Replay: Florence of Arabia

To mark the death of Peter O’Toole, below is a post written last year about that incredible work of art, Lawrence of Arabia

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Each week in The Artist’s Way we’re asked to take our inner artist on a date. The premise is that we all have an inner artist, which is not necessarily about being a painter or being a potential painter, but about the fact we all come into the world as a force of nature, as a fount of ever-welling creating. Artists of life, we are.

Only trouble is, the fount gets a bit dammed up along the way, and we end up spending our glory in shallow rivulets and ditches. The Artist’s Way and the weekly artist’s date is about restoring the flow.

I’ve had some great artist dates. One of the most unexpectedly great was a visit to the Astor Cinema, a huge crumbling 1930s pile, to see Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole.  I think I’d seen it before on TV, but nothing prepared me for its impact this time on the massive screen of the Astor. I also wasn’t prepared for its length. It started at 7pm and ended at 11:20pm, including the intermission. But once started, no-one could leave the desert or Lawrence.

Filmed in Jordan, the scenes in the desert are stupendous. The huge white ball of the sun blotting out the sky, baking the plain of the Nefud desert, the desert within the desert, where even the Bedouin won’t cross because there’s no water.  The scene – my favourite of the film – where Lawrence and his Arab guide arrive at a well, a stack of stones in the utterly featureless white-gold plain and a shot rings out and the guide falls dead. And there on the uncertain horizon a tiny black wraith starts forming, and travels over the heat shimmer, growing larger and larger until it metamorphoses into the huge black garb of Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish, played by Omar Sharif, sitting on a immensely tall, black-tasselled camel.

The scene is straight from a fairy tale, a universal fairy tale dreamt by all of us.

The film won just about every award available. At the Academy Awards of 1963 it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score; at the Golden Globes of that year, it won Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director; and at the BAFTAs, Best Film, Best British Actor and Best British Screenplay. It is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, and its style “influenced George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg who called the film a ‘miracle’.”

The indisputable accolade was delivered by Noël Coward who, on seeing the film, told Peter O’Toole,

If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.

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