Lawrence of Arabia

Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.

Back in 2006, when Blu-ray players and discs first appeared in stores, Sony distributed a demo reel for stores to play showing how fan-damn-tacular movies looked in the new format. This included scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, a Sony property via Columbia Pictures, implying the film would be among the first released. For the next six years, film buffs waited with increasing impatience for Sony to make good on that promise.

I, for one, am tickled that they waited so long. The Blu-ray edition released in November, based on a meticulous 4K restoration, is simply amazing. The last time the movie looked this good to my eyes was back in 1989, and I was watching it projected in 70mm at the old Cinedome theaters in Orange, CA.

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For a movie that almost reaches four hours in length, Lawrence has a surprisingly simple story, albeit a simple story about a complicated man. T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a odd-duck British officer working in Cairo during the First World War. An educated man fascinated with the Arabs, but not fitting in well with his military comrades, Lawrence is dispatched to assess the strategics prospects of the Arabs revolting against their Turkish occupiers.

Those prospects are not good, as the horse and camel-mounted, sword wielding Arabs are being routed by the modern Turkish army. Exceeding his instructions from the start, and almost by sheer force of will, Lawrence convinces fifty men, including his reluctant ally, Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif), to cross an impassable desert, join forces with a rival tribe, and launch an attack on the Turkish coastal fortress of Aqaba from it’s undefended side. His selfless acts during the march, his respect for their ways, and the unqualified success of the attack earn “Aurens” the respect, admiration, loyalty of the Arab tribes. It also earns him a mandate from the British commanders to use “his” Arabs in a guerrilla war against the Turks.

I doubt such a massive, big-budget production today would allow itself to focus on a character who really isn’t always likeable. He’s egotistical, messianic, narcissistic, and as I said, a bit odd. He is, however, compelling and Peter O’Toole inhabits him with an almost otherworldly quality, as if he were visiting from another planet, and not just another culture.

Following after The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence is on another scale entirely, all the more impressive because it was made back when, if director David Lean wanted to show 1,000 men crossing the desert on camels, he still had to get 1,000 men, 1,000 camels, and head out into the desert.

There were a lot of movies made on this scale, especially during the late fifties and sixties, but Lawrence of Arabia, as an example of the cinematic epic, is alone on a lofty plateau.

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