Locating the Women in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

A discussion of the vital contributions
made by three women beyond the screen

by Melanie Williams

Despite running for over three hours, David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia has no female speaking part and scant female on-screen presence. Women exist in the world of the film only as swathed masses bidding farewell to the Arab menfolk departing to war, and later as the anonymous victims of that war; or in a very brief glimpse of a woman’s jewelled hand – a hand that actually belonged to the film’s second assistant director, David Tringham. This effacement of women was of course entirely faithful to the film’s source text, T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which the author comments that ‘from end to end of it there was nothing female in the Arab movement, but the camels’. Instead the focus of Lawrence of Arabia is unsurprisingly on the gloriously enigmatic and charismatic figure of T E Lawrence, incarnated by the late Peter O’Toole. Behind the scenes too, the film’s key authorial roles, that of producer (Sam Spiegel), director (David Lean) and screenwriter (initially Michael Wilson, then Robert Bolt), were all held by men. In short, Lawrence of Arabia appears the least likely film for inclusion in a blog about women’s film history. And yet this apparently ultra-homosocial production benefitted from the significant input of three remarkable women.

2013 BAFTA tribute to Phyllis DaltonPhyllis Dalton, the costume designer for Lawrence of Arabia, certainly had her work cut out, having to clothe vast numbers of extras in addition to designing costumes for the film’s main stars. The journalist Howard Kent’s account of the making of Lawrence of Arabia offers an admiring if slightly patronising praise (‘Phyllis looked much too young and pretty to be capable of handling a job of such magnitude’) for Dalton’s remarkable achievements on location. He noted her ability to work effectively within an ever-changing shooting schedule, ‘spending days on detailed research, translating that research onto the drawing-board and then going off to buy the material and equipment’ while still being indefatigable: ‘When eight o’clock strikes, Phyllis Dalton is still trotting round as full of energy as ever. It is only when she sees the traders beginning to pull down their shutters that she realises the day’s shopping must come to an end. By that time she has ordered clothes and materials running into many hundreds of pounds, and done it as coolly as a girl going out to buy three yards for a skirt and a new blouse for Spring.’ Dalton’s work was crucial to the film’s characterisation of its ambiguous hero. The character’s British army uniform was deliberately creased and ill-fitting in the early part of the film to then emphasise by comparison how much more at ease Lawrence looked in Arab dress. And as Lawrence’s mental state disintegrates, progressively thinner material was used for his white robes, subtly moving from thicker fabric to diaphanous weathered organza to underline the character’s increasing deterioration.

Barbara Cole doing continuity for Lawrence of Arabia. Image courtesy of http://www.scriptsupervisors.co.uk/.Another influential woman working on the production was its continuity supervisor, Barbara Cole. As I have discussed elsewhere continuity is one of the less celebrated jobs in film production and (coincidentally?) nearly always done by women. The continuity supervisor requires a near-omniscient perspective on what is happening during production, keeping detailed notes and maintaining the most up-to-date version of the shooting script while ensuring that the picture will cut together successfully, avoiding continuity errors.

However, continuity supervision often entailed much more than this, sometimes spilling over into becoming an unofficial adviser to the director, or taking on a diplomatic role. Cole’s working relationship with Lean was further complicated by their beginning a love affair on location. But this too had its strategic uses. Phyllis Dalton noted how if she ‘needed something, one could put it subtly to Barbara and let it reach David’s ears.’ And after the film had premiered to great acclaim, Lean was very happy to credit Cole as an integral part of Lawrence of Arabia’s success: ‘Looks as if we made a smash, darling. All our little talks in the caravan and all the effort.’

And finally, in post-production, another woman played a key role in shaping the film: its editor Anne Coates, whose 53 credits as editor include The Elephant Man 1980, Chaplin 1992 and Erin Brockovich 2000. Coates would go on to win an Oscar for her work on Lawrence (but did not attend the ceremony for family reasons). According to Kevin Brownlow’s biography of Lean, it was due in no small part to Coates that Lean, an experienced editor himself, adopted more innovative Nouvelle Vague-influenced forms of cutting. Indeed Lawrence of Arabia’s most unforgettable edit came partly from her suggestion: the direct cut from a match being blown out to sunrise in the desert, without the intervening dissolve originally planned, which takes us straight to the heart of Lawrence’s obsession. (See Anne Coates discussing the experience of editing Lawrence of Arabia back in 1988).

Anne Coates © Image courtesy of BFI Special Collections

Lawrence of Arabia provides an object lesson in the importance of looking beyond on-screen representation but also beyond above-the-line roles in film production in order to evaluate fully women’s contribution to film history. The drama on screen undoubtedly focussed on masculinity in extremis but beneath the surface it is possible to discern the impact of the vital contributions made by Dalton, Cole and Coates.

Melanie Williams (@BritFilmMelanie) is a WFTHN Committee Member and Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her work focuses on British cinema, particularly in relation to gender issues. She has written monographs on women in the 1950s films of J. Lee Thompson and on David Lean, and has co-edited collections of essays on the British woman’s film, Ealing Studios, Mamma Mia! The Movie and Shane Meadows. Recent articles explore audience memories of the 1957 British film ‘Woman in a Dressing Gown’ and the gendered labour of continuity supervisors.

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