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 miracleSteven 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.”

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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.

Part of Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films (11th to 19th September 2010)
…see what happened when Spielberg eventually got to work with his hero – it wasn’t all a bed of roses…

Discover More:
Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    Wow, I had no idea LoA is his favorite movie. Don’t shoot me but I haven’t seen this film yet, my hubby and I have always wanted to, but for some reason haven’t got around to it. I’m sure it deserves to be a legend.

  2. Avatar
    Encore Entertainment Reply

    Hmmm, I wouldn’t have thought that Spielberg was influenced by Lean, especially this one. I’ve always thought that Anthony Minghella seems to have been influenced heavily by Lean – the parallels seems espcially strong between Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago and Minghella’s The English Patient.

    Ruth, whenever you do watch make sure you clear up time. It’s loooooooooooong, but rewarding.

  3. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    LoA is one of cinema’s true triumpmhs. It’s brilliant, amazing and astonishing, in equal measure. I’ve seen it a few times, and am still amazed at just how powerful it still is.

  4. Avatar
    Thomas Reply

    I had seen it a couple of times on tv, I guess, before I stumbled upon a theatre screening of a brand new print of the restored version, with THX sound. I have never had such a cinema experience before – or after. The epic operatic style, the courage to design soundscapes and paint large lanscapes, the intensity of the characters and the actors is mind-blowing, indeed. I read an interview with Lean where he explains that he actually chickened out of doing the film even more grandiose, cutrting back the first appearance of Omar Sharif (when he appears out of the desert heat) 5 minutes… and a fabulous script, too, with immensely quotable dialogues. (My favourite: “It damn well ‘urts! – Certainly it hurts. – What’s the trick then? –The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”)

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    Dan Reply

    @Thomas: Everybody I’ve met who has had the opportunity to see this on the big screen says it’s one of the greatest cinematic experiences of their lives. That’s testament to the film’s lasting influence but also to that almost mind-blowing photography that I’m guessing looks even more impressive when it’s projected 30 feet high. I would love to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen. Maybe some day.

    @rtm: Yes Ruth, clear the diary for this one and don’t think there’s something wrong with your TV at the beginning as the score plays to a blank screen for the first five minutes. But as Encore says, very, very rewarding at the end.

  6. Avatar
    Thomas Reply

    @Dan: oh and I forgot to mention – it was a 70 mm print!!!!

  7. Avatar
    Alyson Reply

    Spielberg is right, this film leaves you stunned and speechless the fist time around. I’ve only seen it once and I know I need to see it at least once more before really writing about it. But to see it in a theater, ah! What a dream.

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    mark Reply

    LoA is undeniably a good pic … many memorable moments, including the part when O’Toole and the kiddie reach the Suez Canal and see the ship passing thru the desert. However, I saw the original in a theatre in 1982 and, some years later, watched the restored version (again in a cinema) and still felt something was missing. that hasn’t changed …

    For me, Lean’s masterpiece was Bridge on the River Kwai. Didn’t think this until I saw a 70mm reissue print circa 1994 and a few things stood out.

    (1) William Holden as the anti hero – finally saw why he was a leading Hollywood star for 20 plus years … on the surface the film may have been about disfunctional British one-up man ship, but for me it was really about a cowardly American who almost gets away but then sacrifices himself when the misson he’s sent on on goes AWOL.

    (2) It’s an art film – opens and closes with the eagle soaring through the air above the jungle.

    Sometimes, late at night, when I’m by myself and not thinking about female pubic regions, I dream about remaking this film. In it are Brad Pitt (playing William Holden), Clive Owen (Alec Guiness) and Jude Law (Jack Hawkins). The final member of this stellar cast is Hugh Laurie, who plays the James Donald character. Imagaine it – Dr House limping down the hill crying “Madness, madness” after the battle. A potential masterpiece …

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