David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962) one of the greatest films ever made comes to Blu Ray this week in a stunning, pristine transfer so clean you can see the granules of sand in the vast ocean of desert where much of this superb film takes place. In celebrating the films’ 50th anniversary, Sony has given audiences a simply breathtaking Blu Ray edition of the film that will leave no doubt why this is considered one of the greatest films ever made. When you hear the old timers (I’m close but not there yet) say “they sure don’t make them like that anymore” they are speaking of this films and movies such as this and they are right. If they were to remake this film, which I hope they never do, much of the backgrounds would be computer generated rather than the actual desert where they went on location to film this movie. Back breaking work brought Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to the screen, and the clear-eyed vision of the great David Lean. The director manages to bring the heat to us, his imagery suggesting stifling temperatures causing the images we see in the vast desert to shimmer through the extraordinary heat.
The film merges the epic scope of cinema, that grand sweep with character study, and the man being studied is a mystery to many to this very day. T.E. Lawrence was a British officer of no special skills when he was sent to Arabia to find something useful to do during the First World War. What he did made history, and made him a feared warrior and something of a legend. He gathered around him the tribes of the desert and convinced them to go to war with him against the Turks, and they did just that. His first great feat was to take the seaport Aquaba, which belonged to the enemy, with its massive guns facing the sea because they did not believe anyone would be fool enough to cross the desert and attack them from behind. Crossing what was known as “the sun’s anvil” was not thought to be possible, a journey that would bring certain death.
Lawrence thought otherwise and convinced members of the tribes to follow him. Perhaps seeing him as something otherworldly with his intensity and courage they worshiped him, taking him as one of their own. And while he might have been a brilliant strategist within the military, he was a deeply troubled man, struggling with inner conflicts he had to keep in check. For one he was a homosexual when it was not popular to be such, and a sadomasochist. Upon returning home to England in his flowing desert robes, now an oddity to the military, he tells them he had to kill one of his men, saying, “I liked it” and rather than get him the help he obviously needed, they sent him back.
Though Marlon Brando was the first choice to play the part of Lawrence, followed by Albert Finney after Brando decided to make Mutiny on the Bounty 1962), is there anyone but Peter O’Toole one sees in the part?
Dressed in his flowing white robes, looking like an angel against the desert vistas, his clear blue eyes, burn with an intelligence, and yet something else…something very dark. Later in the film, he will scream to his attacking army, “No prisoners!! No prisoners!!” giving them permission to slaughter. At the end of the sequence, he sits alone, his white robes turned crimson with blood, his face showing us he has detached from reality for that moment. It is an extraordinary performance from one of the screen’s most magnetic actors, one that I am not sure he ever surpassed? Though nominated for Best Actor, he lost the award to Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To kill a Mockingbird (1962), which I understand.
The film about Lawrence had been a dream project of Leans’ for many years, along with Gandhi, which he never made, though Richard Attenborough did. What a film that might have been had Lean been the director, perhaps it would actually have deserved all that Oscar attention.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) won seven Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lean, his second Oscar in five years having won for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
In addition to O’Toole’s landmark performance, many great actors do terrific work in the film beginning with Anthony Quinn as one of the tribe leaders who believe in Lawrence, though he will eventually see his failings. Omar Sharif became a star with his work a man who becomes Lawrence’ closest friend, and Alec Guinness stately and wise as Fiesel, a Prince who sees in Lawrence an Englishman at home with the desert.
The images are stunning, just as good as they were when the film played on movie screens through the sixties and in re-release through the seventies.
There are some good extras, listening to the great Peter O’Toole discuss the film today at the end of his career is fascinating and Steven Spielberg talking about what the film means to him. There is a making of documentary that shows in detail how they conquered the desert and nature to make a movie masterpiece, showing the staggering challenges that awaited them when creating the film, and allowing us to see the friendships that were forged and lasted for many years after the film was finished and released.
It is without question one of the best Blu Ray releases of the year, and a welcome addition for any Blu Ray collector.
Now available in stores!