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LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Raines, Jose Ferrer
Director:  David Lean
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  217 Minutes
Release Date:  April 3, 2001

Film ****

British Colonel T. E. Lawrence was a legend in his own time, and in David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, we are introduced to this man by looking first at his death in a motorcycle crash in England.  It was not even known at first that the dead victim was in fact the famed military commander.  He had changed his name and all but dropped out of public life, trying to escape the fame that he had so meticulously crafted for himself.  As many who knew him are asked to reflect on his death, one American journalist praises him as “a poet, a scholar, and a great warrior,” then under his breath, adds, “He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.”

The beauty of legends is also the problem with them…they blur the lines of historical reality.  The Lawrence of Lean’s film is as much a real person as he is a myth, and actor Peter O’Toole walks the fine line between historical figure and flamboyant hero with skillful precision.

As a 27 year old officer, Lawrence was sent into Arabia, which was a scattered and unorganized mass of tribes so engrossed in civil wars that they were at the mercy of the invading Turks.  The British, too, were at war with the Turks, but Lawrence’s ideas differed with those of his superiors.  They wanted Arabia to become a British territory, and were willing to supply the rebels with guns, ammunition and guidance in exchange.  Lawrence, however, convinces Prince Feisal (Guinness) that by unifying the tribes into one, Arabia could declare her independence.

At first, the Arabs are skeptical, but Lawrence makes a daring proposition:  attacking the Turks from the desert side, where they are unprotected by their sea facing artillery.  The enemy believes the hostile, dry stretch of uncrossable desert will protect them.  Lawrence is convinced it can be done, and when accomplished, victory will be theirs.  The doubtful tribes soon put their trust in this man’s ability to deliver a miracle…and he doesn’t disappoint. 

For reasons never fully explained but visually appreciated, Lawrence feels a strange kinship with the hostile, beautiful desert lands, and perhaps even a conflict of loyalties between his own country and the land of people who begin to look at him as a sovereign leader.  We can see that when Lawrence abandons his uniform for a flowing white Arabic garb that he seems more in his element.

He works at first to unite the warring tribes against their common enemies, and shows remarkable prowess for doing what is necessary to accomplish his goal.  Rather than let a tribal war break out when one member is accused of killing another from a different tribe, Lawrence takes it upon himself to execute the suspect.  The scene is made even more potent by us realizing at the same time he does that the man he must kill is the very one he had risked his life for earlier in bringing back from the desert.  Later, when Lawrence confesses the deed to a superior with the addition, “I liked it”, we really begin to understand the transformation in this man.

In the second half of the film, the fame struck Lawrence becomes more and more enamored of his own power, often leading rag tag bunches of badly organized Arabs into guerilla styled attacks on passing trains, where they kill and rob the passengers.  It is at this point that the American journalist begins to latch on to Lawrence with the idea of making him a heroic figure and a persuasion for his country to enter the world war…but at this time, he’s dismayed at having nothing noble to write home about.  “These people want their freedom,” Lawrence tells him.  “They’re going to get it.  I’m going to give it to them.”

Literary students always know hubris carries a weighty penalty, and for Lawrence, his pride directs him into a Turkish camp, where, under the direction of a sickly leader (Ferrer), he is brutally beaten and violated.  He returns to Cairo momentarily broken, but not defeated. 

His last great campaign is when he’s given an assignment to take Damascus with his army of Arabs, but fresh on the heels of his humiliating experience, he chooses to engage the Turkish army camped between himself and his military goal.  “NO PRISONERS!” is the madcap scream, and the hatred that burns in his eyes is terrifying.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most visually sumptuous and gorgeously filmed movies ever made.  Lean captures and explores the desert landscapes in enthralling ways, taking his time to establish shots and allowing their power to build and breathe naturally.  The most famous example of this is the first appearance of Ali (Sharif), as the camera focuses on a hazy, distant mirage on the horizon, and a tiny black speck first appears amidst the distortion and slowly grows into the figure of the Arab tribesman on horseback.  The skill necessary to create such a marvelous visual is mind boggling…yet for all intents and purposes, it’s just the beginning of what Lean has to offer.  From the dust blowing in the wind to the ripples forming on the face of the sand, the desert is an enticing and dangerous world come to cinematic life.  It sometimes dwarfs the human figures in frame, perhaps arguing that the nature of the environment is what turned T. E Lawrence into Lawrence of Arabia.

This disc represents the DVD debut of the restored 1989 director’s cut of the film, which added extra minutes back into the movie, and boasts a beautiful new 70 mm transfer as cleaned up and restored by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten.  This returned the film to David Lean’s original, unrushed vision, and created the definitive version for disc preservation as well.

Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece of epic filmmaking…one of the greatest and most influential pictures in the history of cinema.  As Omar Sharif mused, it cost a lot of money, had no love interests, very little action and was shot against a barren landscape.  Who today would have made such a picture?  Thankfully, Lean’s imagination preserved such a vision for us, and remains as astounding and consequential a movie as ever.

Video ****

This anamorphic transfer and restored film image is as close to perfect as you could ask for.  Whatever Harris and company did to the negative, they did right:  the colors are more beautiful, and amazingly, more natural looking than any Technicolor picture I can remember.  70 mm widescreen (framed at 2.20:1) is a naturally sharper and more detailed style of photography than standard Cinemascope widescreen, and that sharpness pays off remarkably in vivid, sumptuous imagery that springs to live on screen.  This transfer is unmarred by compression, break-up or grain, and the print itself is remarkably clean.  Seeing classic films looking their best on home video is why I got into DVD in the first place, and Lawrence is a reference quality example of just how it should be done.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix is a treat to listen to, particularly during the stronger moments of Maurice Jarre’s potent score.  The rear channels project some of the power of the orchestration, and come into play nicely during the chaotic battle sequences.  The subwoofer mostly adds bottom end to the music, but gives a little more dynamic range to the explosions and gunplay.  There were moments when I found the crossovers from left to right a little rough, but overall, nothing distracting.  The audio was clean and free from noise, with clear dialogue and impressive sound effects, and made for a pleasurable listen.

Features ***1/2

An impressive package, starting with the attractive DVD box, which is similar to the book-style box Columbia Tri Star used for the two disc set of The Bridge on the River Kwai, but with a cloth exterior.  Discs one and two both contain extra DVD ROM supplements.  The video extras are all on disc two, which starts with a superb hour long making-of documentary, featuring interviews with David Lean, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and others.  There is also an eight-minute interview with Steven Spielberg, a professed David Lean fan and one of the producers of the restoration.  There are four original featurettes, “Maan, Jordan: The Camels are Cast”, “In Search of Lawrence”, “Romance of Arabia”, and “Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic”.  There are three trailers, talent files, ad campaigns and newsreel footage of the New York premiere of the film, plus a reproduction of the original 1962 commemorative booklet.  Outstanding!

Summary:

This offering of Lawrence of Arabia by Columbia Tri Star is indicative of why DVD was invented in the first place.  This is one of the most visually stunning epics ever created, and this double disc set makes the most of those visuals in a gloriously restored anamorphic widescreen presentation.  With a terrific set of extras to boot, this DVD is an unquestionable must-own.