Sony // 1962 // 227 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // December 5th, 2012
Big things have small beginnings.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, David Lean's sweeping historical epic Lawrence of Arabia -- largely considered one of the best films of all time -- receives a mind-blowing HD upgrade courtesy of Sony.
During World War I, British Army lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole, The Stunt Man) is dispatched from Cairo to the Arab desert to report on the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks, led by Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). Over the next few years, Lawrence begins to build a guerilla army and personally leads the Arabs in battle against the Turks, struggling with the horrors of war and the way that violence appears to be changing him.
They don't make movies like Lawrence of Arabia anymore.
Yes, David Lean's historical epic is four hours long and feels it at times; the overture alone puts the viewer in darkness for several minutes. That is not necessarily a criticism. The scale of the story being told, the way that it spans time and lives and locales, requires some breathing room. Hollywood still makes epics, but nowadays they require spectacle of a different sort -- CGI monsters, giant battle scenes, invented worlds. There's nothing wrong with that, but it suggests that modern audiences don't have the patience for a movie like Lawrence of Arabia. Yet, watching it on this newly restored Blu-ray (more on that in a bit) is to see that the movie holds up in the way that all timeless classics do. A great movie is a great movie is a great movie.
Lawrence of Arabia is that rare "Great Movie" that both announces itself as such but still manages to deliver. It hits on so many levels: as a political story, a history lesson, a character study, a sensory experience. Reviewing it 50 years after its release is sort of fruitless, as there is little that can be added to the conversation that hasn't been said already. It's in the same category as The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life; reviewing them is like trying to review birthdays. They are not so much movies as they are institutions -- part of our everyday lives. Lawrence of Arabia is different in that it hasn't been built into a yearly tradition, but it is a classic that deserves to be a classic. It is a movie that shows all that is possible with cinema. Big words. It's a big movie.
It's fascinating to see the "introducing Peter O'Toole" credit at the start of the movie, mostly because it's difficult to conceive of a time before Peter O'Toole was a movie star -- especially in the context of this, his best and most iconic role. It's no secret that he's incredible here, transitioning from eccentric and a little flamboyant (because Peter O'Toole) into a man who leads an entire people into doing the impossible through sheer charisma and a kind of naiveté. Lawrence is a great man, but a complicated one, and the movie -- which does simplify the story in the interest of big, sweeping story beats -- does not shy away from presenting him as such. It's the kind of performance that is meant to define a career as the culmination of years of hard work. No one is supposed to be this good right out of the gate. O'Toole lost the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, but the fact that he lost it to Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird makes the injustice easier to swallow.
Much noise has already been made about Sony's new 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, which is receiving a limited theatrical run to coincide with the Blu-ray release. It's no marketing hype. The 1080p transfer on this Blu-ray is a revelation, making the movie feel brand new and demonstrating the full capabilities of HD video. Obviously, this is a movie that lends itself to such treatment; David Lean lavished a great deal of attention on the sweeping visuals, and they have never looked better than they do here. Colors are vivid and gorgeous, fine detail is practically perfect and there are no signs of age or digital manipulation. The movie, which runs nearly four hours, is spread across two discs, meaning it doesn't have to contend with compression issues, either. This is as good an image as the format has produced, a fact that's all the more impressive considering the movie is 50 years old. There aren't enough superlatives to describe how stunning Lawrence of Arabia looks in HD. Sony hasn't skimped on the audio presentation, either, offering a remixed 5.1 DTS-HD track that's full and enveloping, particularly in regards to Maurice Jarre's classic score. It lacks the hollow tinniness that can sometimes plague older movies, especially those that only had a mono (or even stereo) presentation to begin with, but also avoids succumbing to surround-sound overkill. The track is tasteful and carefully programmed, making the movie feel new again while still paying tribute to its historical context. Have a mentioned what a great disc this is?
While a four-disc gift set is available with even more bonus content, the two-disc Lawrence of Arabia has a solid offering of special features that should please both fans and those looking to investigate further into the film. The film can be viewed with a "picture-in-graphic," which offers windowboxed text that provides background on both the movie and on the actual T.E. Lawrence, occasionally incorporating still photos in as well. The majority of the bonus content is found on the second disc, and consists of multiple featurettes and interview pieces. An hour-long making-of documentary chronicles the movie's development from the life of T.E. Lawrence all the way through its restoration, offering a ton of information along the way. Star Peter O'Toole sits down for a reflection on the movie, discussing everything from his casting, his experiences making the movie and even his subsequent Oscar snub. Steven Spielberg offers his thoughts on the film and the impact it had on him as a storyteller. The rest of the featurettes are fairly short (all running five minutes or less), covering the Arabic locations, shooting in the desert, working with camels and the movie's 1962 premiere in New York City. Finally, there's a short collection of promotional materials (not presented individually, but instead cut together) covering the movie's multiple releases.
If you've never seen Lawrence of Arabia, this is the way to see it. If you have seen it, pick up this Blu-ray, find the biggest screen you can and watch it again. It will be like seeing it for the first time. Home video will never be the optimal way to see the movie -- it deserves to be seen in a theater -- but this version comes closest to that experience. This is a necessary addition to any movie lover's Blu-ray collection.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 227 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Rated PG