Lawrence of Arabia

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Nov 14, 2012
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

David Lean

Release Date(s)

1962 (November 13, 2012)

Studio(s)

Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Review

The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia was in 1989. The film had just been restored to a stunning, then-state-of-the-art 70MM, Dolby Stereo print. I stayed in my seat as the Exit Music played, thrilled by the spectacle I’d just seen and awed that I had just seen a movie with an Overture, Intermission and Exit Music. At that moment, I swore I would never, ever watch this film on a television.

Needless to say, I’ve been a complete failure at keeping that promise. I’ve since seen it several times on DVD and now, at long last, on Blu-ray. I would still argue that home video is not the best way to watch Lawrence. But if you haven’t got access to a movie palace with a 60-foot screen and a 70MM print of the movie, Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray is the next best thing.

Modern movie audiences have lost their grip on what a movie epic is supposed to be, misapplying the term to movies that are merely long or expensive looking. Real epics are vast, sweeping affairs and no one mastered the epic form as well as David Lean. Lean’s early films tended to be smaller, character-based works like Brief Encounter and Summertime. But in the second half of his career, he worked almost exclusively on a much larger canvas, creating epics both great (Lawrence and The Bridge on the River Kwai) and... well, a lot less great (anybody for Ryan’s Daughter? Didn’t think so.).

Lean’s epics fill the screen with landscapes never before seen on film, teeming hordes of people and constant motion, which is one way they get away with being so amazingly long. There is never a completely still shot in Lawrence of Arabia. By this, I do not mean that the camera is moving all the time. I mean there is dynamic activity within the frame. Even if the movement is so slight as to be nearly imperceptible, as in the famous shot of the sunrise in the desert, Lean and his key collaborators (the most indispensable of whom are art director John Box, cinematographer Freddie Young and composer Maurice Jarre) manage to draw your attention directly toward that motion.

What sets Lawrence of Arabia apart from other gargantuan spectacles is its central character. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most complex, elusive and ultimately unknowable figures in history and, as played by Peter O’Toole in a legendary, star-making performance, one of the most multi-dimensional characters to ever anchor a film. As the film begins, Lawrence is a map maker for the British army in Cairo, looked upon as a dilettante and a half-wit by his superiors. Lawrence is sent off to act as an observer in the camp of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). Instead of merely observing however, Lawrence gets involved, soon becoming committed to Feisal’s fight to liberate Arabia.

He leads a successful, if arduous, campaign to seize the key city of Akaba, securing his image as a savior in the eyes of the Arabs. But because Lawrence is a man who really doesn't know who he is, he soon starts believing his own legend ("Didn’t you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet."). At the same time, Lawrence is both appalled and thrilled by the bloodlust this war has awoken in him. As the Arabs look to Lawrence for guidance and the British expect him to serve their interests, Lawrence struggles to figure out who he is. Is he a hero? A savage? A British soldier? An Arab revolutionary?

Whenever a studio releases one of their crown jewels on Blu-ray, we tend to hold the discs to a higher standard. These films are important, both to audiences and the studios themselves, and deserve to be treated with care and respect. So it’s with no small amount of relief to report that the image quality on this disc is, in a word, perfect. A huge round of applause to Grover Crisp and the entire restoration team at Sony for delivering a rich, textured, magnificent looking disc. The audio, a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, is very nearly as good as the picture with Maurice Jarre’s score sounding better than ever. From a technical standpoint alone, this ranks as one of the finest Blu-ray releases of the year.

Sony has elected to release Lawrence of Arabia as both a stand-alone two-disc Blu-ray and in a much more elaborate four-disc box set complete with a book and other assorted goodies. Bill will be taking a closer look at the box set in a separate review. For those of you on a budget or simply with limited shelf space, the two-disc set is certainly good enough to satisfy. Disc one includes the entire feature and a new Secrets of Arabia picture-in-graphics track. This includes a mix of historical info and facts about the film. It’s attractively presented and has some interesting information and images but I suspect most people will do as I did and check it out intermittently rather than going through the entire thing.

The other special features on the second disc are primarily returning favorites from previous DVD releases. There is a new 20-minute interview with Peter O’Toole reflecting on the making of the film. As Peter O’Toole is genetically incapable of telling an uninteresting anecdote, this is a wonderful new addition. The disc also includes Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent hour-long documentary, The Making of Lawrence of Arabia, and an interview with Steven Spielberg on the film’s impact. There are also four vintage featurettes, footage from the New York premiere and a feature on the film’s various advertising campaigns. The set also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Now, I know there are people who enjoy the convenience of watching movies on their mobile devices. But if you watch this on your tablet or phone, never speak to me again.

Lawrence of Arabia is an astonishing achievement and, watching it today, you can easily believe that it took over three years to make. Movies of this size and scope are virtually impossible to make today for a variety of reasons, mainly economic. Also, I fear we no longer have many directors capable of bringing this level of complexity and sophistication to bear on a subject. Since we are unlikely to ever see another movie quite like Lawrence of Arabia, it’s extremely gratifying to have the real thing immortalized so beautifully on Blu-ray. This release comes as close as anything will to capturing the thrill and grandeur of truly epic cinema.

- Dr. Adam Jahnke

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