David Lean’s 1962 biopic of T.E. Lawrence is a long movie (227 minutes) that was a long time in the making (24 months in pre-production, plus 14 months of shooting). Small wonder, then, that “Lawrence of Arabia” also took a long time coming to Blu-ray.
When Blu-ray was still in its infancy, around 2006-07, Sony announced a date for “Lawrence of Arabia” on high definition—then pulled the title without explanation. Maybe it’s because the Best Picture winner had been restored in 1988 to produce a director’s cut, and the studio may have thought that early restoration might speed the digital restoration process.
But film restorations, like home renovations, always take longer than expected. Grover Crisp, Executive Vice-President of Restoration at Sony Pictures, said that this restoration took three years to complete.
And how does it look?
The film that gave Peter O’Toole his first starring role was digitally restored using the original 70mm negative with an 8K scan and 4K intermediate. Apart from several brief flashes of banding or vertical color bars that pop up in quick cuts that bridge richly colored medium shots and sun-pierced desert long shots, the restoration and Blu-ray presentation are amazing.
Cinematographer Freddie Young won his first of three Oscars filming “Lawrence of Arabia,” and just as Blu-ray drew attention to how perfectly composed and striking Winton C. Hoch’s shots were of John Ford’s Monument Valley in “The Searchers,” high definition really makes you appreciate Young’s exquisite long shots of the desert—filmed in California, Jordan, and Morocco.
A number of historians have griped about the accuracy of events depicted in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but the film is old enough now—50 years—that it ought to be judged solely on artistic merit as a stand-alone Hollywood epic. So what if the real Lawrence exaggerated his exploits with flair in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom? And maybe he wasn’t quite the battle leader that journalist Lowell Thomas sensationalized in newsreels, or the romanticized figure of this film, with its classic Shakespearian tragedy structure—tragic flaw and all. By now he’s become a part of historical and cinematic legend, and as a newpaperman in another great John Ford film once said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The only thing that people watching a film about Liberty Valance or Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett or T.E. Lawrence care about is the legend . . . and there’s plenty of it here.
After beginning with a scene depicting Lawrence’s ironic death in a motorcycle accident in rural England, the film flashes back to a time when a young map-maker working for the British army in a Cairo basement clearly would rather be a part of the World War I action. In a famous scene that establishes his character, Lawrence (O’Toole) extinguishes a match with his fingers. When another British soldier serving with him tries it and flinches in pain, he asks Lawrence what the trick is. “The trick is . . . not minding that it hurts,” Lawrence tells him. That line resonates later when he refuses water while crossing the desert with a Bedouin, insisting, “I’ll drink when you drink.” Or when he insists that “Nothing is written” (that is, pre-ordained) when he goes back into the desert to rescue a man who had fallen off his camel and, unnoticed by the rest and facing certain death.
Everything about “Lawrence of Arabia” is deliciously epic—from the focus on a character caught up in a moment in history to the sweeping romance of an Englishman craving adventure and finding his niche as someone the Arabs accept as one of their own. But “Lawrence of Arabia” is also the longest film I’ve seen that has no romantic subplot and no speaking roles for women. In fact, I can’t even remember any women in the film. And for an epic that chronicles the Arab uprising against the Turks during the First World War, there’s also surprisingly little action. It’s mostly a character study—a four-hour character study.
Now, if that sounds off-putting, consider this: my teenage son watched the entire film with me in one sitting, and, given the opportunity to flee at any point, opted to continue watching. It held his attention—which is more than I can say for a college class I showed the film to. Maybe the difference is high definition. The film looks so phenomenally good that every few minutes one of us was remarking what a striking shot we were witnessing. Plus, every hero needs a theme song, and the one that composer Maurice Jarre gave Lawrence is wholly memorable—enough to have won him an Oscar as well. The picture also won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (Anne V. Coates), Best Sound (John Cox), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – Color (John Box, John Stoll, Dario Simoni), and Best Director (Lean).
Surprisingly—and I say this because while we’ve become used to actors “inhabiting” their characters or channeling historical figures—O’Toole did not win, despite a phenomenal performance as the driven-but-unstable Lawrence. But it was a killer year for Best Actors, with Gregory Peck winning for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and O’Toole joined by fellow “losers” Burt Lancaster (“Birdman of Alcatraz”), Jack Lemmon (“Days of Wine and Roses”), and Marcello Mastroianni (“Divorce Italian Style”).
The epic “cast of thousands” included Hollywood stars—like Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy—and extras provided by Jordan’s King Hussein, who visited the set on many occasions.
Blu-ray breathes new life into this old feature, and it should be enough for a whole new audience to appreciate Lean’s sprawling story. The only thing harder to believe than Lean following up “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (which also won Best Picture and Best Director) with this masterpiece is that “Lawrence of Arabia” could look this good in 1080p.
I’ve already talked about how stunning the desert long shots look, but equally breathtaking, for someone who remembers how the film looked on DVD, are the medium shots of Arabs in colorful robes, and the close-ups that hold up just as well as they do in contemporary films. The amount of detail is amazing, the colors are as lush as the oases, and the flesh tones change appropriately with the scene. Apart from those few banding episodes in the medium-shot-to-desert-long-shot segues, this is a flawless AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. “Lawrence of Arabia” is presented in 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The audio volume varies a little too much for my taste, but I do seem to remember brash crescendos quiet conversations butting heads in the theater. The approximately five-minute overture on a dark screen is included here, along with the musical intermission. Featured is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that makes full use of the 5.1 speakers during the music and action, while the dialogue stays fairly front-and-center. I found myself toggling up and down with the volume switch, but again, this is how I remember it from the theater presentation. Additional audio options are in French and Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Japanese, Arabic, and Dutch.
This is a two-disc set, with the main feature on one disc (which also sports a nifty picture-in-picture trivia/background track that’s exclusive to Blu-ray) and bonus features on the other. The longest feature, “Making of Lawrence of Arabia” (62 min.), tackles the legend vs. fact issues head-on and provides a wealth of information about pre-production, shooting, and internal dramas, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. It’s way above average for a feature of this kind.
Then there’s “A Conversation with Steven Spielberg” (9 min.), in which the iconic director remembers the first time he saw “Lawrence of Arabia” and the “artistic licenses” that Lean took to tell a more powerful story. Spielberg also had a hand in the restoration process, and he covers that ground as well.
The other feature exclusive to Blu-ray is “Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia,” where O’Toole reminisces and talks about getting into character, his role in shaping some of the film’s best-known scenes, his thoughts on not getting the Oscar, and the film’s place in cinematic history.
Rounding out the extras are short features on casting the camels (2 min.), shooting in the desert (5 min.), the New York Premiere (1 min.), a cast-crew reflection (4 min.), ad campaigns (5 min.), and Arabia (5 min.).
It may be legend, and it may be romanticized, but “Lawrence of Arabia” feels authentic. It’s as stirring an epic as Hollywood has ever produced—one reason why the American Film Institute has named it the Number 1 epic of all time, ahead of that other terrific Hollywood epic, “Ben-Hur.” This one belongs in the collection of every serious film fan. As Movie Met's John J. Puccio wrote, "Simply put, 'Lawrence of Arabia' is the best epic the screen has ever seen.