I'm not sure what more can really be said about 'Lawrence of Arabia' some 50 years after its theatrical release. Smarter men than I have covered it all -- from inception to production to its multiple restorations -- but here goes nothing.
The short of it:
'Lawrence of Arabia' is easily the best action adventure movie ever made. Up until now, the only way to experience it as it was meant to be seen was on the big screen with a 70mm projector. That's still true. However, this Blu-ray gives home video enthusiasts an experience that parallels and almost matches the cinema experience. The film certainly looks as good as I've ever seen it. The definition of the word epic, I would rate 'Lawrence of Arabia' 6 stars out of 5 if possible.
The long of it:
The best action movie ever made? Wait, is 'Lawrence of Arabia' even an action movie? In today's world, I suppose not. Endless visual effects and faster cutting have pushed action films into a propulsive onslaught of kinetic visuals, but, owing in no small part to 'Lawrence of Arabia', the best action films are character first. Studies of intimate human conditions splashed across the broadest canvas possible.
And there's no broader canvas painter than Sir David Lean, the master filmmaker behind 'Doctor Zhivago', 'Passage to India', and 'Great Expectations'. A man who won seven Academy Awards for 1957's 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', a visionary display or character and spectacle about the human struggle inside WWII POW camps. A masterpiece. So what does Lean do? He immediately follows up 'Kwai' with 'Lawrence of Arabia, a movie I'd argue is even better and more entertaining because it takes everything we loved about 'Bridge' -- the grand scale, the historical setting, insurmountable odds, harsh physical conditions -- and trades multiple character POVs for laser focus on one man: T.E. Lawrence.
"Who are you?"
The film's central question, asked at the beginning of the film as well as directly to Lawrence himself just prior to Intermission. Upon his death in 1935, the world knows his story. Some knew him personally, others just barely as his superior officer or a man lucky enough to shake his hand. But who is the real T.E. Lawrence? Was he a great man? Are the legends true? Lean's masterpiece -- written by Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt, and produced by Sam Spiegel -- dives into Lawrence's character with great gusto from the moment we meet him, and then unfurls his story over the next 200 minutes, in two arcs.
In the first arc, we meet an over-educated lieutenant in the British Army during World War I. A unusual man who adores the desert despite the maddening heat, Lawrence (Peter O'Tool) has studied the various Arab tribes, which makes him perfect for a mission to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and assess the prince's prospects in defeating the Turkish Empire. When Lawrence finally arrives, things don't look good. The Turks have modern war equipment -- planes, machine guns, armored vehicles, artillery, and a navy -- where as the Arabian tribes are lucky to have rifles, and remain unorganized and undisciplined. A miracle is what they truly need.
"Nothing is written."
And that's just what he does. Tempting the wrath of God, Lawrence and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) take 50 of Faisal's men to cross an uncrossable desert where Lawrence then convinces the Auda abu Tayi, leader of the rival Howeitat tribe to attack a seaside Turkish stronghold. No one could have done it, but Lawrence did and along the way he transforms into a mythic figure that can unite the Arab people. No longer will they be tribe against tribe -- silly, barbarous, and cruel -- they will be free.
But what's the old saying? The bigger they are, the harder they fall?
If the first half builds Lawrence up into a hero, the film's second arc hauls him back down to his knees. Not a legend, but a human being, imperfect and flawed. After updating the British about his impossible accomplishments, Lawrence returns to the desert with modern weapons and runs a guerrilla war against the Turks. He's actually too successful, because once Auda and his men have enough treasure, they go home leaving Lawrence with dwindling numbers. Convinced of immortality, Lawrence foolishly scouts a Turkish city where he is captured and beaten (and possibly raped). A broken man, Lawrence descends into personal madness -- "no prisoners!" -- and eventually leads the Arab tribes to Damascus ahead of the British in hopes the various tribes can form one government.
As a movie experience, it's hard to top 'Lawrence of Arabia'. The nature of man. Pride. Hubris. Tragedy. Loss. Action. Adventure. This film really has everything except a traditional love story, which wouldn't fit the material anyway. But how should we review something that isn't just a movie, but rather an event. The longest film, at one minute longer than 'Gone with the Wind', to ever win Best Picture.
I've already gushed about the character work and the spectacle, but let's break those down a little bit. Lawrence is a fascinating character. And odd man. A charming man. He inspires greatness because he is bold enough to be great. These archetypes usually don't change in a film. Instead, films change around them. And that pretty much what happens during the film's first half. We see an unstoppable force bending the will of rival tribes to meet his own vision, and for a moment, it seems he will triumph in a land where heat and desolation win out. But in that darker second arc, the film slows down and Lawrence loses everything. It's an emotional and raw experience, having been sucked in by the escapist first half. There are consequences to playing God with mens' lives and cultures. You know how folks who hate 'Avatar' and 'Dances With Wolves' because they think it's about the white guy who saves a perfect, wise, and primitive culture (well to be fare, he's responsible for destroying the culture before saving it, but you know what I mean)? Well, 'Lawrence' is a lesson for men who try to play God, for those who think they know better what a People want than those actual people.
Next, let's talk spectacle. I know I sound really old when I trot out stuff like "they don't make 'em like this anymore", but here it's true. 'The Lord of the Rings' is an epic trilogy, 'Star Wars' is a damn saga, and Harry Potter managed to adapt 4,100 pages into eight wildly entertaing movies, but no amount of CGI wizardry can match the Cinematic Truth of seeing hundreds of real men on real horses charging into a real city. To see actual planes buzzing an exploding camp. A camp, by the by, populated by what seems like thousands. The trouble today is that it's a heck of a lot easier, safer, and more cost effective to extend world's with visual effects, but let me ask you this: stories aside, which stunts and action set pieces do you prefer, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'? That's what we're talking about here. The epic reality of it all is so exciting for audiences and filmmakers alike.
Which brings us to what this movie means. We could talk about 'Lawrence of Arabia' for hours, but one of many true tests of a film's relevance is the next generation it inspired. Jerry Bruckheimer said 'Lawrence' is the best film he's ever seen on the big screen. Steven Spielberg loves the movie so much, he rips it off as often as he possibly can, with homages like the elephant travel in 'Temple of Doom', the final shot in 'Last Crusade', or the giant suns in 'E.T.' Seriously, watch 'Lawrence of Arabia' and then go on an Spielberg binge; you'll be amazed. We're all excited about the new possibilities of the 'Star Wars' universe expanding after Disney purchased Lucasfilm, but know Tatooine wouldn't exist without 'Lawrence of Arabia'. We already mentioned 'Dances With Wolves' and 'Avatar'. And hell, even 'Prometheus' uses this film's "even big things have small beginnings" as a theme. 50 years later, and the film's still guiding filmmakers who'd like to emulate one of the true greats.
I first saw 'Lawrence of Arabia' about ten years ago. A 70mm screening at the American Cinematheque where it proceeded to blow doors off my young cinematic mind. It sucks you in and takes you on an unforgettable journey. A true masterpiece. And now we have this absolutely beautiful Blu-ray, rich with detail and color and textures. It's a Blu-ray I'll definitely watch at least once a year, if not more. But, my friends, here's the truth. Find 'Lawrence of Arabia' at a real cinema, with real film or, if need be, one of the new 4K digital prints. And if you can't, if you live far away from repertory theaters, I get it. I feel your pain. In that case, trot out this Blu-ray on the biggest TV in town, and watch it with as many people as possible. Fill the damn living room and roll out the bean bags. The jokes are funnier, the drama deeper, the action more spectacular when you see it with an audience. The Blu-ray might fall just shy of The Best Way to See The Film, but it's still the best way to have your own copy of something truly special.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents 'Lawrence of Arabia' on Blu-ray as part of a 2-Disc 50th Anniversary Edition, housing the entire film on the first BD50, and all but one special feature on the second. An HD UltraViolet redemption code is included; the film looks good on Vudu's HDX service, but doesn't match the Blu-ray's depth and resolution. A 4-Disc 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition is also available; it includes one extra Blu-ray with exclusive special features, one CD of the film's soundtrack, a 70mm numbered film frame, and an 88-page coffee table book about the film. Both versions are Region coded to A, B, and C.
'Lawrence of Arabia' was meticulously restored (an 8K scan for a 4K master) and is presented here in its original aspect 2.20:1 aspect ratio with a fantastic AVC MPEG-4 encode.
Hats off to the Sony restoration team. Though just shy of perfect, 'Lawrence of Arabia' absolutely stuns on Blu-ray. Sparkling clarity and depth draw the viewer into the film's infinite desert vistas. Detail and textures are strong -- everything from the camel fur to the corroded metals of machine guns and armored vehicles are sharp and resolute. Skin tones are excellent and natural (other than some of the makeup). Colors are resplendent, especially the blazing red flags fluttering in the wind. Other colors -- blue skies and green leaves -- pop off the screen, which is often immersed in various golden browns. Black levels are deep and inky, yet shadow detail reveals background sets and props well.
Above all else, the 70mm source materials and grand framing revel in Blu-ray's resolution. When Lawrence meets Auda abu Tayi, you can clearly see the dust devil in the background, and in the shot establishing the Howeitat camp, you can see each of the tents and men and horses. Stunning. I suppose the only draw back in added clarity is that it's easier to see things like Anthony Quinn's prosthetic nose. In terms of the encode itself, I saw no macro-blocking or banding or compression artifacts, which is great considering the entire film plays on one disc.
In terms of flaws, they are few and minor. Eagle eyes amongst us will note specs of dust now and again, minor haloing around people and animals, occasional source damage, and bands of inconstant color. Most won't see these things, and to be sure, they don't really affect the viewing experience. The other flaw, not reflected in the disc's score, is the experience itself. Unless you have an unusually large screen, the Blu-ray still doesn't quite match the feeling of the big screen experience. To be fair, it's so, so close because, for the first time, you can enjoy details and texture once only visible on the silver screen. I'd love to toss out a 5-star rating for this. Honestly, I would. It seems like everyone else is doing it. But it's just not perfect. It probably can't ever be.
Never the less, Sony's restoration team did an outstanding job on a Blu-ray presentation everyone should own. This is a big, big win, featuring moments of demo-worthy eye candy, drawn from imperfect source elements. This is what Blu-ray is for! In the end, 'Lawrence of Arabia' looks fantastic on Blu-ray, the best it ever has at home, but doesn't quite match the experience of seeing the film in 70mm.
'Lawrence of Arabia' features a 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack that never quite expands into full on surround sound but, giving the film's age and source materials, is a bold and robust expanded stereo experience.
The film opens with the Overture; Maurice Jarre's iconic score sounds as good as it possibly can. Sure, it doesn't live up to modern recordings, in terms of fidelity, but audiophiles will enjoy the lossless mix. Dialog fares much better, with Peter O'Toole's deep voice sounding like it was recorded yesterday. There are a couple minor dubbing issues, but that's a result of lost source materials when the film was first restored. The film's sound effects have never been this clear -- subtle whistling wind, and crackling fires, snapping machine gun, crowd noise, and clinking metal on camel riders. There's also some nice use of left/right stereo panning, particularly in battle sequences like Aqaba. LFE is the big surprise here; nothing house-shaking, of course, but deep and robust from the first scene when Lawrence rides his motorcycle. Other than the music and some crowd noise, rear channels are pretty quiet and never truly immersive.
Overall, 'Lawrence of Arabia' sounds great on Blu-ray, matching the theatrical experience of the prior restoration perfectly. If you've ever owned the film on DVD, you'll be familiar with this track, so it's not quite the revelatory improvement as the video, but there are some notable clarity improvements, especially in the sound effects.
The two-disc edition of 'Lawrence of Arabia' contains most of content from the 2-Disc Limited Edition DVD with the exception of the DVD-ROM features 'Archives of Arabia: Historic Photographs Take You Behind the Scenes', theatrical trailers, and talent files. The following can be found on Disc Two:
'Lawrence of Arabia' is a true masterpiece of old school epic Hollywood filmmaking. A journey into the the heart and mind of one man, a historical figure both mythic and human. As a Blu-ray, the video features a breathtaking and lush restoration that's just shy of perfect, and a robust expanded-stereo audio experience. Special Features are well done, and while we've seen much of it before, there are a couple new features. Easily a Must Own release, though collectors and ultimate fans may opt for the 4-Disc 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition, which includes one extra Blu-ray with exclusive special features content and a CD of the motion picture soundtrack along with larger packaging and a book.