“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes to make them possible.”
- T.E. Lawrence
Few movies in the history of film making can justly be labeled as classics; fewer still as cinema art. That David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) has remained both these 50 years is a testament to Lean’s prowess as a storyteller and Peter O’Toole’s formidable merit as its iconic enigma of the desert sand. Strange that the film, like T.E. Lawrence himself should exist in a curious sort of vacuum for which no superlatives seem adequately in summarizing its enduring greatness.
Lawrence of Arabia is a huge thing. But the immensity of its cultural impact goes well beyond its visual grandeur, spectacularly lensed by Freddie Young, the lyrical sweep of Maurice Jarre’s quixotic score or even the minutiae of adventure, political intrigue and penetrating melodrama seamlessly woven into Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson’s screenplay. No, there is a foreign kinetic energy at play herein, refracting the excellence from these prisms to shed new light on the piece as a whole.
It isn’t simply that Lean has created a handsome road show, well thought out, evenly paced and principally crafted, employing all the intrinsic intensity of a seasoned bard with fascinating tales to tell. But like the intangible jabs of pleasure derived from hearing a sublime poetic verse read aloud by a great orator, Lawrence of Arabia yields to an intoxicating elixir, sending seductive shivers like vast tributaries to quench our hearts, minds and yes, even our souls with its perennial ingeniousness.
Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps the definitive example of Hollywood craftsmanship at its zenith. It remains an undeniably romanticized valentine made by one man to another larger than life figure whose own egotism was no less unctuous; and, like T.E. Lawrence, as complex and perplexing a portrait of cavalier heroism both in front of and behind the camera that, sadly, is no more. And that makes Lawrence of Arabia not simply the stimulating masterwork it has remained all of these long years, to be marveled at with renewed humility and undiluted appreciation, but a nearly indescribably piece of exquisite celluloid perfection.
That all of this transcendence might have been lost to the ages after Lawrence’s world premiere, through years of neglect and improper storage, multiple edits and limited theatrical and television reissues nauseatingly interrupted by commercials, was a disaster narrowly averted when film preservationists Robert A. Harris and Jim Katz undertook the monumental task of a ground up restoration in 1988. Then, of course, the work was limited to exhausting archival research for a usable print master on which to perform a process of reconstruction and thorough photo-chemical restoration.
Although Harris and Katz were hampered by Columbia’s lack of archived fine grain preservation masters, they were infinitely blessed in having David Lean alive to contribute invaluable insight on the making of the movie. The director even joked that it took Harris and Katz nearly twice as long to resurrect Lawrence of Arabia from the ashes as it did for him to originally shoot it in the Nefu. Indeed, Lean had endured his own private hell for almost three years in the inhospitable heat and sand, searching for the essence of a man who, in Lawrence’s own words was “enfranchised, untamed and untrammelled by convention”.
Lean found his enigma in Peter O’Toole – a relatively unknown actor capable of infusing the filmic Lawrence with an impeccable grace and incurable vanity. O’Toole inhabits the character so completely – both physically and from within - that it is astonishing to consider just how close he came to not getting the part. In fact, Albert Finney had first been up for the lead and had even screen tested. But O’Toole, with his piercing blue eyes is the quintessence of that paradox never entirely known or appreciated; neither by those who stood at arm’s length of the real Lawrence or by the millions who only saw him through the magic of old B&W newsreels. Yet, O’Toole is Lawrence; one cannot deduce the actor from his alter ego. They remain an inseparable fascination.
For the part of Sherif Ali, Lean made another inspired casting choice in Omar Sharif; the dark and statuesque star of Arab TV who had never appeared in a major motion picture before. Sharif, who had regarded his own fame as quite satisfactory, was cajoled by his agent to fly to London and meet David Lean at the Dorchester. The meeting was fortuitous to say the least; each man becoming quite spellbound with and by the other. Lean, who could be very aloof when dealing with actors, bestowed a hawk-like precision on Sharif, guiding his performance with such an intuitive understanding that Sharif would forever regard this experience as the highpoint in his own movie making career. Perhaps Lean agreed, evidently enough to cast Sharif as the star of his subsequent epic, Doctor Zhivago in 1965.
The rest of the cast was rounded out by an impeccable roster of superb character actors: Arthur Kennedy as sycophantic photographer, Jackson Bentley, the urban Claude Rains as wily politico, Mr. Dryden, Donald Wolfit as the irascible Gen. Murray, earthy Anthony Quinn the lusty Auda Abu Tayi, Jose Ferrer as the bisexual Turkish Bey and Jack Hawkins as stoic Gen. Allenby. For the pivotal role of Prince Feisal, Lean turned to his resident ‘good luck charm’; the consummate chameleon, Alec Guinness.
Lean and Guinness – both craftsman in their own field – had a shared tempestuousness for what each perceived as the other’s modest meddling in their stylistic creativity and work ethics. Yet each was to benefit from their mutual association and perhaps begrudgingly knew that without the other their own contributions remained half as good. Whatever the crux for one’s minor unpleasantness toward the other, both Lean and Guinness were to share a public regard as much less the necessary evil than with a mutual respect that endured until Lean’s passing in 1991.
Lean once said that directing ought to be a very selfish pursuit. “The more a film is one man’s vision, the better.” Indeed, Lean’s visionary capabilities on Lawrence of Arabia extended far beyond the reach of most his contemporaries. He seemed particularly engaged; able to pluck the minutest detail from a character’s inner tumult in the vast expanse of his broader cinematic canvas and make it thrive as the epicenter of the action; interpreting the cinematic landscape in ways that continue to tantalize and corrupt our senses with their extraordinary amalgam of stark realism and profound majesty.
Lean’s reputation as the leading purveyor of big screen epics would be forever cemented with this sweeping fictionalization of T.E. Lawrence’s life and times. Working from Lawrence’s own private diaries and public writings, the screenplay by Robert Bolt (and, an unaccredited Michael Wilson) challenged the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lawrence's death, resurrecting the legacy of a man whose legend remained largely shrouded in speculation never satisfactorily explained away by the historical record.
In many ways, conceiving the film as one gigantic flashback, served to obscure what little facts are known about T.E. Lawrence, while simultaneously heightening and preserving his mythology. Indeed, the real T.E. Lawrence was a master manipulator of personal publicity and political propaganda. Remarkably, although many studios (including RKO and MGM) had toyed with the idea of doing a bio-pic of Lawrence since the mid-1930s, the project never went beyond the preliminary stages until David Lean began more concrete negotiations for Albert Finney to play the part.
Screen tests were made. Although Finney looked the part, and was a consummate actor besides, there was something in his performance that utterly displeased the director. Finney was trying to embody the man rather than suggest the enigma. He had grounded his performance in too much realism. His Lawrence was a man, not a myth. Yet there was very little reality in Lawrence's own life story to go on. What was required to do justice to Lawrence was something else; a bottling of his spirit, that elusive absence of the flesh and sinew of a man who clearly considered himself Godlike in his own time.
After some consternation, Lean turned to Peter O’Toole for the plum opportunity. O'Toole had one immediate advantage: he was a virtual unknown to audiences outside of Britain. Better still, he looked more like Lawrence than Finney, and perhaps startling as close to Lawrence as the real McCoy in his flowing white robes and headdress. But O'Toole was also a highly competent actor who, like Lawrence, possessed something of that inner self-appointed charm and pomp without the grating arrogance, to carry off the part.
Fittingly, the Bolt/Wilson screenplay begins with Lawrence’s death. He loses control of his motorcycle on a lonely English country road. From the resplendence of his thought-numbing state funeral we regress to a basement map room in Cairo where Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is a somewhat socially backward and generally bored British officer. He is plucked from this interminable obscurity by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) a subversive politician, and sent into the desert to ‘observe’ the entanglement of conflicts collectively earmarked as the ‘Arab revolt’ - much to the strenuous objections of Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) who regards Lawrence as little more than a defiant, and not terribly bright, upstart.
Given the opportunity of a lifetime as special envoy to Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), Lawrence’s defiance of mother England and the hidden agenda of its political overseers in making the Arab nation a principality overseen by the British, is counterintuitive to his orders from Gen. Lord Edmund Allenby (Jack Hawkins). But it ingratiates him to Feisal, who also has ulterior motives in supporting Lawrence’s seemingly impossible quest to unite the warring Arab factions into a single army equipped to ward off the Turks. To this end, Lawrence brokers a fragile truce between Feisal’s Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and the lusty Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). Ali’s innate skepticism of Lawrence is unfounded and gradually subsides, particularly after Lawrence challenges the precept that “nothing is written” for those who have the courage and conviction to pen their own destiny.
After establishing a seemingly impossible stronghold at the port city of Acaba, once thought of as an impregnable Turkish stronghold, Lawrence gains Ali’s respect and becomes his trusted confidant. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s new found popularity goes to his head. He becomes careless in all his self-appointed importance – a move that results in the death of Farraj (Michael Ray); an orphaned peasant he took under his wing earlier as his private servant. Much later, Lawrence is captured and taken before the Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer) where he is brutalized and sodomized. A shattered man whose thirst for revenge has gotten the better of him, Lawrence turns the Arab revolt into a private bloody conquest bent on the complete annihilation of the Turkish forces.
His noblest intentions in tatters, Lawrence watches in disbelief as the fragile truce he helped to forge between the Arab factions unravels into an unruly rabble bickering and fighting until the British intercede to reestablish control over Cairo. Lawrence confesses to Allenby that he has bungled the entire enterprise; then confides an even more startling realization that he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Brighton, who now sees what the clarity of Lawrence’s own ambition has caused, and furthermore that it has been sacrificed for Feisal and Allenby’s benefit of establishing an Arab republic, watches as the revolt’s greatest champion is quietly discarded and disowned by both sides. Lawrence is retired with full honors from the Army and shipped back to England where, as the audience already knows from having seen the prologue, a tragic finality awaits him.
In these final moments, with Lawrence driven through the desert via escort, passed by a caravan of camels on the one side - a symbolic reminder of the past he is leaving behind, and a motorcyclist on the other, the ominous harbinger of imminent death, the immensity of Lawrence’s tragic brief span on earth is elevated to that of an elusive mirage. Like Sherif Ali’s first appearance in the film – a shimmering spec on the horizon – this triage of images rising from the Nefu resurrect the essence of a lost dream that the current Lawrence, as demoralized soldier with his reputation in ruins, cannot appreciate for the full breadth of its meaning.
David Lean’s direction is superb at extolling the poignancy of this final moment for the rest of us, and in it Lawrence of Arabia achieves an indefinable preeminence as perhaps the most intricately impassioned, yet largely fictional bio ever put on film. Arguably, Lawrence of Arabia is Lean’s most perfectly realized epic. Undeniably, it remains a visual feast, breaking new ground with Anne V. Coates’ editing techniques borrowed from the French New Wave. The visceral impact derived from Coates’ cuts is best exemplified in two sequences; the first, a close up of Lawrence blowing out a match that immediately cuts to a long shot of the rising sun over the flat desert; the second, a mesmerizing long shot and long take of Sherif Ali materializing on horseback from the stark evaporating heat off the Nefu.
Lean tirelessly toiled under some of the harshest conditions to make Lawrence of Arabia. Even native Omar Sharif found it oppressive. The heat melted the unprocessed film in its metal cans, forcing cinematographer Freddie Young to pack them in ice between takes. The fact that Lean was unable to screen daily rushes also put a strain on composer Maurice Jarre, who basically had to write his entire score without seeing so much as a shred of film first. What proved inspirational to both actors and crew was Lean's underlying zeal and exuberance for the project that never once waned, and very often fueled some truly inspired discussions long into the night around a campfire after a hard day's shoot.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the truly grand entertainment events of the 1960s; with a royal command performance for Queen Elizabeth and tickets sold out months in advance. However, shortly after the world premiere, all prints were drastically cut to satisfy exhibitor’s requests for more nightly viewings. Although Lean returned to make these initial trims, the film continued to be cut without his approval thereafter, resulting in various release prints that in no way accurately reflected the director’s original vision.
For decades all this excised material was thought to have been discarded. However, some thirty years later, restoration experts Robert A. Harris and James Katz discovered virtually all of the missing footage and, together with Lean and Coates, reassembled it with strict adherence to Lean’s shooting script notations. The absence of whole audio portions necessitated the return of surviving principle cast members to dub in their lines of dialogue, with the late Jack Hawkins’ dialogue eventually recorded by another actor rather convincingly.
Lawrence of Arabia - the restored version - was given an ambitiously mounted road show reissue in 1988; a time when such events were virtually unheard of and played in only the major cities across the U.S. and Canada. But Lawrence’s re-emergence on the big screen proved to be much more than a reintroduction of the film to newer audiences. It also served to shed much needed light on the growing concern to establish a national film registry dedicated to the preservation and restoration of celluloid art. The video cassette and laserdisc releases of Lawrence shortly thereafter became one of Columbia's top sellers, also proving to the studios that 'old movies' had a shelf life well beyond their original theatrical release.
But Sony Home Entertainment’s various releases of Lawrence of Arabia on home video since 1988 have been rather depressingly second rate. The first on DVD, fitted in a lavish cloth encasement now out of print, suffered from some color timing issues and edge enhancement effects, yielding a less than adequate image that belied all of the fine efforts Harris and Katz had put into their restoration. Several years later Sony tried again, this time with Harris overseeing the efforts and color fidelity greatly improved. Unfortunately, the edge effects remained in place. Worse, Sony had also inexplicably chosen to chop and spread the new transfer across 2 discs – not at its intermission (which would have made sense) but roughly six minutes into its second half after the entr’acte.
When Sony debuted the Blu-ray format in 2003 all of its discs contained a screener showing the briefest of clips from Lawrence of Arabia – the primary reason I bought a Blu-ray player in the first place. But shortly thereafter Sony announced that too much work was needed to get Lawrence up to speed for the hi-def format and thereafter the title all but ceased to be showcased or even discussed by the studio hierarchy. But now the long awaited moment has arrived, gloriously too with an image so breathtakingly revitalized, so sumptuous in all its remarkable 70mm large gauge film format clarity, and so comprehensively stunning in virtually all aspects, that one can almost forgive Sony its many delays.
Apart from its Royal debut, I will venture a guess that Lawrence of Arabia has never looked this good anywhere. The hi-def elements reveal a startling amount of fine detail and film grain looking very grain-like indeed. Colors pop. Flesh tones have a superior tonality. One can see thread count in close ups of uniforms and creases in leather boots. I can honestly say I was truly amazed at the spectacle of revisiting Lawrence in this reference quality hi-def transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack yields an indescribable clarity; its dialogue natural, Maurice Jarre’s score, inspiring. There is absolutely nothing to complain about herein. This is the definitive experience of David Lean’s greatest epic.
The limited edition of Lawrence yields a myriad of treasures: including an 88 page book, informatively written by Jeremy Arnold with a preface by Leonard Maltin and packed with glossy B&W and color stills and quotes from Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter O'Toole, Robert Bolt and others. Each box contains an authentic 70 mm film frame from the film – very classy indeed.
There are four discs in this set: the first containing the entire feature film and a picture in graphic track that provides fascinating factoid info on the making of the film. Discs 2 and 3 are loaded with extras – disc 3 only available in this Limited Edition set. Disc 2 has nearly a half hour of new reflections on the film from 80 year old Peter O’Toole, the hour long ‘making of’ that was a part of the 2000 DVD release, 9 minutes of Spielberg affectionately waxing about the impact of the movie on his own career, four vintage featurettes totally roughly 20 minutes, newsreel footage of the New York premiere, and a barrage of advertising junket materials – stills, trailers, and other materials created for the subsequent re-issues of the film.
Disc 3 yields perhaps the most anticipated extra of the lot; the 7 min. balcony scene between O’Toole and Jack Hawkins. At the time of the ’88 restoration this scene was left on the cutting room floor because all of Hawkins’ dialogue needed to be dubbed and afterward was deemed as sounding not terribly convincing by Lean. We also get 8 min. of Martin Scorsese’s thoughts on the film, and a fascinating featurette on restoring Lawrence in hi-def. More vintage newsreels and featurettes follow.
And then there is “In Love With The Desert” – a superb tribute to the film hosted by production assistant Eddie Fowlie who waxes affectionately for 84 min. about the times he and Lean spent making magic in the desert. The goodies top out with brief archival sound bytes from William Friedkin, Scorsese, Spielberg and the late Sidney Pollack – whose expertise, wit and film making prowess I must admit, I greatly admire and even more greatly miss. The last disc in this set is a CD of the definitive film score, including two tracks never before heard. This is the way to properly honor a classic movie score – not with those damn CD samplers that Warner Home Video seems so intent on whetting our appetites with on their ‘deluxe’ edition Blu-rays of Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain et al. Re: Lawrence’s CD – it is a phenomenal listening experience not to be missed. Audiophiles: you are in for a real treat.
Bottom line: Lawrence of Arabia is a must have. There’s really nothing more to say except buy it today and treasure it forever. Movies like this are not merely rare. They’re all but extinct. The Blu-ray is a reason to rejoice and a cause to celebrate. Already a cherished part of my hi-def collection. Make it a part of yours too!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)