Lawrence of Arabia is one of those movies you've been told is a classic so many times that you might not even think you need to see it. It's massively long, it's about a British military campaign that almost nobody remembers, and it's hard to follow in the way only a three-hour war epic can be. But with the incomparably gorgeous film now arriving on Blu-ray, it's the best reason ever to catch up with it-- so should you?
Dear God, please catch up with this movie. Yes, it's long-- 216 minutes-- and you might want to brush up on the Wikipedia page for the real T.E. Lawrence before seeing it, just to understand why the British military was in Arabia during World War II and why they got involved with the local tribes in their revolt against the Turks, who were allied with Germany. But essentially Lawrence of Arabia is the story of an outsider (Peter O'Toole's Lawrence) who becomes an integral part of a foreign land, and finds himself torn between his newfound countrymen and his place of birth; the military tribunals and battles and negotiations that happen from there aren't nearly as important to understand historically as for the impact they had on Lawrence himself.
Historians disagree about how accurate the film is, but recognize that O'Toole's performance has long since outweighed any historical truth about Lawrence. The man is magnetic, those blue eyes contrasting against the exquisitely photographed desert, his resolve to fight for Britain morphing into confusion and betrayal as the war becomes bloodier and more complicated. With the likes of Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn in supporting roles, it's even more remarkable to see how 29-year-old O'Toole grabs hold of the film, capturing both the swagger that got young Lawrence sent to the deserts of Arabia to begin with, and the heartbreak that awaited him once he understood just how brutal a war could get.
More than anything, though, Lawrence of Arabia is famous for its visuals, and now that this Blu-ray exists, it's completely criminal to watch it on any other format. I've seen the movie projected in 70 mm twice, and I'll be honest, the Blu-ray isn't the same-- landscape shots that grab your throat on the big screen feel more muted at home, and you're never going to get that score to wrap around you the same way it does in an acoustically perfect theater. At the same time, it feels like a giddy miracle just to put something this beautiful on your television, and if you have a good setup, you can get away without seeing it on 70 mm for a while-- though seek it out if you can!
The most important thing about watching Lawrence of Arabia at home is to give it the time it deserves to sink in. Don't pause it or do anything else-- that's what the intermission is for, after all! This is a movie that has the power to make you feel the thirst of the desert, the blood of warfare, the smoke of guns and the anguish of the man who made it all happen. Nobody but David Lean was ambitious enough to make a movie like this, and probably no one will be again; Lawrence of Arabia is the rare kind of cinema history that's actually as stunning as everyone tells you it is.
David Lean died in 1991, so as much as a Lawrence of Arabia director's commentary would be great, it's not included here. The closest you can get is what the disc calls "Secrets Of Arabia: Picture-In-Graphics Track," in which tidbits about the real T.E. Lawrence, the history of Arabia and the production itself pop on to the screen every few minutes. It's more distracting than your usual audio commentary, and it can be frustrating to see the gorgeous cinematography popped into a tiny screen so you can read all about camels. But if you're looking for tidbits of information-- and a lot of it is really informative about the details of the story--this is the easiest way to get them right alongside the movie.
There's no commentary from Peter O'Toole either, but the now-80-year-old actor does sit down for a chat in a Blu-ray exclusive called "Peter O'Toole revisits Lawrence of Arabia." He shares stories about his co-stars and Lean, and if you want the basic stories of how everyone survived the grueling desert shoot and what O'Toole brought to the character, this is probably a better bet than the intrusive "Secrets of Arabia." Same for the hourlong featurette "The Making of Lawrence of Arabia"-- if you can get over the jarringly non-HD clips from the film, there's tons of information in there from archival interviews with Lean, historians and several of the actors with insight into Lean's process.
A number of vintage featurettes also let you dig into the production, though they're of course a bit old-fashioned, and the one focusing on a camel casting call feels a bit bizarre. Surprisingly insightful is Steven Spielberg's brief featurette talking about his love for the movie-- maybe it takes another filmmaker to dig into such a classic and really articulate what makes it so wonderful. You can also peek into the New York premiere of the movie in classic newsreel format, plus the original advertising campaigns, presented with a slightly overheated voiceover that at least provides valuable historical context (reservations for the movie were made by mail!)
The movie itself is by far the best highlight on this disc, and the four-disc collector's edition-- which sells for a hefty $65 on Amazon-- contains even more bonus features that might be intriguing. But there's a lot of good historical stuff in these bonus features, and if you watch the movie marveling at how on earth anyone shot a movie this long in the desert, the bonus features give you an idea of just how impossible it really was.