the Maurice Jarre soundtrack and for the next couple of months played the score over and over again. They had a production book inside the soundtrack album and I devoured each picture one at a time wanting to know how that film was made. It was a miracle that picture.”
It was a miracle – Steven Spielberg about Lawrence of Arabia
Spielberg speaks about his upbringing in the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona as one that allowed him a kinship with T.E. Lawrence’s story, and how Lawrence also had a fondness for the desert. “I could understand his obsession with how clean the desert was,” says Spielberg. “Nature swept all the debris out of the desert and kept it pristine. It was that moment of Lawrence and nature which was one that I could really relate to.”
From a visual level Spielberg loved the transitions, especially the shot of Peter O’Toole blowing out the match which cut to the Arabian sunset as the flame blew out. He explains, that although he could not articulate the way the film made him feel back then, it did inspire his curiosity. “How do those shots happen? Do they have to get up at 4am and wait for the sun to rise?” says Spielberg.
“When I first met David Lean it was like meeting my guru. He was someone who I had worshipped, studied, and dreamt of meeting some day. And he didn’t disappoint me at all when I met him. He was intimidating in his intellect and the fact I couldn’t keep up with his knowledge about history, current events, and about film.” They discussed the filmmakers that had inspired Lean and it occurred to Spielberg that there was a pecking order – there were directors that influenced Lean, and likewise, he influenced a generation, as Spielberg did on directors emerging in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Then we got to talking about how you get the foot print out of the sand for take 2,” Spielberg laughs. “I saw those camels work for three quarters of the mile, how would you reset for take 2? And he’d explain to me how it took 285 shooting days to finish, and you understood why David was only getting one shot a day.”
Spielberg played a part in the film’s restoration. Once finishing the project he screened the film for David Lean and experienced one of the greatest moments of his life. Lean, having not seen the film for many years, gave Spielberg a live commentary, explaining how shots were done and what it was like working with the actors.
Before starting one of his own films Spielberg says he watches Lawrence of Arabia as well as David Lean’s other films. He has also stated he likes to watch Seven Samurai, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Searchers before making a film. In addition to David Lean, Spielberg lists Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford amongst his favourites.
Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films