Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I'll tell you what a Road Show picture was like. First, if it was the first month or two of a popular engagement, you didn't just show up, you probably bought the ticket in advance. It might be a family outing, in which case you'd be asked to dress up a little, maybe not in church clothes but not in jeans and sneakers either. The big theaters had plenty of staff; they didn't just tear your ticket but showed you to an assigned seat, as with a concert. Some of the theaters were swank affairs; to use the restroom at the Warners Hollywood (now condemned as an earthquake hazard) one took an elevator to a lower floor, and crossed through a large oval carpeted sitting room. The house lights went down about 40% for the overture, which was heard as blue and purple lights played on the giant sparkly curtains. In other words, you knew you were in for something BIG.
THEN you found out what all the hubbub is about concerning the process proclaimed on the posters and marquee: 70mm, SuperPanavsion Technirama StereoPhonic sound.The enormous screen dwarfed the neighborhood double-bill pit, and the image on it was almost intimidating. The picture was rock steady. It was brighter and seemed to be more colorful. And the increased detail pulled you right in. Look, you can see the individual threads in that woman's embroidered scarf. Those storm clouds seem to have more depth. Hey, the lead actor's eyes aren't just blue, you can see the little brown and grey streaks in them. Watching the movie was an all-involving experience. If anything visual was going on at all, it became a big deal. And some scenes made you want to jump out of your seat -- gladiator fights, Formula 1 race cars, a chariot race combat. This screen was made for the spectacle of a cavalry charge -- you too are at the Alamo! 70mm Road Shows were the "E" Ticket movie experience.
As the 1960s rolled in more 70mm epics turned out to be less impressive, if only because the subjects weren't big enough and the budgets too cheap. But the pinnacle of the form was reached by director David Lean in 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, which flattered the epic format with content that wasn't supposed to be commercially viable: rigorous detailing of historical events unfamiliar to the public, a hero who is anything but conventionally heroic, no romance, in fact, almost no women; and an art film attitude that didn't even send a "Rosebud" telegram to explain its enigmatic central character.
Lawrence of Arabia is about one of those ambitious men that takes history into his own hands, creating a legend around himself while letting his inner self erode away until he has no private identity. It tells its story through a score of supporting characters frustrated that they cannot explain or define him, try as they might. It's David Lean's most ambitious and riskiest film venture, in which he distills all that he had learned in a dozen English classics small and large about effective film communication. Lean would later find himself bogged down trying to distill too much history through pretty, overloaded images (Doctor Zhivago) and enlarging intimate emotions to grandiose proportions (Ryan's Daughter). Both of those epics are good movies, and Ryan is perhaps the most gorgeous 70mm presentation of them all. But in Lawrence of Arabia Lean hit the perfect balance. If audiences didn't realize what war was being fought or where, they were transported by the almost cosmic desert vistas, where camels seem to be little boats sailing on endless sandy wastes. Viewers that followed the film's politics were rewarded with a shrewdly insightful lesson in colonial management as viewed from the military perspective. And almost everyone was captivated by newcomer Peter O'Toole's soldier-turned Arab conqueror, a Britisher who "goes native" and invents his own war, for his own personal purposes. The fact that O'Toole was easily one of the most attractive leading men to arrive in years didn't hurt, either.
Lawrence of Arabia disappeared as a Road Show wonder picture around 1964, reappearing in cut-down versions and finally pan-scanned TV copies that obliterated the qualities that make it so unique. Then in 1989, a new category of film work heralded in big magazines gained the public attention -- something called a restoration team had reconstituted Lawrence in 70mm. Audiences in big cities got a taste of how BIG big movies could be, spurring a new interest in restorations, special formats and even a better format for home-delivered television.
Not everyone has seen this picture, and if you haven't the first bit of advice I have is to wait, if possible, until the new 4k theatrical presentation comes your way. This is one show that really can become a life-altering experience in a good theater screening. My comments are hopefully not the usual oft-repeated facts about the film -- which are undeniably fascinating -- but an appreciation and reflection on seeing Sony's impressive new Blu-ray.
Here's the story in the tiniest of nutshells. In WW1, lowly British Army mapmaker T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is stationed far from the killing trenches in Cairo. Unlike 99% of the officer corps, Lawrence speaks Arabic and has studied Arab affairs. Old-school Commanding General Murray (Donald Wolfit) bows to civilian strategic pressure represented by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), a diplomat (?) political planning agent (?) and dispatches Lawrence to the East to try and convince tribal chieftain Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to make active war against the Turks, allies of Germany. Lawrence befriends young England-schooled Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and gains the trust of the fiery tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). The combined tribal forces give the Turks hell. The new Commander back in Cairo, General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) supplies Lawrence's bedouin camel-cavalrymen with arms and money to press the attack. England is getting an entire new war front for pennies on the dollar, while the Arabs believe they're earning their independence. Lawrence still thinks he can help Feisal, Ali and Auda form a new Arabian nation, but his sponsors back in Cairo take a much more practical, colonial attitude. Meanwhile, Lawrence has been transformed by his role as a great conqueror, as reported by the critical newspaper correspondent Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy). Already behaving as if he's a bulletproof legend, Lawrence hides his real motivations. Some of his cruel battlefield decisions indicate that his personality may be more disturbed than any of his associates can imagine.
Usually, the more expensive a movie the more 'safe' are its politics. Lawrence of Arabia ended up costing producer Sam Speigel several times its original budget (just try telling David Lean to compromise), yet the anti-Empire message in the script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson comes through loud and clear. Blacklisted Wilson had to make his contribution from under a carpet, while we're told that Bolt was 'reprimanded' for participating in Ban the Bomb activities, which in conservative circles was considered treasonous behavior. The authors first define Lawrence by his relative innocence. He is not naïve, exactly, but he does rely on his given word as a bond and believes superiors like Allenby when he gives his word on questions like, "England has no ambitions in Arabia, do they not?" Like a hero by Rudyard Kipling, Lawrence subscribes to certain rules of chivalry. When he proves his sincerity in the desert, his Arab friends accept him not just as an equal, but as a superior. By contrast, Allenby is a good egg but when questioned by Lawrence hides behind his identity as a mere follower of military orders. Claude Rains' cautious Dryden is the key -- he sidesteps any attempt to pin him down on English policy as if he were made of Vaseline. Dryden is delighted to see a staff officer doing the work of ten regiments... the diplomat's only problem is deciding when the correct time has come to yank the rug out from under Lawrence. Dryden's obvious plan is to place the entire region under British control. This is a fairly complex context compared to what viewers were accustomed to seeing. Lawrence communicates it all clearly -- although it must be admitted that it doesn't have to juggle things most other movies are saddled with, like a love story.
David Lean is what Alfred Hitchcock called a 'simplifier' ... he looks for the most elegant and least messy cinematic solutions to story or idea problems. As an editor Lean is not above using a fast montage or intercutting reverse angles shot at completely different times, like the close-call monkey attack in A Passage to India.. In Lawrence he minimizes cuts in favor of the 'wait for the perfect shot' solution. Instead of building a little montage to express the wonder of Lawrence's first deep-desert camel ride, he finds the one perfect angle, with the perfect action, in the perfect weather at the perfect time of day. This approach must have driven producer Spiegel nuts, as in many shots there is no opportunity for a take two unless somebody wants to go out and sweep away 500 camel footprints in the virgin sand. Many dialogue scenes take place in front of specific backgrounds, with expressive skies. I can see Lean forcing the entire company to wait, when he felt it was necessary, for conditions to be perfect. Considering the result, this all worked out for the best. But how many hack directors have mistakenly thought that imitating Lean's unwillingness to compromise would define them as a film film genius? I've been on productions and seen it happen.
A lot is said about the Oscar-winning editing of Lawrence. 70mm! I've projected and assembled 65mm dailies. The images are so much larger than 35mm that it's like editing with postcards... very different than working with 8mm as a film student. We hear that editor Anne V. Coates sold Lean on the idea of transitioning betweeen scenes with "French New Wave" direct cuts instead of dissolves. The shock of certain cuts certainly is impressive -- the blown-out match, for example -- but Lean was a past master at smart cutting, knowing just when to re-charge the screen with a new angle or when to goose the pace of a movie with a jolting scene change. I believe that the jump cuts are there not to emulate Jean-Luc Godard but because adding dissolves would mean resorting to an optical dupe, stepping up a generation of film and compromising the quality of both sides of the transition.
As for Lawrence of Arabia itself, it's a wonder picture and a cerebral epic. It is less politically angry than Spartacus, its closest neighbor on the Quality Epic shelf. David Lean turned out exactly the statement he wanted to make, about a man as enigmatic as Welles' Charles Foster Kane. Both men are on the cold side. Welles drummed up sympathy for Charlie, while Lean makes us invest in Lawrence's ambition. Despite his good looks and blue-on-blue eyes he's a forbidding narcissist / masochist / sadist; for all his grand achievements he's a bitterly disturbed, dangerous character. One admires Lawrence of Arabia as an amazing cinematic storytelling achievement and an impressive physical viewing experience. That's certainly enough.
Sony's new presentation of Lawrence of Arabia gives viewers the choice of two Blu-ray packages. Web folk have been asking for years why a Lawrence Blu-ray wasn't available, as if delivering a definitive home theater rendition involved simply taking a can from a studio shelf. Sony's presentation of this "top of the catalog" title is elaborate enough to qualify as a bona fide Big Deal -- all of the studio's restoration resources have been directed at the project, optimizing and improving upon the epochal 1989 restoration by Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten. A new 8K scan and digital finessing has produced a really impressive theatrical version for 4K projection. 1 Sony has managed to clean up small problems with deleted scenes that were restored in 1988. The only flaw I still notice is some color streaking (?) in the sky in a few shots of bedouin fighters assembling in the desert, their camels raising plumes of dust. Still, these stubborn stains have been diminished greatly.
On Blu-ray HD Lawrence really dazzles; people with projection setups are going to feel as if they're back in the balcony of a Road Show picture palace. On my 68" Samsung the disc quality matches any vintage movie I have. The added resolution makes us observe things like the granularity of the dust coating Peter O'Toole's face. I know that Savant readers will be referring to more technical sites to peruse the descriptions of the audio options. Lawrence has such a non-ostentatious sound design that we sometimes think we're hearing the subtle noise of quiet air blowing by in the desert -- until the Maurice Jarre score swings in to fill the room. 2
DVD Savant received both Lawrence of Arabia Blu-ray releases, an economical 2-Disc Restored Edition and a whopping-heavy 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition gift set, which contains a third disc of extras.
On both sets Disc 1 contains the full 227-minute feature with its full Overture, Intermission and Ent'racte. A new extra is a Picture & Graphics trivia track that plays along with the movie. The track for A Passage to India was very informative, but I can't see myself sitting still for four hours --- I'll sample this one instead. BD Disc 2 has a second new item, an interview piece with Peter O'Toole reminiscing warmly about his experience. The rest of the documentaries and featurettes are repeats from the earlier special edition.
The 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition weighs a little more than four pounds. On the box it's called the Fiftieth Anniversary Limited Edition and I'm told that it is indeed limited -- if this deluxe coffee-table brag box is your heart's desire, I woudn't expect it to be around next year. The white box comes in a tough, clear plastic sleeve. When it is opened one finds a new 88-page book about the film and an actual 70mm frame encased in a piece of Lucite. My frame was a two shot of Anthony Quayle and Peter O'Toole sitting in a tent, but I assume plenty of purchasers will get desert vistas.
The book is not a souvenir piece but a reliable account of the filming by writer Jeremy Arnold -- no publicity blurbs substitute for real research. The attractive photos and general layout do Lean's film justice and the whole thing comes off as a quality publication. Also included is an informative essay on Sony's restoration process, written by Grover Crisp. The piece illuminates the problems and techniques used, as well as the overall restoration strategy.
The third and fourth discs are exclusive to the Collector's/Limited Edition. Blu-ray #3 has a restoration docu, an interview piece with the ubiquitous Martin Scorsese (who compares Lawrence to Al Roberts, the noir loser hero of Detour!), featurettes about behind-the-scenes matters and the historical T.E. Lawrence, an alternate version of the Columbia promo featurette, other interviews with famous filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and William Friedkin praising Lean; and more trailers and TV spots.
The capper is a first look at a deleted scene not included in the 1989 restoration because David Lean was unhappy with the vocal dubbing job. It's a fairly interesting exchange of dialogue on the veranda between Lawrence and General Allenby but probably not really necessary: Allenby tries to strengthen their friendship, reinforcing the idea that he is a mediocre General, while Lawrence has the makings of greatness. Lawrence does his usual confrontation-rejection thing, showing his unwillingness to act like an ordinary fellow with any military man.
A fourth disc is a CD of the Lawrence of Arabia original soundtrack, which contains two tracks noted as being previously unreleased.
Although I didn't intend to I ended up watching all of Lawrence of Arabia again; I haven't seen it in ten years and, well, the images just kept looking more and more inviting. Part of the industry 'respect' shown Lawrence can be measured in the extent to which admiring filmmakers have
copied been influenced by it. Certainly Sergio Leone in his westerns has been, and John Milius' The Wind and the Lion seems modeled after it throughout. Sam Peckinpah also got into the act -- his 'Road Show' script for Major Dundee borrows from Lawrence as well as Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai whenever he's in need of a character crisis.
The Collector's/Limited gift box design uses artwork from an early Lawrence poster design, a nice move away from the familiar scimitar-in-the-air pose. Sony's Blu-ray has seemingly done right by its multi-Oscar-winning flagship movie classic. I think this is the way we'll be seeing it for quite a while.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lawrence of Arabia Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: many -- see above
Packaging: (Restored Director's Cut) 2 BD discs in Keep case in card sleeve; (50th Anniversary) 3 BD discs one DVD in big box package with book and Lucite film frame, in heavy box with heavy box slipcase in thick clear plastic sleeve.
Reviewed: November 6, 2012
1. Despite what I've heard from some studio naysayers, I've personally seen some incredibly good-looking 4K projection. Two years ago at TCMfest new restorations of Taxi Driver and Breakfast at Tiffany's were shown in 4K at Grauman's Chinese. Normal 35mm often looks dim, grainy and unsteady on such a big screen, if only because film quality has deteriorated since the 1960s. This 4K projection indeed looked like 70mm, with bold colors. The even illumination, lack of flicker and rock-steady registration improved on 70mm.
2. That's another reason to praise Lean -- his recognition and support for the great Maurice Jarre, whose sweeping soundtrack music enlarges the adventure angle when all we're seeing is sometimes just two lonely guys on camels (not Bing Crosby and Bob Hope). Cinephiles familiar with Jarre's earliest, brilliant scores for the fantastic films of Georges Franju -- Judex, Head Against the Wall, Eyes without a Face -- will pick up on Jarre's signals of "something amiss" in Lawrence's behavior -- the creepy musical cues are quite similar.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson
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