Jarre: Lawrence of Arabia

This overture is used in the movie in the way that a traditional theatre or opera overture would have been, using all the main themes to give a flavour of what is to come. In the movie it is played against a black screen, after which the opening titles are shown. We hear Jarre’s Arabic theme followed by the main theme or “Desert” theme. The British army are clearly represented in the march section after which all of the themes come together in a rousing finale.

The creation of the score to Lawrence of Arabia was a troubled one. In 1961 producer Sam Spiegel approached Maurice Jarre with the intention of hiring him as one of three composers that would work on the project. He also approached Benjamin Britten to write the British Army themes, and Aram Khachaturian to compose the Arabic themes. Jarre was to write “everything else”!

This was a very unusual proposition, and luckily for Jarre fell down on two counts. Khachaturian was stuck behind the Iron Curtain unable to leave Russia, and Britten wanted 18-months to work on his part as he was already working on another project; a timescale that was deemed far too long by the studio. Jarre was seemingly in the prime seat to score the whole film but in a further twist, Spiegel arrived back in London from a trip to Hollywood in September of 1961 with news that he had hired a famous and well-respected composer to write 90% of the score. This composer was “aware of the story of Lawrence of Arabia” and felt he didn’t need to see the film to write his themes, so Jarre was again snubbed and consigned to arranging music by another composer that would be delivered to him and writing incidental cues in the remaining 10% of the movie.

In the interim between hearing the news about Khachaturian and Britten in July and September however, Jarre had taken the opportunity to watch some of the early footage in a small cinema in London. After the first day he was surprised that he had not seen any sign of the main stars; Peter O’Toole of Omar Sharif, only hours and hours of admittedly beautiful shots of the desert. He would return to that theatre every day for a week in July, eventually having watched forty hours of film that would eventually be cut down to the movie’s 3hr 45 run time.

It was clear to Jarre that the desert itself was going to be as much of a character in the movie as Lawrence and his men and began to sketch out his Desert theme.

A week or two after the meeting in September, a meeting was called between Jarre, Spiegel and director David Lean so that they could hear the new themes that had arrived from the composer in America. This would be the first time Jarre had met Lean. Not being a particularly great pianist, Jarre had hired one to come and play the themes for them, and when the first one, the Arabic theme, was played he thought with some irritation that it was very generic and clichéd. Next came a “love” theme for Lawrence, which Jarre thought was misguided given his notoriously complex sexuality and the fact that this aspect of Lawrence was not relevant to the film. Finally, a British theme, which was in fact an existing march, not original music as Jarre felt it should have been. Apparently, the director agreed and had been quietly bubbling with anger as he shot to his feet and berated Spiegel for wasting a day he could have spent editing the picture. Spiegel turned to Jarre and asked if he’d prepared anything and, after giving a caveat about his playing ability started to play his main theme. When he finished playing, Lean walked up to him, patted him on the should and, turning to Spiegel said, “This chap should write the music, he knows what I mean”. With that he was given the job of writing the full score but was faced with a Herculean task. The date for the film’s premiere was set for the first week in December, which left him with just six weeks to write and record the score!

The iconic soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia won Maurice Jarre his first of three Oscars; the other two being for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984). In 2005 the American Film Institute ranked Lawrence of Arabia #3 out of 250 nominations in their 100 Years of Film Scores list.

Christian Siddall, Violin 2