Lawrence of Arabia | Film reviews, news & interviews
Lawrence of Arabia
The 50th-anniversary 4K restoration of David Lean's cinematic classic is a thing of wonder
"When you're making a movie, it's a movie; if they're still talking about it in 10 years' time it's a film. If they're still talking about it in 50 years' time, it's cinema. But you sure as hell can't start out making cinema." Legendary studio head Ned Tanen knew his business. That we’re talking about Lawrence of Arabia 50 years after its release confirms it as cinema - a word suggesting art taken to genius level, and Lawrence of Arabia is exactly that.
In this way, the 50th Anniversary 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia is more important now than ever. Because the edited version of the film has been shown on television for so many years, there are huge numbers of people who think they've seen Lawrence of Arabia but haven't. Others believe it is too old, long and slow or that its offerings pale in the face of XBox. All are wrong. Lawrence of Arabia transcends the world of “must see” and “quite good”. Created within the bounds of language, sound and vision, it exceeds them, engaging the senses, evoking time and space, fight and flight, melding all into 216 minutes of splendour and excitement. It is thrilling, erotic, brutal, amusing, horrifying, mystifying, rip-snorting and side-splitting. And for the record, it won seven out of its 10 Oscar nominations, including Omar Sharif who became the first Middle Eastern actor ever nominated.
It has taken longer to restore Lawrence of Arabia than to shoot it
The script by David Lean, Michael Wilson and the remarkable Robert Bolt is seamless. "The instructions" (Lean's terminology for a script) plot scene after unforgettable scene - the famous edit between matchhead and blazing sun, a dot on the distant horizon, a white stallion jumping from the train, a ship floating through the dunes (see gallery below). Maurice Jarre’s stirring score swells at the very start, promising genuine adventure based on truth.
Costing an outrageous $13m, the production went to extraordinary lengths to achieve realism. In the blazing heat, thermometers had to be refrigerated lest they stop working. Arabian women were not allowed to be photographed, supplanted by a Christian group who didn’t mind. Capturing it for posterity is Freddie Young’s splendid cinematography, a miraculous task given the blowing sand that weaselled its way into every camera amid fierce conditions on location in Jordan, Morocco and Spain.
One of the last 1960s films shot in (as one cinema marquee spelled out) "mind-altering" 70mm, this new, huge restoration of Lawrence of Arabia exists in part thanks to Robert A Harris and Jim Painten, two film restorers who found the original negative in Columbia Studios’ vaults as well as the 35 minutes trimmed by various distributors throughout the years. Building with 1988's restoration, this 4K version relies on a digital replica featuring 4096 pixels to each line, making 8.8 million pixels of information per frame, when your typical Blu-ray are scanned from 2.2 million per frame. Crucially, a 4K restoration can reproduce all of the visual information of 35mm film. (Yes, Lawrence of Arabia's negative is 65mm but the 4K scan has the same density of pixels.) With each of its 320,000 frames checked for wear, it has taken longer to restore Lawrence of Arabia than to shoot it.
Shown in cinemas in the traditional roadshow format - overture, intermission, exit music along with the film itself - Lawrence of Arabia runs about 222 minutes. Don't be put off. Director David Lean’s acceptance speech for his Best Director Oscar was quite brief: “This Limey is deeply touched and greatly honoured. Thank you.” Lawrence of Arabia is as long as it needs to be and better than everything else. Epic is too small a word.
Watch the trailer to the 50th anniversary 4K Lawrence of Arabia
Click on the images to enlarge
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top films out now
Exemplary package celebrating Ken Russell’s compelling DH Lawrence adaptation
Almodóvar's moving portrait of a mother's grief, adapted from Alice Munro
Alex Cox’s account of punk rock’s ill-fated duo takes a ride to the heart of darkness
Charisma battles desolation in moving documentary of Ukraine's lower depths
A reputation's tatters are shredded in convincing detail
Atmospheric debut film inspired by Sartre novella on the nurturing of a fascist
New horror franchise isn't scared enough of the dark
John Schlesinger's seminal British New Wave drama about a couple forced to marry
Reassuringly cosy adaptation of Arthur Ransome's 1930 children's novel
Trouble in paradise for Blake Lively courtesy of a hungry shark
Peerless Slovak Holocaust drama brings comedy into tragic context