“Who are you?”
After the tremendous success of Bridge on the River Kwai, producer Sam Spiegel and director David Lean cast around for a worthy topic for their next film. The desire to top Kwai made things difficult, but that film’s general theme — that of an individual placed by fate in an unusual locality — provided a starting point. The pair initially considered the possibility of a film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, but soon abandoned it, daunted somewhat by the decisions that would have to be made on what to include and what to leave out.
The idea of filming the story of T.E. Lawrence had been around for many years (British producer Herbert Wilcox claimed Lawrence himself had approached him about it in 1926, and there were subsequent British and American announcements), but nothing had ever materialized. Now, however, the film rights to Lawrence’s autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom became available and Spiegel acquired them, having been fascinated by Lawrence’s story when he had first read it some years previously. Lean was enthusiastic about the idea too, for he had had to turn down an earlier Lawrence project about which Columbia had approached him.
In February 1960, Columbia Pictures held a press conference at Claridge’s Hotel in London to announce the picture, and so a two-year odyssey began that would result in one of the most acclaimed pictures yet made — Lawrence of Arabia. The film was released in December 1962 and went on to receive nominations in ten Academy Award categories, of which it won seven including Best Picture and Best Director.
Columbia has now released Lawrence of Arabia on DVD in a two-disc special edition.
Lieutenant Lawrence, confined to menial tasks for the British Army in Cairo, is summoned to headquarters. Due to his interest in the desert and Arabian affairs, he finds himself assigned to act as an emissary to Prince Feisal. At issue is some way to unite the various Arab tribes into a cohesive force that can act in support of the British. Feisal doubts that unity can be achieved, barring some miracle. Lawrence, however, provides that miracle by leading a small force of Arab guerillas across the Nefud Desert to take the Turkish-held port of Aqaba. The victory with the help of publicity by an American journalist makes Lawrence a hero and he goes on to lead the Arabs into Damascus ahead of the British. But the process makes Lawrence a changed man and the taking of Damascus does not have the outcome for which he had hoped.
Any treatment of the Lawrence story has to decide where its sympathies lie. Was Lawrence a legendary figure — a real hero and idealist who truly felt it his destiny to unite the Arabs and lead them to control of their own country — or was he simply an opportunist — willing to use the desert campaign which the British were directing, if imperfectly, simply to make himself look good? The film Lawrence of Arabia at times straddles this line, but on the whole, comes down firmly on the side of Lawrence the idealist. It also makes clear, however, that increasingly, Lawrence himself was uncertain of himself. The first cracks in his self-confidence appear with the trek across the Sinai Desert that almost ends in catastrophe before he finally makes it to the Suez. A passing British motorcyclist yells to him from across the canal “Who are you?” Lawrence’s reaction, all in the eyes, is clearly that he’s not sure himself. When he reluctantly returns to the desert, we see increasingly a Lawrence who is in love with killing. In the end, he is a tragic figure, dismissed by the military and politicians (“We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?”). It is clear in the final sequence, however, that whatever doubts he may really have had about himself, the film’s position is that his heart lay with the Arabs, rather than going home to England.
Lawrence, of course, is portrayed by Peter O’Toole. He was, however, far from the first choice. In fact, Marlon Brando was first selected to play the role, leading a reporter of the time to inquire whether it would be a speaking part, as Brando was already well known for mumbling his way through films. Brando soon dropped out, preferring to take on the role of Fletcher Christian in the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Albert Finney was then tested, but he eventually declined the part also. Then David Lean happened on O’Toole when he saw a West-End play in which the actor had a small part. After a screen test, Lean was convinced that O’Toole was ideal to play Lawrence. The decision was crucial, for O’Toole is on the screen for virtually the whole film. The strength of his portrayal of Lawrence is all in the face. He is able to convey so convincingly both the strength of resolve and the inner turmoil that increasingly come to battle each other within Lawrence as the film progresses. It has been said by others that the second half of the film is less compelling than the first, but personally, I find it is by far the more interesting for the transformation that Lawrence undergoes, from almost messiah-like leader to broken hero. O’Toole plays this brilliantly. It was a travesty that he did not win the Best Actor Academy Award for his efforts.
Contributing immensely to the film’s success, and also unrewarded by the Academy, was the screenplay by Robert Bolt. Michael Wilson, who had been involved in Kwai, wrote the original screenplay, but Wilson’s efforts proved unsatisfactory to David Lean and Wilson eventually resigned from the project. Bolt, a new writer whose play “A Man for All Seasons” was being successfully staged in London in 1960, then came to the attention of Sam Spiegel. He was immediately impressed and persuaded a somewhat reluctant Bolt to rewrite much of the dialogue. In the event, Bolt found the script wanting not only in dialogue, but also in character depth. He essentially rewrote the whole script, taking Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom as gospel and condensing its characters substantially. For example, Colonel Brighton (played by Anthony Quayle) represented the many British officers who served in the desert while the character Dryden (Claude Rains) was a condensation of the many diplomats and archaeologists involved. Bolt also chose to alter history for dramatic purposes by implying that Lawrence knew nothing of the British-French agreement to divide Arab land between themselves (the Sykes-Picot agreement) when in reality he did, a fact that contributed to so much of Lawrence’s mental anguish in real life. The completed script was highly praised as being literate and intelligent, an appraisal that is only confirmed more strongly when one is subjected to the sorry screenplays that grace most current films.
Peter O’Toole and the script are only the beginning of the embarrassment of riches that makes up Lawrence of Arabia. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, and Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal. As Dryden, the great Claude Rains contributes a finely drawn portrait of a wily, somewhat inscrutable manipulator, and Jose Ferrer is very effective as the Turkish Bey. Arthur Kennedy (who replaced Edmond O’Brien due to the latter’s health problems) also does well as Jackson Bentley, an American reporter based on the real-life Lowell Thomas. Even Anthony Quinn’s somewhat hammy portrayal of Auda Abu Tayi seems appropriate for that role. Can anyone really visualize the original casting of Marlon Brando, Horst Buchholz, Cary Grant, and Laurence Olivier as Lawrence, Ali, Allenby, and Auda respectively?
Then, of course, there is the appearance of the film. Filmed virtually entirely on location in Jordan (with the active support of King Hussein), Morocco and Spain (where Aqaba was recreated), this is how spectacle should look — no phony CGI here! With extras aplenty, lead actors tutored in how to ride camels properly, whole trains derailed, vast vistas of sand, the shimmering effects of the heat of the sun, there is never a minute when one is not completely immersed in and caught up by the scope of the story. Then too, there are those special moments that have rightly become part of film history: the amazing abrupt cut from the burning match in Lawrence’s hand to the image of the desert; the equally memorable first approach of Prince Ali from the shimmering heat of the desert; and the image of the cargo ship that seems to be sailing among the desert dunes only to be revealed as being in the Suez Canal.
And what of the music? The “Lawrence” theme has become one of the most immediately recognizable pieces in film or otherwise. Of course, as with most components of the film, the scoring process began much differently than how it ended. Lean wanted Malcolm Arnold, who had done Kwai, to compose the music. Spiegel then got in on the act and decided that he wanted Sir William Walton to write all the dramatic music with Arnold orchestrating and conducting the whole score. Both turned down Spiegel, who then turned to a relatively unknown French composer, Maurice Jarre. Jarre was to write the dramatic music while two more prestigious names, Aram Khatchaturian and Benjamin Britten, would handle the eastern and British imperial theme music respectively. Both of them, however, proved unable to be involved, so Spiegel then turned to Richard Rodgers of Broadway musical fame. Meanwhile, Jarre worked away. Finally, Spiegel summoned David Lean from the editing room to hear what Rodgers had come up with, keeping Jarre in the background. After Lean had heard Rodgers’s efforts and pronounced them as rubbish, Spiegel asked Jarre if he had written anything. Of course he had, and he proceeded to play what became the Lawrence of Arabia theme. Lean liked what he was hearing and on the spot decided that Jarre should do the whole job — giving him a mere six weeks to record everything.
In the years following its initial release, Lawrence of Arabia had suffered various indignities. Cuts were made to accommodate various interests, including theatre owners who wanted to be to have more daily showings, and television networks that wanted to be able to fit certain time slots. Finally, twenty-five years after its first showing, the film was reconstructed through the efforts of Robert Harris, and involving David Lean himself. Lean was particularly delighted to be able to finally see the film cut as he really wanted, for the rush to complete the original cut in late 1962 had not allowed him to complete the editing quite exactly as he had wished. Interestingly, the reconstruction process required bringing some of the original actors back to redub some of their lines, as parts of the original sound track had been lost with the cuts made in the intervening years.
This reconstructed “director’s cut” is the basis for Columbia’s new DVD release. It’s a two-disc set nicely enclosed in a fabric-covered book-like case. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen preserving the 70mm original aspect ratio of 2.2:1 and utilizes 56 scene selections. It is spread over two discs with the break coming at the intermission about two hours into the film’s 227-minute length. The disc image looks stunning. Oh, there have been concerns rightly raised about the exact image fidelity of what Columbia has come up with, but that does not alter the fact that Lawrence of Arabia looks extremely good. It’s certainly by far the best presentation the film has had on any home video medium. The colours are bright and clear; fleshtones are spot on; and edge enhancement is virtually nonexistent. Shadow detail is excellent and things like sand blowing off the edges of dunes in the desert are beautifully captured. You will not be disappointed by the look of Lawrence of Arabia. Columbia is also given high marks for acceding to Lean’s original wishes that the overture, entr’acte, and exit music be presented with nothing but a blank screen. It should be noted that a couple of instances of hazy vertical bands occur, one for example in the desert sky about an hour into the film. These are not defects in the image transfer, but problems with the camera negative caused by the extreme heat of the location shooting.
Jarre’s marvelous music is also well presented by the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It is lush and expansive, though mainly confined to the front speakers. Occasional directional effects are unobtrusively handled and are effective when used — all in all, a very pleasing audio experience. The film’s dialogue is clear and distortion free. The redubbed portions have been seamlessly integrated with the rest of the material, although some have noted slight discrepancies in Alec Guinness’s work. They weren’t particularly a problem from my point of view. As with so much of this type of thing, you don’t notice it unless you go out specially looking for it.
The disc contains a lengthy list of supplements. With the exception of some DVD-ROM material, these are confined to the second disc. The most prominent supplement is a new making-of documentary prepared by Laurent Bouzereau. It reminded me a great deal of the one accompanying the DVD of Bridge on the River Kwai, both in style and in the participants. This was obviously due to the large number of individuals who worked on both films. The documentary is quite informative, although I was left wanting more. Given the vast amount of material available concerning the production of Lawrence of Arabia, much more could have been included and would have been easily warranted by the film’s reputation and acclaim. I recommend reading Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean for additional production background.
Among the rest of the supplements, I found a short piece on the different advertising campaigns to be quite interesting. It uses images of the different styles of posters and lobby cards to show how the film’s marketing approach changed depending upon the intended audience and the time. There are also four short production featurettes, three in black and white and none longer than five minutes, which provide a nice complement to the new making-of documentary. Rounding out the content are: an eight-minute conversation with Steven Spielberg on what the film means to him (he had a role in the restoration); a short bit of newsreel footage of the New York premiere; the original theatrical trailer, plus trailers for two other Columbia epics; cast and crew information; some DVD-ROM content featuring historic photographs of Arabia and a map of the region; and a twelve-page insert booklet covering historical background and production notes that has been reproduced from the original 1962 souvenir booklet.
Despite an impressive effort on this DVD, all is not perfect. I have already alluded to the issue of the exact image fidelity of the transfer. Robert Harris, who was responsible for the restoration of the film, was not consulted by Columbia in the preparation of the DVD. In Harris’s opinion, the result is a DVD whose look is a touch darker than David Lean would have wanted it. Some of the images as a result do not convey the true heat of the desert as originally intended. It’s unfortunate that with one of their crown jewels, Columbia didn’t see fit to avail itself of all assistance possible to ensure the best result.
Some concern has also been raised with a couple of missed music cues, notably one in the segment where Lawrence is walking on top of the train that he and his followers have just derailed and sacked. As a consequence of this and the image concerns above, a suggestion has even been made that this disc be recalled and redone correctly. I don’t expect that this is going to happen, and to be honest, I don’t feel it’s really necessary, given the many virtues of the disc.
A couple of niggling items. Why was it necessary to repeat the Columbia logo and FBI warning at the start of the second disc? And why does Columbia insist on using spindles from hell to hold the discs in the case? To get the disc out the first time, pull very gently at the edges as you rotate the disc on the spindle. Once it’s out, break off a couple of the clips on the spindle and it’ll be much simpler to get the disc out the next time.
Finally (yes, for this type of film, I want more), how about a commentary for a film of this magnitude? After all, every schlock movie around these days seems to warrant one, why not one really worthy of it? Sure, many of the principals are dead, but Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn are still with us as are several of the crew — and in good voice by the look of the documentary.
Despite a few small quibbles, the Lawrence of Arabia DVD is a must buy. It’s one of the great films and it’s received a great looking and sounding DVD presentation. What more is there to say?