David Lean’s landmark 1962 epic is exactly the type of film that Blu-ray was made for. The experience of witnessing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen is not one which is readily available to us now (though a small theatrical release in the coming months could well be on the cards), but the next best thing is, without a doubt, seeing Lean’s picture on a nice big TV and in immaculately crisp digital definition. The term ‘epic’ gets banded about far too readily these days, but Lawrence of Arabia is truly a film which warrants the tag. It is a film ambitious not only in length, clocking in at around 3 hours 45 minutes, but more crucially in terms of its concept and execution.
Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young capture the unforgiving vastness yet stunning beauty of the Arabian Desert perfectly and the harsh terrain is itself a major character in the unfolding saga. For the uninitiated, the film chronicles the life of legendary British soldier T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence was an enigmatic and eccentric man who, through sheer will and unbridled charisma, brought together the disparate Arabic tribes to fight with the British against the Turkish army during the First World War. Lawrence was a captivating individual who seemed to revel in shunning the conventions of British wartime society. He was also a contradictory character who was seemingly torn between a sadomasochistic streak that saw him attracted to the daring and violence of war and his inherently compassionate and caring nature. It is also suggested that he found his loyalties divided as the war went on as while he was undeniably a patriotic Briton, he was also equally in love with his newfound Arabian brothers in arms.
To analyse the historical accuracies of the picture is a task I couldn’t begin to do due credit here, but needless to say there is inevitably a fair amount of dramatic license taken with regards to Lawrence’s legend in Lean’s picture. Regardless of the accuracy however, Peter O’Toole’s incredible central performance is truly a joy to behold. He captures the necessary magnetism, flamboyance and steely-eyed determination of Lawrence perfectly and delivered one of the most striking and memorable screen performances of all time. And I do not say that lightly. O’Toole is in nearly every scene in the movie and it’s no surprise that this was the picture which elevated him to true superstardom.
Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Claude Raines, Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins are also on board and all put in sterling work. The whole cast has a part to play in making Lawrence of Arabia the captivating movie it remains today. Sharif’s legendary entrance out of the heat-haze of the desert, emerging slowly from the horizon on the back of a camel as O’Toole’s Lawrence drinks from a remote desert well, remains a visual thrill even now. This Blu-Ray release renders such scenes beautifully and ensures they look every bit as stunning as one would hope. Lean’s film may have contained some thrilling battle scenes, but it was not a romping action movie by any means. It instead focused on capturing a mood, a sense of place and of sweeping scale. Part of the film’s brilliance is how effectively it immerses the viewer into these distant events that occurred in the sweltering surroundings of the Arabian Desert. It does so to the point where the watching of the film becomes something of an event in itself.
The sheer scope of what Lean managed to deliver really hits home when re-watching Lawrence, and legendary scenes such as the famous train-ambush sequence, is grand film making at its finest. Never has the phrase ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ been more apt.
There are plenty of extras to enjoy on this Blu-ray release including a fascinating ‘making-of’ documentary which includes clips of an old interview with Lean himself where he compares Lawrence of Arabia to ‘Cinematic opera’, a phrase which in retrospect fits perfectly. There’s also an interview with O’Toole himself as he looks back on his memories of filming the movie, and a conversation with Steven Spielberg who outlines his great love of the film and explains how it has inspired his work. There is also an interesting ‘Picture-in-Graphic‘ track you can use which offers you choice nuggets of information as you watch. I feel I should point out at this point that there is a far more comprehensive 4-disc anniversary set due out in November, but if you don’t fancy shelling out the megabucks for that release, you really need to add this to your collection.
Director: David Lean
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Runtime: 216 min
Country: UK, USA