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This film covers the Allies' Mid-eastern campaign during World War I, as seen through the eyes of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole). Cairo, 1917: A bored general staffer, Lawrence talks his way into a transfer to Arabia. Once in the desert, he befriends Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish (Omar Sharif) and draws up plans to aid the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks. No one is ever able to discern Lawrence's motives in this matter: Sherif dismisses him as yet another "desert-loving Englishman", while his British superiors merely assume that he's either supremely arrogant or stark-raving mad. Using a combination of diplomacy and bribery, Lawrence unites the rival Arab factions of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). To implement his strategy of attacking the seacoast fortress of Aqaba from the rear, Lawrence and his compatriots must make an arduous trek across the treacherous Nefud Desert, appropriately nicknamed "The Sun's Anvil". After successfully completing his mission, Lawrence becomes an unwitting pawn of the Allies, as represented by Allenby (Hawkins) and Dryden (Claude Rains). They decide to keep using Lawrence to secure Arab co-operation against the Imperial Powers. Though Lawrence is led to believe that the Arabs will be allowed to chart their own destinies after the war, the Allies have every intention of slicing up this valuable territory for their own use. As he continues his guerrilla activities with his Arab comrades in arms, Lawrence is made an international celebrity by a newspaper correspondent (Arthur Kennedy). While on a spying mission to Deraa, Lawrence is captured and tortured by a sadistic Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer). It is implied that the Bey's brutal treatment of him has aroused Lawrence's own repressed homosexuality: true or not, it is clear that he has undergone a radical personality change when he makes it back to his own lines. In the heat of the next battle, a wild-eyed Lawrence screams "No prisoners!" and fights more ruthlessly than ever. When peace is declared, Lawrence is declared a victor; but after he witnesses the chaotic, indecisive Arab peace council in Damascus, and watches as the greedy Europeans swoop down to pick up the leavings, he knows he has failed in his original dream to secure Arab independence.

T. E. Lawrence, an English soldier, is remembered by a bust in St Paul’s Cathedral. Why? Who was he? What did he really do? David Lean’s film pivots on these basic questions, questions of character and history. Yet, as we discover in this extraordinary 2-disc set of the restored, 218 minute original version of Lawrence of Arabia, this essential question was casually dubbed in during the editing process, put into the mouth of a distant English soldier who stares across the Suez Canal at a bedraggled, sand blasted figure in Arab desert robes. Who are you? He shouts. We wonder if Lawrence himself really knew the answer, but that’s why this is a such a great film; it doesn’t pretend to know the answer any more than Lawrence, yet we do come to some understanding of his complexities, his demons, his strengths and his odd charm.

And of course David Lean didn’t really have to articulate the question; the film explores this character with an intensity that burns in our memory. True, as Steven Spielberg points out in his comments, if the film were made today Lean would be attacked for historical and personal inaccuracies. Despite those, however, Lean’s film is a monumental character study of a British soldier in the first world war who became something extraordinary. Lean might also be attacked these days for casting Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal – ethnic and socio-political issues aside, it is, I’m sad to say, the single flaw in this picture; Guinness simply doesn’t cut it as an Arab.

The DVD transfer of the restored print is almost flawless, and certainly sharper, deeper and more awesome than the original, thanks to the leaps in technology. In what is both a sincere tribute to the originally structured film and a practical DVD solution, disc 1 carries part 1 and disc 2 carries part 2 of the film, the second half being shorter and thus allowing more room for all the extras. At intermission you get up, take a comfort break, replenish your food and beverage needs and return to your seats in anticipation.

As an instrument of record, this DVD is a valuable reminder that digital technology can help rescue and retain some of the great achievements of cinema. It is vital that films like this one, of lasting value, and the efforts that went into its making, are not only restored, but that their whole context is preserved. (Imagine if we could do the same with the great musicians of 400 years ago who pioneered what today we call classical music.)

The restoration, which managed to locate the missing negative from which first 20 minutes, then 15 more minutes had been cut (both with Lean’s co-operation we learn, for commercial reasons that are explained in the new Making of documentary) – but the sound had been lost. So, 25 years after completing the 2 year and 3 month shoot, Peter O’Toole had to go back and record missing bits of dialogue and sound experts had to supply the rest.

Complete with Maurice Jarre’s original opening, exit and entr’acte music, the DVD presents the score with the full benefits of digital reproduction; it is haunting, lyrical, powerful, complex and satisfying.

This is a film which truly deserves the extensive detailing that the DVD gives us, the depth of information gleaned from interviews (in 1989) with Lean, and with O’Toole - and with a contemporary addition from Spielberg. Perhaps most riveting and entertaining are the anecdotes and factual details recalled by Omar Sharif.

We learn, among other things, that even in the vast, epic shots of the cast on camels in the distance across empty desert space, David Lean insisted on the real actors, not allowing body doubles to take their places. Perhaps, muses Sharif, Lean wanted his actors to really feel the conditions for the sake of veracity.

In the new doco (the four original ones are also good, although the last, ‘In search of Lawrence’, in black & white, is the least effective) we discover some of the personal moments that inhabit the film’s history, such as why screenplay writer Robert Bolt was thrown into prison in London just as he began to write the second part of the film.

Anthony Quinn recalls his terror during the fearful scene of the charge on camelback towards Aqaba; he and O’Toole and Shairf were at the forefront of a thousand "crazy Arabs with sabres" who could see very little in front of them due to the dust that the camels kicked up at the front. "If we fell," says Quinn, "we’d be trampled to death…" In one take, O’Toole did in fact fall, but as Quinn tells it, his camel stood over him as the horde galloped past, perhaps saving his life.

The endurance, courage and talent required to make Lawrence of Arabia adds poignantly to our appreciation of this major achievement in cinema. The film won seven Oscars – including Best Picture; Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif were nominated but didn’t win. Little wonder that in the history of the Oscars, biopics have won more Best Picture awards than any other genre. Truth is stranger – and cinematically more compelling – than fiction.
Andrew L. Urban

Published March 29, 2001

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You can buy it HERE - next day delivery within Australia



CAST: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy,

DIRECTOR: David Lean

RUNNING TIME: 218 minutes

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Col Tristar Home Ent

DVD RELEASE: March 21, 2001


Disc One
* Original Widescreen Presentation

* Part One of the Feature – including the Overture.

* ‘Archive of Arabia’ – Behind the Scenes Featurette.

* Picture Disc

Disc Two
* Original Widescreen Presentation

* Part Two of the Feature – including the Entr’actre and Exit Music

* ‘The Making of Lawrence of Arabia’ – a new, 60 minute behind the scenes documentary on the making of the movie

* Original Movie Trailer

* ‘A Conversation with Steven Spielberg’ – The acclaimed director talks about his love of the film, his involvement with its restoration and David Lean

* ‘Wind Sand and Star: The Making of A Classic’ – an original behind the scenes featurette that looks at the difficulties of filming on location.

* ‘In Search of Lawrence’ – Original Behind the Scenes Featurette

* ‘The Camels are Cast’ - Original Behind the Scenes Featurette

* ‘Romance of Arabia’ - Original Behind the Scenes Featurette

* News footage of the film’s 1962 New York premiere

* ‘The Marketing Campaigns’ – looks at the various marketing approaches and materials used over the years

* ‘Maps: Journey with Lawrence’ – choose one of four journeys through Arabia with pictures and narration.

* ‘Archives of Arabia’ – Behind the Scenes Featurette.

* Talent profiles

* Picture Disc

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