The Movie (5/5)
I have tried for the past week to put into words my thoughts on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. I have written three drafts, torn each one to pieces, and forced myself to start over each time, in the hopes that I feel satisfied with what I have prepared. Lawrence of Arabia is a tough film for me to capture in writing, because my initial viewing of the film changed the way I viewed film making. The large sets, huge casts, and brilliant score were so incredible, but what really spoke to me was the film’s ability to tell the story of a single man; a timid man who goes off to Arabia to make a name for himself, only to be met with the harsh reality of the world, but to tell that story through the lens of the most ambitious film making ever committed to film.
The film, is broken down into three acts, and tells a rather traditional, but tragic story. To boil it down into its most basic pieces, Lawrence of Arabia is the, “rise and fall of T.E. Lawrence.” Over the course of nearly four hours, we get to watch in excitement as Lawrence is ushered away from his small military post in Cairo to the exotic locales of the desert, and cheer along with him as he defies all odds and orders to lead a small band of men through the treacherous Nefud Desert, and watch in awe as he rallies a massive Arab army to take the city of Aqaba from the Turks – all in the film’s first act. In the film’s second act, we watch as Lawrence becomes a legend, leading the Arabs to wage a guerilla war campaign against the Turks in Arabia, and finally, must watch in agony as everything Lawrence has worked for collapses around him in the final act of the film.
While not exactly the most original concept ever put on paper, the magic’s in the execution. The role of T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Subtle when necessary, and grandiose in the most subdued of ways, O’Toole plays the character as sort of a quiet, intelligent, somewhat queer man. He plays most of the role through his facial expression, letting them be expressive and vibrant, as he talks in a very deliberate kind of hushed intensity. He is amusing when the script permits it, and brash and arrogant in his demeanor even up through the film’s climax, leading into the downfall of T.E. Lawrence. The fact that he did not win an Oscar for his performance has always disappointed me, regardless of how well Gregory Peck portrayed the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
What really elevates this film’s portrayal of Lawrence to greatness however, is the incredible supporting cast. Led by British legend Alec Guiness as Prince Fiesel, Omar Sharif and Sherif Ali, and Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, the chemistry on screen is incredible. We get to watch as Alec Guiness plays an Arab prince in one of his finest, most elegant on screen roles. His place in the film, or rather the trust he places in Lawrence, is the foundation on which the film is based. Even as Lawrence begins to falter later in the film, Fiesel sees to it that Lawrence’s place is known and appreciate, in a quiet, but regal manner. Sharif and Quinn nearly explode off of the screen in their particular roles; Sherif Ali, who quickly befriends Lawrence, and reveres him as a god of sorts, is played with a brash, but endearing sense of concern throughout the film, especially as he attempts to revive Lawrence’s faltering morale in the face of British opposition. Quinn, as Auda, is loud and abrasive, but entertaining. He plays the role so extremely, that he pushes it almost to the point of cheese, but pulls it just back over the line, demonstrating his skill as an actor. Also excellent in their respect roles as British civil and military roles are actors Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton, and Arthur Kennedy as the brash, American reporter who aims to make Lawrence a star.
Shot in Super Panavision 70, Lawrence of Arabia features some of the most beautiful widescreen cinematography ever created. The use of wide angle lenses and long focal lengths to depict the desert makes the world feel deep, and overwhelming. There are shots in the film, where vast armies feel small, due to the expert frame compositions in terms of horizon positioning, and shots were small groups feel larger than life, due to expert camera movements and tracking shots. David Lean, working with cinematographer Freddie Young, uses the color of the desolate sand landscapes as if it were a character, using it to play a huge part in influencing the tone of the film, especially during the first act. The 70mm cameras are used to maximum effectiveness, allowing us to miss not a single facial expression, or subtle shift in body language throughout the film.
What could such a great camera do however, without an incredible set and costume design. In a time when movies were just starting to stretch their legs and leave the Hollywood studios, David Lean and his crew kicked it into maximum overdrive and traveled all the way to the deserts of Jordan to shoot the majority of the film. There, they built massive sets, including a full reconstruction of the city of Aqaba, and the massive campground of Wadi Rum, in which Auda abu Tayi and his men reside. On top of that, they actually blew a real train off the rails on location, to help maintain the authenticity of the guerilla campaign sequences of the film. In order to help fully realize the world in which the film was set, as many as 1200 extras were used, with hundreds of camels and horses utilized to make them period appropriate. Each costume was painstakingly crafted to be as close to the uniforms used by British and Bedouin soldiers of the era. All of this led to the film winning a Best Art Direction Academy Award during the 1963 awards season.
The nearly four hour film, due to the expert efforts of editor Anne V. Coates, melts away as you take everything in, and the film’s score, composed by Academy Award winning composer Maurice Jarre, is filled with both songs that celebrate the enormity of the desert, and pieces that almost portray the military in a playful tone. His pieces for this film are crafted in a way that emphasizes an overall tone of adventure, with a twinge of curiosity and sadness that runs underneath most of the film.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that spoke to me on so many levels – it showed me than you can in fact implement a strong central character into an epic that isn’t loud and aggressive, taking charge and giving heroic speeches at every turn. It proved to me that film’s of this kind can infact showcase characters with apparent, and even tragic flaws, and that sometimes in order to create an effective identity for your characters, that you can slow down. Having been raised in the second era of the blockbuster, I expected grandiose speeches, explosive action, and a blazing fast pace. Instead, what I got was a film that is slow, delicate, and intimate, while at the same time showcasing incredibly scenery and battles, something we tend to forget is possible in the blockbuster era.
I could sit here and wax philosophical on my favorite sequences, lines, roles, characterizations, and implementation of music in this film, but then we’d be here for hours. Lawrence of Arabia is such a big, massive chunk of cinema, that you just have to experience on your own; find your own favorite moments, experience it in your own way, and reach your own conclusions. Regardless of what you find, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
The Video (5/5)
Lawrence of Arabia was shot by Academy Award winning cinematographer Freddie Young, who won an Academy Award for all three of his films that he made with director David Lean. The first of his three career defining collaborations with the director, Lawrence of Arabia was shot entirely on 65mm camera negative, through the Super Panavision 70 format. The film was originally presented in 70mm for its limited release in 1962, with a theatrical aspect ratio of 2.20:1 on 70mm prints. This Blu-ray, presented in 1080p, was sourced from an 8K scan of the original film negative, and restored to brilliance in 4K resolution, maintaining the original aspect ratio of 2.20:1.
Before I lose myself in the film’s Blu-ray transfer, I figured it would be important to give a little history on the presentation of Lawrence of Arabia, as it went to hell and back to be here today on home video. In 1962, general practice in terms of printing 70mm theatrical prints was to print off of the original camera negative for the highest quality image. Unfortunately, this practice put incredible amounts of wear and tear on the fragile negative for each print made. Combine this with the fact that Lawrence’s original negative was cut and spliced all over the place due to three separate cuts made of the film between 1962 and 1971, and you have a very delicate, well worn piece of film to work with. On top of that, the film was shot and stored on 1960s film stock, which had, by the late 1980s, begun to fade at an alarmingly fast rate. All of these things combined together meant that we were incredibly close to losing the original Lawrence of Arabia materials forever. Knowing this, Columbia Studios commissioned film historians Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz to produce a full photochemical restoration of the film, which premiered in 1989.
Their work required going through a mammoth amount of material, fixing tons of tears and splices in the film material, as well as scouring the existing archival material for all of the cuts made to the film overtime. Together, with the help of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, and even editor Anne V. Coates, they began reconstructing the original 222 minute long length of the film. They had actors come in and re-record lines, and created a new 70mm print of the finished restoration. Once this was done, they brought in David Lean himself, who made a few alterations that he had always wanted made to the film, which brought the final run-time down to 218 minutes. This presentation of the film was released to home video by the Criterion Collection on Laserdisc, and later by Columbia Pictures and even later, by Sony Home Entertainment on DVD.
In 2012, an 8K scan of the negative that Harris and Katz reconstructed was commissioned, and from that a 4K restoration was created under the supervision of Grover Crisp, the head of film restoration at Sony Pictures. Using digital technology, they were able to fix issues with the film that no one even knew about, because of the photochemical nature of the previous restoration, such as hairline cracks in the film negative and color inconsistencies.
The results are spectacular. The deserts of Arabia have never looked better. The beautiful blue skies are saturated in such a life-like manner, and the greens of the English countryside in the film’s opening sequence are fantastic. The detail inherent to the Super Panavision 70 format shines in 1080p – facial features are replicated with incredible sharpness, and the large scale battle sequences resolve brilliantly. Because of the age of the film stock, there is a healthy layer of grain that sits atop the image at all times, but it never becomes distracting or unnatural. There is an unbelievable richness to the quality of this transfer; many times throughout the film, I felt as if I was looking through a window into reality, as horses race across a destroyed train, or the Arab National Council meets in Damascus. It felt as if I was there. That’s how good this transfer is. This 4K restoration, presented in 1080p, has aged like fine wine.
The Audio (4/5)
Lawrence of Arabia was originally presented in 6-track magnetic stereo sound in a configuration which features 5 front speaker channels, and a mono surround speaker channel. The film was remixed in Dolby Stereo 6-track surround sound for the 1989 restoration of the film, in the more traditional 5.1 speaker configuration. That mix is presented here in DTS-Master Audio 5.1 surround sound on Blu-ray.
Lawrence of Arabia’s sound will never live up to the incredible expectations set by it’s incredible image presentation. You can scan and clean up 65mm negative, but you can’t re-record sound effects and dialogue. What’s there is there, and because we cannot recreate the 5 speaker spread of the original mix for Lawrence in the home, all we have is this boxy, unambitious Dolby mix. Dialogue is locked to the center channel, with the front left and right speakers seeing the occasional dialogue pan or sound effect, but mostly being reserved for the film’s incredible score. Surrounds see little to no use, but the subwoofer kicks in a couple of times throughout the film, just to remind us that this is still a war movie. Overall, Lawrence of Arabia’s sonic impact has been reduced throughout the years, but this DTS-Master Audio soundtrack does a serviceable job of presenting the 6 channel mix created in 1989.
Special Features/Packaging (4.5/5)
Presented on Blu-ray by Sony Home Entertainment, Lawrence of Arabia reaches the age of 50 in style. The Limited Edition is packaged in a box set that rivals the most lavish of Laserdisc box sets, and matches them in size as well. Dissecting the large box set reveals that there is an outer-slipcover style transparent sleeve, which features the logo and award information on the front, and a full color spread of the set’s innards on the pack, with a full list of features, a paragraph about the film, technical features, and theatrical credits. Pulling off the slipcover reveals a minimal, slick white box with a tray that can be pulled out.
At the top of this drawer is a large, full size, full color hardcover book titled, “The 50th Anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia.” The book’s art is beautiful, and features pieces written by Spielberg, Leonard Maltin and Martin Scorses. The rest of the book, which features a large number of topics, and runs over 80 pages, is written by author Jeremy Arnold. Removing the book reveals the film’s oversized blue keepcase, which houses the four discs that make up the Limited Edition, as well as a film frame from a 70mm print of the film, mounted into a cardboard case which is numbered. The keepcase features much of the information from the film’s box slipcover’s back, as well as a piece of art that features a picture of Lawrence composited against a famous scene from the film. Inside the case is 3 Blu-ray discs, 1 soundtrack CD, a digital download code, and a soundtrack CD track listing, printed on a slip of paper.
Onto the special features, of which there are many, spread across all three Blu-ray Discs.
Secrets of Arabia: A Picture-in-Graphics Track – a picture-in-picture function that runs the length of the feature, providing insight into the production of the film, and other trivia bits to enhance your viewing of the movie. The picture-in-picture presentation is pretty in your face, and makes the movie far too small in the frame.
Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia – a 20 minute piece, in which O’Toole talks about how he was cast in the film, and the process of making the film and working with David Lean. There are plenty of archival pictures and audio set to sequences of the film, which makes for an engaging experience.
Making of Lawrence of Arabia – an hour long feature, held over from the standard definition era, which features various interviews and stories about how they made the film. Both cast and crew are present, and present entertaining anecdotes from the making of the film.
A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – another holdover from the standard definition era, in which he discusses the impact Lawrence had on him, as well as him working experience with David Lean, and how his work has made an impact on him as a modern filmmaker. Spielberg shows an incredible amount of passion for Lawrence of Arabia, and gives a great interview as usual.
Vintage Featurettes – a collection of four older features from the release of the film, that deal with the casting of the camel riders, the search for Lawrence, the romance of the desert, and a feature from a 1970 re-release about making the film
New York Premiere – a black and white newsreel presentation of the New York American premiere of the film, presented in standard definition. It runs a minute long.
Advertising Campaigns – a collection of various promotional material used to advertise the film, with an overlying narration that describes the success of the film and breaks down the various materials used throughout the campaign and release.
Deleted Balcony Scene with Introduction by Anne V. Coates – another holdover from the standard definition era, in which a deleted scene in described by the film’s editor, in terms of the difficulty of recreating the scene, which had various missing materials. It was not successfully reintegrated into the film for any release.
The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia – a new interview, in which Scorsese discusses his thoughts on the character of Lawrence, and his experience seeing the film. Much like Spielberg, his passion for the film is clear, and it makes for an entertaining feature.
Lawrence at 50: A Classic Restored – a 13 minute feature that covers the difficulties and aspects of the restoration of Lawrence of Arabia in 4K that made it a unique process, featuring many of the key members of the team that performed the task.
King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set – a newsreel about the King’s visit to the set of the film, and the various people he met and events he observed, restored in HD from the original available materials.
Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic – a quick, five minute feature about the making of the film from 1963. Presented from a full HD restoration from the 35mm materials.
In Love with the Desert – an hour and twenty minute feature on the production of the film, in terms of designing sets in the desert and various tidbits about the film’s overall production, presented by Eddie Fowlie, the property master for the duration of the film’s production. He recounts many of the famous locations from the film, and talks in depth about how they were used. Yet again, another holdover from the standard definition era.
Archival Interviews – interviews from William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and a separate interview from Steven Spielberg, about their thoughts on the film, and their admiration of the film’s various qualities. Presented in standard definition, and sourced from an AFI tribute to the film.
Vintage Trailers – a collection of 6 promotional materials used, including TV spots, trailers, and a restoration trailer from the 1989 re-release of the film. Presented in HD presentations from film sources, some are presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Disc 4: Soundtrack CD, which contains the film’s released score, as well as two previously unreleased tracks from the film.
Lawrence of Arabia’s Blu-ray release has been given the star treatment by Sony, with a beautiful laserdisc-esque box set packaging, and a large number of extras that provide excellent insight into the film’s production, and thoughts from famous filmmakers on the movie. I wish there had been more new material, as most of disc 2 and some of disc 3 feature holdovers from previous releases of the film, but what we have here is more than adequate for such a massive movie.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
DTS-Master Audio 5.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Japanese)
English, English SDH, Arabic, Dutch, French, Japanese
On my first viewing, nearly five years ago, Lawrence of Arabia changed the way I viewed film as a whole. It’s attempt to craft an intimate character study of a famous historical figure under the context of a large scale, meticulously crafted epic was something that seemed truly unprecedented to me as a high school student. With its incredible use of the large format Super Panavision 70 camera format by cinematography Freddie Young, a sweeping score written by Maurice Jarre, patient and precise editing by Anne V. Coates, and masterful performances directed by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia is truly one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a lumbering giant, one that does not always dig each hole deep enough, but does so many things right that it is easy to gloss over an issue here or there. It’s first act melts away so quickly, leaving you desperate for more, and it’s third act moves like molasses through the decline of the legendary T. E. Lawrence, leaving you decimated and exhausted, just as he was.
The 50th Anniversary Box Set, with its powerful 1080p video transfer, and faithful but limited audio transfer is one of the greatest Blu-ray presentations the format has ever seen. The Laserdisc-esque box packaging is minimal, yet it feels epic – the inclusion of a hardcover, full color book, as well as an authentic film frame from a 70mm print, and 2 additional Blu-ray discs of extras as well as a soundtrack CD make this possibly the greatest Blu-ray release of all time. There is no question in my mind, the Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Blu-ray box set is a must own for ANYONE who has ever enjoyed the movie, might enjoy the movie, or even just simply owns a Blu-ray player. Not just recommended, but mandatory.