Did a Trained Camel Save Peter O’Toole’s Life During the Filming of Lawrence of Arabia?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: A trained camel saved Peter O’Toole’s life on the set of Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic film directed by David Lean about the life of British officer T.E. Lawrence, who was famous for his role as the British liaison in the “Arab Revolt” of 1916-1918, which tied in with World War I for England.

In the film, Lawrence is played by Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif plays his chief Arab compatriot, Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.

As you might imagine, filming an epic film in the desert came with some difficulties for the actors involved, and the riding of camels was no exception.

Neither O’Toole nor Sharif were particularly adept camel riders, and that became especially important at the filming of the Lawrence-led attack on the city Aqaba.

In the film, O’Toole and Sharif would lead a cavalry of 500 extras on horses into battle. O’Toole and Sharif would be riding camels.

The two would prepare for the frightening scene the next day by doing what O’Toole would often do – get drunk.

However, during the day of the filming, Sharif tied himself to his camel. O’Toole was wary about being attached to the camel, for fear that the camel might go nuts and he would be stuck with it.

The actor likely regretted his decision later that day.

O’Toole was thrown from his camel early in the shooting.

As you might imagine, being thrown from your camel in front of THIS mess…

is not a pretty sight.

In fact, it’s downright deadly.

Luckily for O’Toole, his camel was trained well, and it instinctively surrounded O’Toole with its body, covering him up as the mass of horses passed by.

I do not know if O’Toole changed his mind about the whole “attached to the camel” idea, but the scene eventually was completed with O’Toole on his camel…

Still, it’s amazing to think of how close such a great film came to tragedy.

The legend is…

STATUS: Basically True

Thanks to Gene D. Phillips’ Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

2 Responses to “Did a Trained Camel Save Peter O’Toole’s Life During the Filming of Lawrence of Arabia?”

  1. I saw an interview with Peter O’Toole. He said the camel provided for him to ride was a freight carrying camel and not a riding camel. It was very difficult and uncomfortable for him and, I gather, experienced camel riders to ride. The night before the scene Shariff proposed a bet as to which, if either, of them would be killed or seriously injured the next day. Shariff was noted for wanting to wager and everything. A bet was made and then they discussed what they would do to survive the next day’s scene. Shariff decided to tie himself to the camel. O’Toole decided to get roaring drunk and just rely on luck. At the end of the scene, O’Toole was still aboard the camel and Shariff was still tied on but was hanging underneath the camel. The close ups of O’Toole’s face during the charge were acclaimed as inspired acting while O’Toole attributed his appearance as merely reflected the abject fear and trebidation he was experiencing.

  2. Corrections:

    “…wager on everyting.”

    “reflecting the…”

    There was no mention of his falling off of a camel or I missed it.

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