LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer,
Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Claude Raines
Director: David Lean
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Features: See Review
Length: 227 Minutes
Release Date: November 13, 2012
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
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
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
This disc represents the Blu-ray 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
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.
It’s been said that one experience every movie fan should seek out is seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen at least once. I never have…but I certainly feel like I came close to it with this Blu-ray release. This is a film with massive scope and minute detail, and for the first time in my life, I feel like nothing about David Lean’s vision has been compromise. No effect is lost thanks to this pristine and beautiful high definition transfer. Simply remarkable, and worthy of the subject.
Maurice Jarre’s Oscar winning score gets the most benefit from this uncompressed audio track. Rich and dynamic, and superbly orchestral, it sets and carries the mood. But the dynamic range also comes from the quiet, atmospheric sounds of the desert at night, juxtaposed with the raucous battle sequences by day. When a train gets blown up, you will believe the impact. Nicely done!
If nothing else, it’s amazing that a film as long as Lawrence can fit on a single disc…bravo Blu-ray technology! The disc with the movie also includes a pictorial graphics track to share with you the “Secrets of Arabia”.
The second disc has the remaining features, and it starts with a wonderful new retrospective interview with Peter O’Toole. There is also a conversation with Steven Spielberg (partially responsible for the film’s restoration), a making-of documentary, plus featurettes on the film’s camels, the real Lawrence, and the romance (there really isn’t any in the picture), plus the original 1970 documentary, newsreel footage of the New York premiere, and some trailers.
Lawrence of Arabia defines the experience of a classic movie experience made absolutely perfect through high definition. If you never get to see it on the big screen, I’m convinced this Sony Blu-ray is a very close second.