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Lawrence of Arabia - 50th Anniversary Limited Collector's Edition: BD Review

Nov 28th, 2012

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This monstrous box set - as epic as the film it contains - provides one of 2012's greatest high-definition experiences....

Sony / 227 Minutes / 1962 / Unrated / Street Date: November 13, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia stands as a series of inspired cinematic visions that tend to draw the viewer into the desert. It's a visceral experience. The sandy vistas are as alien as one may find on Earth. I can recall my first impression of a Middle Eastern desert, very different from my experiences in the American Southwest; I was reminded of photographs from a Mars lander. And the sand isn't granular like beach sand; it's the consistency of compacted talcum powder. That's why hooves and wind create so much dust. By traveling to Jordan for most of his location shooting, Lean managed to capture that inhospitable beauty on film.

Consider the sequence in which Omar Sharif's character, Sherif Ali, chieftain of the Harith tribe, is introduced. Lawrence and his Bedouin guide are standing at a desert well. The horizon dances with shimmering heat as it rises off the hot sand. The heat reduces the critical angle, causing the sky to be reflected below the horizon, an effect well known as a mirage. Suspended in the hot turbulent air, a tiny dark distortion forms within the ripples of heat, slowly to become a distant man riding his camel toward us, seemingly in midair. As he draws closer, his mount's hooves return to the Earth; Ali has come to find who has violated his well. Much subtle detail had been lost in previous low-resolution video transfers, and this brilliant new Blu-ray edition with its admirably apparent restoration captures the emotional impact Lean intended.

A plot summary does not do justice to this film, but is included here in the unlikely event that you aren't familiar with the story. It is 1917. The First World War rages in the trenches of Europe. Germany's Turkish ally is waging a campaign in the Mideast. The Turks have occupied Arabia and are threatening the Suez. Lieutenant Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is sent into the field at the insistence of British diplomat and head of the Arab Bureau, Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains). Under orders to assess the situation, Lawrence seeks out a powerful tribal leader, Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). The Arab revolt against the Turks is not going well. Feisal and his men are withdrawing to escape Turkish aircraft sent to bomb and strafe.

A key port, Aqaba, must be taken to supply the Arabs. Lawrence devises a dangerous plan: cross the Nafud Desert and attack from the rear. The Turks' artillery pieces are intended to defend against a sea attack and cannot be turned inland. Ali believes Lawrence is quite mad, but Lawrence prevails; the impossible is always possible. Feisal lends his support, Ali is shamed into joining him, and a band of warriors sets off to make a trek no sane man would try. Whether through luck or willpower they survive crossing the scorching wasteland, only to find that one of their company had fallen from his mount and was left behind. Lawrence decides to return for the fallen man as Ali berates Lawrence for risking the mission for one man. When Lawrence returns safely with the missing warrior, he wins the respect of the tribe. This is a pivotal point. Lawrence is now convinced of his invulnerability and he's earned the acceptance and the loyalty of the people from whom he must ask such a great deal.

Lawrence meets Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), chieftain of the Howeitat tribe, as he frolics alone in a gift of white robes. He wins over this cynical Bedouin as well. Applying his canny understanding of Bedouin values and customs, Lawrence manages to unite the Harith and the Howeitat, antagonistic rivals, in a common cause. They ride together to Aqaba and take the fortress from the Turks. Their success further emboldens Lawrence. With the support of his government, he guides the Bedouin tribes in guerilla warfare, disrupting Turkish lines of communication and rail. With each victory, his sense of indestructibility grows. After derailing a Turkish train, a surviving soldier repeatedly shoots at Lawrence with a pistol from perhaps a dozen yards away. Lawrence stands passively until a Bedouin ally slays the soldier with a sword. This confidence will be his undoing.

Accomplishing the impossible is one of Lawrence's most effective tools for ensuring the loyalty of the men who follow him (that and an ample supply of British gold). When a bold incursion into a Turkish held outpost leads to his capture and torture, he undergoes an unfortunate transformation. Lawrence started this campaign with an instinctive distaste for violence and killing, yet an incident in which he was forced to kill provoked an unexpected and unwelcome response: he enjoyed it. He found this very troubling, but his introspection was abandoned when the Turks brutalized him. He emerges from that brief captivity cursed with fear and hatred, feelings that do not dissipate until he takes a terrible revenge on the Turks. Lawrence becomes revered. His exploits are exploited by American reporter Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), a Lowell Thomas surrogate. Lawrence will come out of this campaign as a colonel, and despite his love/hate relationship with the desert, returns to England and an ironic fate.

Lean's choice to portray Lawrence was at once canny and serendipitous. Lawrence is a cornucopia of contradictions, elements of sadomasochism, egocentricity, and sexual ambiguity. Peter O'Toole manages to capture Lawrence's eccentricities as he discovers his affinity for the desert and its people. He projects Lawrence's turmoil though his impossibly blue eyes. We readily accept his psychological arc as his ego grows to messianic proportions with tragic consequences. The intelligent script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson is based on Lawrence's wartime writings. The desert provided an unworldly beauty. David Lean brought his vision.

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