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Lawrence of Arabia: Limited Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn,
Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains,
Arthur Kennedy, and Anthony Quayle

Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean


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Review by D. K. Holm                    


"Lawrence is simply another expensive mirage, dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal. Its objective is less to entertain or enlighten than to impress and intimidate. Some of its acting and technical effects are interesting, but on the whole I find it hatefully calculating and condescending."

— Andrew Sarris, in the Village Voice, December 20, 1962.

"There is nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains; old men's work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of wars are the virtues of young men, courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men, mistrust and caution. It must be so."

— King Feisal, near the end of Lawrence of Arabia.



It's May 25, 1961, and the audience in the Criterion Theatre in Manhattan is sitting in eager anticipation, waiting to see David Lean's long-awaited film Revolt in the Desert. His first work since 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai, the new epic stars Marlon Brando as T.E. Lawrence, the Anglo hero of the Arab revolt, as well as Laurence Olivier as Feisal, Charles Laughton as Dryden, Horst Buchholz as Sheik Ali, Edmond O'Brien as the Lowell Thomas figure, and Cary Grant as Allenby. Working from a screenplay by blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, Lean took a long time to shoot his film: 150 days. Soon the movie starts, and when it is over, three hours later, the consensus is as was predicted within the Hollywood industry itself: Brando, short and squat and with blond dyed hair and a lazy accent, completely failed to capture the essence of one of Britain's most unusual figures, while Grant, who hadn't been in this kind of a story since Gunga Din, seemed vaguely out of place as a mere military functionary in an action film that taxed his age, looks, and screen persona. Wilson's script emphasizes political action over character, which makes the film seem rushed, bloated and hollow. His dialogue is atrocious.

Students of film history will notice immediately that none of this happened. Lawrence of Arabia, initiated by producer Sam Spiegel in 1957, didn't open until December 1962. Though Brando was briefly attached to the film before choosing to do Mutiny on the Bounty (and he probably was only interested in Lawrence because it had a great whipping scene in it, and Brando was well known for his interest in parts where he gets the shit beat out of him), it starred — after an exhaustive search that included Albert Finney — Peter O'Toole, along with Omar Sharif as Ali, Alec Guinness as Feisal, Anthony Quayle (in the part of Brighton), and Jack Hawkins in the Allenby part. Unlike the mythical-yet-at-one-point-possible Revolt in the Desert, the real film went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Moviemaking is a fragile affair. There are millions of variables, and if the filmmakers make even one mistake, the whole project can be thrown out of whack. Movies are deeply vulnerable to such matters as casting and studio politics, and many of the films we love, such as Casablanca, are heralded as happy accidents, creations that could barely be what they are today if it weren't for a succession of lucky strokes. Movies are so complicated that when a great film such as L.A. Confidential comes along we embrace it as if it were a miracle — which, in many ways, a great film is.

Many, many things could have gone wrong with Lawrence of Arabia. The film took a lot longer to set up, shoot, and edit than anticipated. What was supposed to be a 150-day shoot turned into two years and three months of production history, and over those years untold chaos could have derailed this project at any time. Instead, Lawrence became one of the greatest movies of the 20th century, and one of the weirdest, most counter-intuitive epics ever committed to film.

David Lean is one of that rare breed of directors who can be called Location Masochists. In this he joins the ranks of John Huston, Jean-Jacques Arnaud, Luc Besson, and Werner Herzog. These men like nothing better than to trudge out to desolate places free of any amenities and torture themselves and their cast and crews with demanding projects that exact harsh demands on their creativity, patience, and health. Given all the variables that can afflict a major production, being a Location Masochist is putting at risk a movie that is already walking a tightrope just because of the nature of the business. Yet Lean — perhaps simply through adherence to his vision, his genius, or maybe simply because he found the fun in making movies — managed to stave off all hazards and come through with the film, although a year and a half late.

The production history of Lawrence is a fascinating one, especially if you like movies in general and this movie in particular, and its story is fully recounted in several books, among them the biography of Lean by Kevin Brownlow; in David Lean and the Making of Lawrence of Arabia, by Adrian Turner; and in Lawrence of Arabia, by L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin. Much of this material is replicated on the hour-long "making-of" documentary on this DVD release, and for the most part all these accounts agree. However, an assistant to Lean reveals in the DVD's documentary that Lean personally had the idea of making Lawrence for some time before Spiegel — after their successful collaboration on Kwai — approached the director about adapting Lawrence's story (Lean was in India at the time, where he was researching a film about Gandhi). However, the published accounts maintain that Spiegel had nursed the idea since the publication of Lawrence's book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in the mid-1920s.

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T.E. Lawrence himself was, off and on, an icon of 20th century British culture. The illegitimate son of an Irish lord (who bestowed the false name Lawrence on his sons), Thomas Edward grew up to be an Oxford-educated archeologist and published author who ended up making maps in Cairo. At the outbreak of World War I, he joined army intelligence. Lawrence of Arabia chronicles his first fact-finding mission in Arabia, where Lawrence is suppose to find out the views of King Feisal (Guinness). Along the way he encounters Sheik Ali (Sharif), who embodies for him the disharmony of the Arab tribes. Initially skeptical, Ali joins Lawrence in a raid on the sea-port of Aqaba, a stronghold for the Turks, who were supporting Germany in the war. With the success of this raid, Lawrence is granted license to lead guerrilla raiding parties on other Turk outposts and rail lines. A reporter named Bentley (Arthur Kennedy, in a version of Lowell Thomas) records Lawrence's exploits and makes an international hero out of him. But hubris leads Lawrence — who seems to identify more with the Arabs than the Brits — to take a disastrous trip to a Turkish-held town, where he is caught and beaten by the local Bey (Jose Ferrer). As a result of the beating, and possibly other things, Lawrence (in the Lean-Bolt-Wilson interpretation) turns from his own bizarre form of pacifism toward a bloodlust in taking the lives of Turks. In the end, though he has helped win the war, he is now of little use to either Arab or British political masters, represented by Dryden (Claude Rains), and is sent home. Fifteen years later he dies in the solitary motorcycle accident that opens the film.

There are no speaking female characters in Lawrence of Arabia; yet the film comprises a series of love affairs. First between Lawrence and his two young and devoted servants. Then between Ali and Lawrence. Their relationship would almost be a traditional Hollywood story if one of them were a woman — they "meet cute," are antagonistic in the beginning, but end up admiring each other. In fact, throughout the film Lean makes a point of portraying Lawrence — who was a very difficult man — as someone whom people initially dismiss before they eventually come to idolize the man (Quayle's Brighton does the same thing). Ali ends up somewhat disillusioned by Lawrence after the massacre outside Damascus (it should be noted that some scholars, such as John Mack in his book The Prince of Our Disorder, dispute the historical truth and the psychological interpretation of this part of the film). Reduced to its essence, the story of Lawrence is fairly simple, if not skimpy, though it still requires concentration (I don't know how anybody really, fully "gets" a movie on the first viewing). On the other hand, the film is rather mysterious. That's because the quirky, brittle, difficult man at its center is such a mystery. As one of the commentators on this disc's documentary says, no one really knows who Lawrence is. The film opens with mourners who alternately say they never really knew him, and yet find him the most remarkable person they had ever met; in a key scene, wherein Lawrence and friend finally reach the Suez (Chapter 33), a motorcyclist from across the water hollers (in a voice dubbed by Lean) "Who are you?" The film does not presume to answer that question. It is enough that the question has been asked.

And who was David Lean? Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Lean is how much his career changed after the mid '50s. Lean helmed such quintessentially British films as the 1946 Brief Encounter, but after 1955's Summertime he turned solely to international projects. The change in Lean's films can be quite clearly attributed to the changes in the British and American film markets in the postwar era. Competing with television, Hollywood movies became bigger and bolder; no longer able to rely on solely attracting mass American audiences, Hollywood went global, forsaking tales of small-town America for epic co-productions with international casts that were more likely to attract worldwide audiences. Part of this change was made possible by producers such as Spiegel, who made the movies on their own and sold them to the studios. This fascinating but little explored aspect of the very origin of Lawrence is discussed at length in the book Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology, by Steve Caton (University of California Press, 1999, ISBN 0.520.21083.2).

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Lawrence of Arabia cost $13 million to make. It opened in New York City on Sunday, December 16th, 1962, during a newspaper strike, and went on to gross $23 million. In the interests of making the film more palatable to the masses in middle America, Spiegel prevailed upon Lean to cut 10 minutes out of it, and Spiegel cut another 10 behind Lean's back. For the re-release in 1971, another 10 minutes were removed. Lean himself only saw his first royalty check for the film in 1978. In 1987, Robert Harris — who had successfully restored Abel Gance's massive 1927 Napoleon — and John Painten took on the task of restoring Lawrence. They found the original negative in London but had to re-record parts of the soundtrack, and O'Toole, Guinness, and actor Charles Gray (who could mimic the now-deceased Jack Hawkins) gathered under Lean's direction to re-record some elements (Kennedy and Quinn also redid some of their voice work). Harris produced a "preservation interpositive" from the original camera negative (which also included many outtakes and alternate shots) and color separations, on new (and better) 65mm stock. Harris found the camera negative not long before it would have been utterly unusable. This restoration was released in May of 1988; however, Harris and Painten are conspicuously not mentioned in the documentary about the film that appears on this disc. (The Internet Movie Database gives a thorough account of the minute differences among the three versions of the film.)

There were several Laserdisc versions of Lawrence of Arabia as well, most coming out around the time of the its 30th anniversary, one of which committed the sin of putting publicity stills underneath the overture/walk-in music, which violated the spirit of Lean's intentions. This decision was made because, apparently, VHS copies that included the introductory black screen were returned by irate customers who thought that the tape was defective, going for five minutes at the beginning without any picture. Columbia TriStar's DVD solves this problem by inserting an additional menu before you start the film proper that explains Lean's intentions and prepares the viewer for the five minutes of dead screen.

And now, in April of 2001 and almost on the eve of the film's 40th anniversary, Columbia TriStar has published a two-disc "limited edition" of Lawrence of Arabia on DVD, surely one of the most eagerly awaited of film-to-disc transfers. Perhaps most of you have seen the movie; what about the package?

Image: The anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.20:1) is nearly perfect. The blues of the skies are clear; the flesh tones are rich. Only occasionally does there seem to be some kind of distracting image problem, and sadly one of them occurs in the famous "camel riding out of the mirage" scene in Chapter 9, where the long shot of Sharif seems to have a vertical inconsistency down the middle of the image. The set comes in two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DS-SL).

Sound: It's pretty good. The disc comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), as well as Dolby 2.0 in English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Look to the scene where O'Toole sings "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" in an echo canyon, which ends with a bomb exploding, as a test sequence. Maurice Jarre's musical score, which goes from jaunty to lush to military, sounds especially good (trivia buffs may wish to note that the distinctive drum theme from Christopher McQuarrie's 2000 The Way of the Gun seems to have been inspired by a similar theme in Lawrence). Occasionally the dialogue sounds a little "off" in tone, but that's likely due to the re-recording of dialogue for the restoration. Early reports that the dialogue and image were not in sync seem incorrect, if the disc this reviewer evaluated is anything to go by (provided by Columbia, but a retail copy). Subtitles come in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai. Closed-captioning is also included.

The Making of Lawrence of Arabia: Laurent Bouzereau provides yet another brilliant, informative (in this case) hour-long documentary that explores not just the production history of Lawrence of Arabia but the meaning of the film as well. It should be noted that some of the stories told by the people here contradict tales told in some of the books on the film. For example, Sharif says here that Lean loved him for going out at night to practice using his props for the well scene; but in the Harris-Raskin book he is quoted as saying that Lean yelled at him for it (a book version is a little cryptic and doesn't make a lot of logical sense). Also, the documentary leaves out one of my favorite Lawrence stories, which concerns Lean and O'Toole trying to figure out what to do when Lawrence gets his new white duds. O'Toole said, "Can I go off and have a think?" Lean said yes. O'Toole says that he pondered the moment, and came up with the idea of looking at himself in the reflection of the knife blade. They did it in one take, and after Lean yelled cut, O'Toole heard him say, "Clever boy." It's a great story, if true, and I would like to see the screenplay someday, since this early blade-gazing scene is rhymed with one near the end of the film during the Road to Damascus massacre. At what point did they decide to add that? Or were both in the screenplay the whole time?

Eight-minute "conversation" with Steven Spielberg: There is no real conversation here; Spielberg just talks to the camera. And before you leap to ask "What the hell is this guy doing on the disc?" bear in mind that Spielberg, along with Martin Scorsese, did participate in the 1988 restoration. That being said, he doesn't really have much to say that is original, though his enthusiasm is authentic (and Spielberg was raised for a time in a desert community, so he could relate to the film upon its release a little more personally than many other Americans). On the other hand, Spielberg does have a habit of proclaiming a lifelong interest in something when a promotional opportunity arises. Nevertheless, Spielberg did get to sit next to Lean during the first screening of the restoration, and he says he received his own personal audio commentary of the film. (This little segment is also written, directed, and produced by Laurent Bouzereau.)

Four short contemporaneous news features: Which are short and only interesting for the on-set images. Maan, Jordan: The Camels are Cast is a two-minute black-and-white "news" segment about the buying and training of the camels for the films. If anybody tries to tell you that shameless promotional films posing as news stories is a recent phenomenon, point them in the direction of this segment. In Search of Lawrence is a five-minute black-and-white "making-of" promotional film with a rather florid narration ("... but the desert is a resourceful adversary ..."). Romance of Arabia is yet another contemporaneous four-and-a-half-minute "making-of" segment, in murky black-and-white, with an over-dramatic piano in the background and blustery narration. Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic is a color, full-frame "making-of" doc with music from the movie in the background. Some of the color footage in this segment is the same as in the two black-and-white segments. This promotional piece lacks credits or a copyright date; it also appears on the Columbia Laserdisc.

Talent files on 11 cast and crew members: Each person gets about three screens of basic stats and filmography; the disgruntled screenwriter Michael Wilson also gets a file.

Newsreel footage of the New York premiere: This clip lasts just over a minute, and is in high-contrast black-and-white. It is something you might watch once, and never again.

Narrated slide show of advertising campaign images: About five minutes long, with music and narration, this nice little featurette summarizes the array of advertising from around the world. The attention to detail in the fluctuating images of Lawrence presented in the posters over the years is an interpretation of the film in itself. This feature is original to this package.

Theatrical trailers: There are three — for Lawrence,, The Guns of Navarone, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. The unusual thing about the Lawrence trailer — which is in 1.85:1 and is a little faded and has murky sound — is that it has snippets of footage that later had to be elaborately restored, with O'Toole re-recording his voice. Thanks to the disc, you can compare/contrast them.

DVD-ROM add-ons: Disc One features historic photos and an interactive map. On Disc Two there are more historic photos.

Inserted material: Inserted into the box is a reprint of material from the original 1962 souvenir booklet. I suppose it is nice to have, but it's for completists only, given that there are three books out about the making of the movie.

Packaging: An attractive dual-DVD digipak in a hardcover-book shell, which looks very much like a small hardbound book when closed.

— D. K. Holm



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