Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy
T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Director David Lean follows the heroic true-life odyssey of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in this dramatic portrait of the famed British officer's journey to the Middle East. Assigned to Arabia during World War I, Lawrence courageously unites the warring Arab factions into a strong guerrilla front and leads them to brilliant victories in treacherous desert battlefields where they eventually defeat the ruling Turkish Empire.
Budget $12 million.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
Runtime: 227 min.
Release Date: 9/9/2003
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Lawrence of Arabia (Superbit) (1962)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 12, 2003)
Back when I was a shallow, callow youth - as opposed to the shallow, callow adult I became - I tried hard to cultivate an appreciation for the so-called “classic” films. Periodically I gave some of these famous flicks a look, but they never did much for me. Oh, I enjoyed movies like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, but nothing about them made me truly appreciate why they merited such legendary status. They were well made but at the time, I thought they seemed a bit stilted and lifeless compared to newer films.
My impressions of older movies changed for good in 1992, however, when I borrowed my Dad’s laserdisc copy of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. I had never seen the film, and frankly, I only bothered with it due to boredom. I had nothing better to do, so I figured I’d give this alleged classic a whirl. Based on the movie’s extremely long running time and my Dad’s favorable opinion of it - he and I frequently disagree about films - I fully expected to be bored out of my gourd.
How wrong I was! Instead of the plodding snooze-fest I anticipated, Lawrence presented one of the most visceral and compelling films I’d ever seen. This was no static and conservative epic bore. Lawrence swirled and swooped and provided a grand, imaginative vision that made the hours pass quickly. My Dad isn’t often right about films, but I owed him one on this occasion; if I hadn’t been bored enough to borrow the LD, I may never have experienced the joys of this winner.
Actually, I would have seen it eventually, since I now have the DVD, but my take on the film would have been different. When I watched it tonight, this was my seventh or eighth viewing of Lawrence. If I hadn’t seen my Dad’s LD - and then quickly purchased one of my own - tonight likely would have been my first visit with it. While the DVD is very strong and it would be a wonderful way to experience Lawrence for the first time, it almost frightens me to think how close I came to missing out on it for the last 11 years. Better late than never, of course, but I would have hated to not know what I was missing for all that time.
No level of praise for Lawrence can be excessive, for it really is one of the rare films that deserves all of its accolades. Frankly, movies don’t get any better than this. No, I can’t claim that it’s my favorite picture of all-time - there are a few other flicks that I enjoy more - but I think it makes a strong claim as the best movie ever made. One might think that its placement at number five on the AFI Top 100 list would be an honor, but I feel they should demand a recount. Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather are all fine films, and the latter probably provides the strongest competition for Lawrence among the movies that placed higher, but I still feel Lawrence outdoes them all. (As for the fourth flick, in no way, shape or form does Gone With the Wind belong above - or near - Lawrence. That melodramatic soap opera may not be in the five best films of 1939, much less of all-time.)
Lawrence functions as a semi-biography of British office T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), but it focuses solely on his experiences during World War I. At that time he worked in the Middle East - as indicated by the title - and made quite a name for himself with his organization of an Arab army. Lawrence covers the beginnings of his involvement with this group and shows what feats they accomplished.
Admittedly, that’s an excessive oversimplification of the storyline, but plot isn’t the emphasis during Lawrence. Instead, the film works more as a psychological study of a great man, and it also provides an interesting look at the Arabs as a whole. In both regards, the movie succeeds swimmingly. I’m always struck at the depth given to the portrayals of the Arabs. They aren’t shown as simple “camel jockeys” or solely in the stereotypical manners in which we’ve grown accustomed. We see them shown “warts and all”, with both positive and negative aspects of the culture on display. I thought the film gave a rich and varied look at them.
We also get a fine view of Lawrence himself, wonderfully portrayed by O’Toole. The character occupies an extremely high amount of screen time, and O’Toole must experience and embrace a wide variety of emotions. He does so terrifically well as he shows the many dimensions of Lawrence as he goes through different experiences. In O’Toole’s hands, Lawrence becomes a genuinely multi-dimensional figure. Others could have turned him into some sort of cardboard hero, but that thin fate never befalls Lawrence here.
Actually, the entire cast of Lawrence seems excellent, and it’s hard to pick out any specific talents. However, in the category of “making the most of little screentime” fall Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer. The former plays British civil servant Dryden and provides a marvelously droll and circumspect performance as the elusive little politician. Although I also liked Rains in leading roles, he seems to have been at his best with supporting parts, such as during Casablanca. He makes the otherwise-drab character of Dryden much more lively and interesting and he creates an indelible impression.
As for Ferrer, his character doesn’t even get a name; he plays the “Turkish Bey”. TB appears only during one brief segment of the film, but he has a strong impact, largely due to Ferrer’s impeccably understated performance. He makes the character powerful but not overwhelming and his work sticks with the viewer long after TB vanishes from the screen.
Although the excellent acting makes Lawrence strong, it was the amazing direction of David Lean that led the movie to be so perfect. Despite the film’s length, it truly flies by with ease. When the first version of Lawrence hit DVD, a slew of “epics” had recently appeared on the format. I grew impatient with each of them at times, though some more than others. Cleopatra, Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told all had more than a few plodding moments.
That wasn’t the case with Lawrence, even though it seems the most likely candidate to inspire boredom since I’ve already seen it a number of times. I’d never watched Cleo or Greatest Story, and I’d only viewed Ben-Hur once. Despite my familiarity with Lawrence, though, I continue to find it to be captivating. If anything, the movie has become even more fascinating with repeated viewings.
One of the main reasons Lawrence so impressed me and overcame my skepticism back in 1992 stemmed from the sumptuous visual style. Lawrence presents consistently gorgeous images, but that’s not the reason why it works so well. After all, plenty of other movies - including the epics I already mentioned - look terrific.
However, the manner in which Lawrence differs relates to the vivid and fluid camerawork and the impeccably composed shots. The film abounds with vibrant and memorable visuals. From the famed “match” transition early in the movie to Ali’s entrance to Lawrence’s rescue of Gasim to the dance on top of the train to... Well, just suffice it to say that Lawrence offers some wonderfully visceral shots that will stay with you long after the film ends.
It’s really the cinematography that made Lawrence stand out from the other classic films I’d seen, and it’s the visual aspects that make it truly timeless. Lawrence is one of exceedingly few older movies that looks like it could have been made yesterday. As I watched it, I tried to determine what scenes looked dated or lacked flair, and I really couldn’t find any. I suppose a 2003 version of Lawrence would probably offer more graphic violence and profanity, but otherwise I can think of nothing that would be changed. It’s nearly perfect as it is.
I could go on and on about Lawrence of Arabia, for it’s about as good as a movie can get. However, I’ll stop here. If you’ve already experienced its wonders, you don’t need more babbling from me, and if you haven’t seen it, I’d prefer to leave most of its delights to be fresh for you. Lawrence of Arabia is the epic for people who hate epics and the classic for those who think anything made before 1990 is “old”.
(Okay, one little tidbit before I move on to the DVD-specific remarks: David Lean stands on a short list of directors to create "back-to-back" Best Picture winning movies. He won in 1957 for The Bridge On the River Kwai before his success with Lawrence, his subsequent feature. According to helpful reader Bill Huelbig, the only other director to match this feat was William Wyler, who took home the prize for both 1942's Mrs. Miniver and 1946's The Best Years Of Our Lives. Wyler directed some wartime documentaries in between these flicks, but no true features, so - grudgingly - I must accept him into the club. Well, at least Lean's the only director to win for back-to-back films that are available on DVD!)
The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio A-/ Bonus F
Lawrence of Arabia appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on these single-sided-double-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Without question, this Superbit version of Lawrence made it look better than ever on the small screen.
Sharpness seemed splendid at all times. The prior DVD exhibited modest softness on occasion, but those concerns never appeared here. Instead, the image always came across as tight and well defined. Jagged edges also failed to manifest themselves, and none of the previous disc’s minor shimmering popped up here either. Unfortunately, some light edge enhancement still seemed to mar the picture. This seemed lessened from what appeared on the previous DVD, but occasionally I saw some small examples of haloes.
Print concerns remained about the same. I noted occasional specks and nicks, and some odd vertical white bars danced in the center of the screen during a number of scenes. The latter were very light and could easily be missed, I suspect, but I saw them at least 10 times throughout the film. (Apparently these are stuck in the original negative and resulted from the heat on location, which makes them totally unavoidable without undesirable digital tampering.) I also witnessed some minor “pulsing” in some images during the first scene at Feisal’s tent; this only affected three-shots in which we saw Lawrence, Ali and Brighton, and while it was light, it remained pretty noticeable.
Throughout Lawrence, I was treated to consistently rich and accurate colors. Due to the setting, sandy tones dominated the proceedings, and since most of the clothes were either white or black, one might think that the film would be a bust in regard to brighter hues. However, this was not the case, as more vivid colors popped up on many occasions. The hues always appeared clear and vibrant, and they lacked any concerns related to bleeding or noise.
Black levels seemed consistently deep and rich, and contrast levels appeared terrific. These areas were very important given the many extremely bright desert scenes and the darker objects that appeared in those shots. The various tones of white were clean and accurate, and shadow detail usually seemed appropriately heavy without excessive opacity. The only significant exceptions were examples of “day for night” photography. Like many films of the period, Lawrence used a fair amount of this style, a method that usually renders the image more dark than it should be. The DFN shots were less attractive than the rest of the movie, but they seemed acceptable.
When I decided on my grade for the picture quality of Lawrence, I debated whether or not it merited the “A-” it eventually got. Usually I reserve a grade that high for a virtually flawless image, and Lawrence included a few minor flaws. However, I believed those issues remained quite minor, and the rest of the package seemed so solid that I felt it really did earn that “A-”. To be sure, it rectified most of the problems with the 2001 DVD of the film. That presentation suffered from some noticeable edge enhancement and also featured occasionally incorrect color timing. The former should be evident to viewers who recognize those haloes, but the latter was more complicated because it assumed a strong enough knowledge of how Lawrence should look to notice the differences.
Though I’d seen Lawrence a number of times prior to 2001, I definitely didn’t have great enough familiarity to know that something was wrong with the colors. Now that I have the new one and can compare, however, I could easily see the differences. Actually, before I did direct comparisons, I thought that the Superbit image simply looked more “correct”. There’s a clarity and purity to the colors that I didn’t recall from any prior incarnations, and they came across with greater realism and vivacity. A few minor flaws to the contrary, the Superbit Lawrence mostly looked tremendous and the DVD often gave the film a visual impact that made it seem like they shot it yesterday.
While not quite that positive, the audio of Lawrence worked really well for an older flick. The Superbit disc included both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. I discerned no significant differences between the pair. Actually, in a change from the normal order of things, if I had to choose, I’d select the Dolby mix as the slightly superior one. It seemed a wee bit airier and crisper when I compared it to the DTS version. However, both essentially sounded identical, so I can’t list any substantial differences between the two.
Whichever I chose, Lawrence offered a wonderfully active and involving mix. Across the front spectrum I heard clearly delineated music throughout the film, and the side channels also boasted quite a lot of ambient sound. Sometimes I found the speech that came from the right or left to seem too localized - occasionally it sounded like a mono recording that had been artificially made stereo - but most of the dialogue appeared to emanate from fairly natural spots in the field. Effects were placed neatly, and they blended together well to create a vivid and lively impression.
Surround usage seemed terrific as well. Most films of this vintage simply offer mild reinforcement of the forward channels, but Lawrence went far beyond that. The score appeared so actively from the rears that it seemed to provide a distinct personality of its own, and effects also presented unique audio. The latter generally appeared to be monaural, but I detected some stereo surround indications at times; for example, canyon echoes pinged around the front and rear in specific channels. In any case, the rear speakers added lots of engrossing effects, especially during battle scenes. On those occasions, the surrounds became very involved in the process and they created a surprisingly convincing and rich environment that made the action even more exciting.
Audio quality appeared inconsistent and occasionally showed its age, but for the most part I thought the film sounded very good. Dialogue generally seemed nicely clear and natural, without many signs of edginess. Due to problems with the original audio stems, some lines were re-recorded when the restoration was performed in the late Eighties. These instances usually seemed pretty obvious, with the most glaring example taking place soon after the intermission. When Bentley and Feisal first chat, not only do some of the latter’s lines not match his lip movements well, but I also saw some abrupt cuts right before the audio changed.
Nonetheless, these problems only appeared during a few scenes. Otherwise speech was pretty warm and distinct. A little edginess interfered with a few louder scenes - particularly in the parliament toward the end of the film - but again, these were minor, as were any concerns related to the movie’s effects. Actually, I expected a fair amount of distortion from these elements, but I didn’t really hear any. Even during explosions or gunfire, the track remained clean and accurate. The effects showed their age, as they lacked the dynamics we’d expect from modern efforts, but they still sounded very clear and accurate for their age.
As with the speech, music seemed moderately inconsistent, but for the most part the score appeared very well rendered. At its worst, these aspects of the track appeared typical of movies from the era. The music could be a bit thin and lifeless at times, though it never seemed poorly reproduced. However, during most of Lawrence, the score came across as wonderfully bright and dynamic. Highs appeared nicely clear and distinct, and bass response could be warm and tight. When I heard drums beat, they appeared bold and offered the appropriate thump. Inevitably, the soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia betrayed some flaws; these are inevitable for a movie that’s past its fortieth birthday. However, I thought it sounded well above average for the era, and I found it to provide a very satisfying mix.
If you’re scoring at home, so far the Superbit Lawrence has the edge over the 2001 version of the film. Both offer the same high quality sound, but the Superbit presents noticeably superior visuals. Where the 2001 edition wins relates to supplements. While not packed with components, it included a fair number of materials and these were enough to earn it a “B” in that category.
Since most Superbit releases don’t provide supplements, those pieces don’t repeat here. Indeed, we find absolutely nothing on this totally barebones disc.
That factor will create a dilemma for some fans of Lawrence of Arabia. When I compared picture and sound quality between the two editions, both seemed virtually identical in the latter category; I noticed no auditory improvements in the Superbit version. The new disc definitely improved picture quality, but the old one wasn’t exactly a slouch in that department. The improvements were significant enough to merit a jump from the original’s “B” to the Superbit’s “A-“, but a lot of them will likely escape the casual viewer’s eye. I definitely miss this set’s absent supplements, as the 2001 Lawrence presented a pretty nice package.
My main recommendation would be for serious fans to own both versions. I’ll keep the 2001 release for its supplements, but I’ll watch the Superbit one in the future. If you refuse to own more than one package, however, I’d push for you to get the Superbit DVD. The picture improvements seem substantial enough for me to prefer to stick with it. I like the older set’s extras, but they’re not enough to compensate for the moderately problematic image. The Superbit Lawrence doesn’t provide the “slam dunk” picture I’d hoped for, but it definitely offers the strongest home video presentation yet seen for this flick.
To rate this film, visit the original review of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA