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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/5/01

Lawrence of Arabia
1962 (2001) - Columbia TriStar

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Lawrence of Arabia

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One
Part One of the film: 139 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.20:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:13:01 in chapter 20), custom dual-disc keep case packaging, 10-page reproduction of original 1962 souvenir booklet, DVD-ROM features (including Archives of Arabia: Historic Photographs Take You Behind-the-Scenes (Part 1) and Journey With Lawrence: Interactive Map of the Middle East), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), French, Spanish and Portuguese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

Disc Two
Part Two of the film: 88 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (2.20:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual layered (no layer switch), custom dual-disc keep case packaging, 10-page reproduction of original 1962 souvenir booklet, The Making of Lawrence of Arabia documentary (21 chapters), A Conversation with Steven Spielberg, 4 original featurettes (Maan, Jordan - The Camels Are Cast, In Search of Lawrence, Romance of Arabia and Wind, Sand and Star - The Making of a Classic), original newsreel footage of the New York premiere, cast & crew talent files, theatrical trailers (for Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone), Advertising Campaigns artwork, DVD-ROM feature (Archives of Arabia: Historic Photographs Take You Behind-the-Scenes (Part 2)), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), French, Spanish and Portuguese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

The first (and, until recently, last) time I saw Lawrence of Arabia was in 1989. The film had just been restored to a stunning, then-state-of-the-art 70MM, Dolby Stereo print. I stayed in my seat as the Exit Music played, thrilled by the spectacle I'd just seen and awed that I had just seen a movie with an Overture, Intermission and Exit Music. At that moment, I swore I would never, ever watch this film on a television. Well... a good DVD will make liars out of the best of us and Columbia Tristar's 2-disc limited edition presentation of Lawrence of Arabia is certainly a good DVD. That I would still argue that home video is not the best way to watch Lawrence is not to take anything away from this disc. Indeed, if you haven't got access to a movie palace with a 60-foot screen and a 70MM print of the movie and you absolutely have to watch Lawrence at home, this DVD is really the only way to go.

Modern movie audiences have lost their grip on what a movie epic is supposed to be, misapplying the term to movies that are merely long or expensive looking. Real epics are vast, sweeping affairs and no one mastered the epic form as well as David Lean. Lean's early films tended to be smaller, character-based works like Brief Encounter and Summertime. But in the second half of his career, he worked almost exclusively on a much larger canvas, creating epics both great (Lawrence and The Bridge on the River Kwai) and... well, a lot less great (anybody for Ryan's Daughter? Didn't think so.). Lean's epics fill the screen with landscapes never before seen on film, teeming hordes of people and constant motion, which is one way they get away with being so amazingly long. There is never a completely still shot in Lawrence of Arabia. By this, I do not mean that the camera is moving all the time. I mean there is dynamic activity within the frame. Even if the movement is so slight as to be nearly imperceptible, as in the famous shot of the sunrise in the desert, Lean and his key collaborators (the most indispensable of whom are art director John Box, cinematographer Freddie Young and composer Maurice Jarre) manage to draw your attention directly toward that motion.

What sets Lawrence of Arabia apart from other gargantuan spectacles is its central character. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most complex, elusive and ultimately unknowable figures in history and, as played by Peter O'Toole in a legendary, star-making performance, one of the most multi-dimensional characters to ever anchor a film. As the film begins, Lawrence is a map maker for the British army in Cairo, looked upon as a dilettante and a half-wit by his superiors. Lawrence is sent off to act as an observer in the camp of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). Instead of merely observing however, Lawrence gets involved, soon becoming committed to Feisal's fight to liberate Arabia. He leads a successful, if arduous, campaign to seize the key city of Akaba, securing his image as a savior in the eyes of the Arabs. But because Lawrence is a man who really doesn't know who he is, he soon starts believing his own legend ("Didn't you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet."). At the same time, Lawrence is both appalled and thrilled by the bloodlust this war has awoken in him. As the Arabs look to Lawrence for guidance and the British expect him to serve their interests, Lawrence struggles to figure out who he is. Is he a hero? A savage? A British soldier? An Arab revolutionary?

Columbia Tristar has done an outstanding job with this release, starting with the extremely handsome book-like packaging. This is (by and large) the 1989 restored director's cut of Lawrence of Arabia and it looks absolutely breathtaking. Since so much of the cinematography consists of tiny figures dwarfed by and emerging from unending landscapes, it's absolutely essential to watch this on as big a screen as possible. As I said at the outset, my own preference would be to see it projected in a theatre but barring that, the anamorphic widescreen picture on this DVD offers the next best thing. Just try to not be blown away by the clarity of such famous shots as Omar Sharif's unforgettable entrance, emerging from a mirage, or Lawrence, his face caked white with sand, seeing a ship seem to cruise through the desert as he reaches the Suez Canal. Even better than the video, however, is how amazingly good this disc sounds. Remixing older films to take advantage of 5.1 surround sound can be a dicey proposition. But done properly, as it is here or on Universal's Vertigo, it can be a revelation. From the second we hear those familiar rolling drums in the Overture, Maurice Jarre's score has never sounded as good as it does here. Battle scenes envelop you with galloping horses and camels, earth-shaking explosions and whizzing bullets. And the scene where Lawrence, riding alone, discovers an echo in the hills brought a big grin to my face as O'Toole's voice reverberated from speaker to speaker. Most importantly, the new 5.1 mix retains the essential character and feel of the original track. A strong Dolby Surround 2.0 option is also included, as are French, Spanish and Portuguese language tracks. But if you have access to 5.1 equipment, you'll be more than satisfied.

The special features, relegated mostly to Disc Two, are extremely good, befitting a film of this stature. Laurent Bouzereau's hour-long documentary is simply one of his best, high praise considering the consistently high quality of his behind-the-scenes features. This was not an easy film to make and Bouzereau's documentary shows us how it was done, step by step. Also included in the documentary is valuable on-set footage of director David Lean at work, which is simply fascinating. More of this footage is seen in the four featurettes. These newsreel pieces promoting Lawrence are kind of the early 60s version of Entertainment Tonight segments. They're interesting, reasonably well preserved, and give some idea of the hype that must have accompanied this film. Speaking of hype, the Advertising Campaigns feature is presented in a novel way. Instead of simply consisting of a gallery of posters, lobby cards and promotional items, we see a short mini-documentary with narration explaining the different rationales behind each campaign, from the initial 1962 release to the much-shortened re-releases, to the 1989 restoration. Even the booklet is interesting, reprinting the text of the 1962 souvenir book. This essay goes into a surprising amount of detail about the historical T.E. Lawrence. The only feature that I didn't have much use for was the Conversation with Steven Spielberg featurette. It's not that it wasn't interesting; it simply could have been edited into the documentary itself. There was no real need to highlight it as a separate feature, except of course to trumpet Spielberg's participation in the DVD. Also included in the set are the expected talent files for cast and crew and theatrical trailers (though I was surprised that there was not a trailer for the '89 restoration and re-release).

DVD-ROM features are included on both discs and are of definite interest. Archives of Arabia divides the screen into three quadrants: the film in the lower left, text in the lower right, and behind-the-scenes photographs across the top half. There's a wealth of information in this feature. Because the photos correspond to their place in the film itself, the Archives are spread over both discs. Disc One also contains Journey With Lawrence: Interactive Map of the Middle East. This allows you to see the changing borders of the Middle East up to the present day. With so much international attention focused on the Middle East today, this is a fascinating feature, lending historical perspective and making Lawrence of Arabia one of the few DVDs that can actually teach you about something other than movies.

Lawrence of Arabia is an astonishing achievement and, watching it today, you can easily believe that it took over three years to make. I'm thrilled that Columbia TriStar gave this movie the treatment it deserves. Movies of this size and scope are virtually impossible to make today for a variety of reasons, mainly economic. Also, I fear we no longer have many directors capable of bringing this level of complexity and sophistication to bear on a subject. Since we are unlikely to ever see another movie quite like Lawrence of Arabia, it's extremely gratifying to finally have the real thing immortalized on DVD. This release comes as close as anything will to capturing the thrill and grandeur of truly epic cinema.

Adam Jahnke
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