Tuesday, November 06, 2007


From the Vault: Lawrence of Arabia

NOTE: Ranked No. 69 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

Following the paths of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia has marched back onto movie screens. Unlike those classic 1939 films which were restored and re-released to commemorate their 50th anniversaries, thanks for the meticulous work on Lawrence of Arabia goes to some of Hollywood's best-known modern directors.

Names such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese helped secure the funding to restore the 1962 David Lean classic that launched Peter O'Toole to stardom. Over the years since the film's release, cuts have been made and this re-release marks the first time in 25 years that the complete film has been shown anywhere.

Lawrence of Arabia tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during World War I and helped lead the Arab revolt against the Turks in 1917 and 1918.

The film is a feast for the eyes and may well be the best use of widescreen ever. If you haven't seen the film before, don't watch it on television unless it is letterboxed — cropping saps this film of much of its power.

Lawrence contains a great ensemble cast, including the mesmerizing title role by O'Toole and a fine cast of actors including Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, José Ferrer and Claude Rains. For me, a most fascinating benefit of this film was being able to see Rains in color. He seems as if he's permanently trapped in black and white in classics such as Casablanca and Notorious.

The film run 222 minutes, but it never bores. The movie illustrates epic filmmaking on a personal scale. Though the film lags a bit in the second half, it still is great. Visually, Lawrence of Arabia could very well be unsurpassed, especially when you see it on a 70 millimeter print. Sometimes the entire screen seems filled with sand and as figures appear over the dunes, it's hard to suppress your awe.

In addition to O'Toole's magnificent work, the rest of the cast contributes fine moments as well, especially David Lean-regular Guinness and Quinn. Trying to review a film such as this borders on ridiculous. The opportunity to see these sort of classics in a movie theater occur so rarely that you feel afraid to criticize any aspect for fear it will keep someone away.

One question always has puzzled me about biopics. Why does it seem necessary that every historical film begin by showing us how the main character dies? They did it in Gandhi and they do it in Lawrence. The film begins showing how Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935. While the sequence is exceptionally well done, I didn't know that much about T.E. when I entered the theater. Since the movie contains a lot of action and battle sequences, suspense over whether Lawrence could be killed is lost. Historians may know what happened to him, but I didn't.

Lean, who made this five years after Bridge on the River Kwai, has concentrated on epics in his later career — and he's still working, having just released A Passage to India five years ago.

Re-releases of anything not made by Disney are rare and movie fans would be remiss if they took a pass on this opportunity to see the restored Lawrence on the big screen.

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Lawrence of Arabia is one of my absolute favorite films, but I've never had the chance to see in on the big screen. I hope one of the local theatres bothers to play this restoration!

Also, I think the introductory deaths in biopics are meant as a kind of framing device. I like in it Lawrence, because it lends him a mysterious aura from the beginning and reflects on the kind of person we discover him to be.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news AR, but the review is from 1989 (hence the From the Vault header). That's when they restored and re-released it, but I'm sure it does find its way around in print sometimes, though probably not 70mm, so those days are probably lost forever.
Oops! I should apparently read more closely. Though, I did see online that a few theatres will be playing it next year. You may very well be right about the 70mm, however. Oh well.
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