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Lawrence of Arabia is the very definition of a “cinematic triumph” and it is now majestically presented for the first time on DVD in a deluxe two-disc set.

This epic account of Thomas Edward Lawrence has just about everything cinema can offer. True, the film plays with the facts a bit, but that is done in service to a grandiose, romantic spirit of adventure and the telling of a tale.

Gods and Nomads

A cinematic triumph now on DVD“In 1916, Britain and France allied against the Germans in a struggle which is known as World War I. Turkey, which for centuries dominated the Middle East, aligned itself on the side of Germany. It became vital to the British strategy that the Arab tribes living under Turkish rule be united. An obscure lieutenant with the British forces in Egypt was destined to become the spark that kindled the Arab revolt in the desert. His name was T.E. Lawrence.”

That prologue, used on prints released only in the Far East and Latin America, sets the stage for the movie and understates just how “obscure” the real Lawrence truly was. Hidden beneath the mystique of Lawrence of Arabia is a misfit with a strong will; he had a hard time conforming to the status quo of his surroundings, whether in Oxford or the army.

Helping compound his complexion, Lawrence fell madly in love with a girl during his Oxford days and proposed to her. She laughed in his face.

Ahh well. Her loss is truly history’s gain. He went on to change the world.

Well-read and a prolific writer of letters (Sir Winston Churchill, composer Sir Edward Elgar, and author George Bernard Shaw were among his correspondents), he also wrote his own translation of Homer’s Odyssey and Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiographical account of his Arabian days and nights which served as a basis for the movie. It wasn’t until he made his trek through Arabia that Lawrence finally found his place in the world. Ultimately, though, that place would take a tremendous toll.

What makes Lawrence of Arabia so outstanding? Well, for starters, David Lean captured fantastic images using the world around him. Today’s directors would cop out and use computer generated imagery to make images that still can’t compare to the real thing. As Steven Spielberg guesstimates in his DVD message to viewers, if Lawrence of Arabia was made today, it would cost $285 million.

Throw in a compelling story fleshed out by the finest actors of its time, a sweeping score, and a pace driven by artistry, content, and character development, and you’ve got a masterpiece.

Archives

Lawrence of Arabia, the DVD, was packaged to impress. Its case has the appearance of a cloth-cover hardbound book. It’s incredibly fitting in light of Lawrence’s literary associations.

The movie has never looked better on video, albeit there is a somewhat distracting vertical fadeout briefly marring the picture on occasion. The audio is equally impressive, especially considering some of the dialogue was re-recorded 25 years after its release, during the film’s monumental restoration.

As for the extras, it must be kept in mind the movie is now 39 years old. At that time, of course, films weren’t made with the DVD in mind as they are now. While an audio commentary with Peter O’Toole and other surviving production members would have been nice, its absence does not detract from a fine assembly of supplements.

The DVD features a brand new, and very well done, hour-long documentary on the making of the film. There are also a few glossy Hollywood newsreels on the making of the movie and its premiere that are good for novelty’s sake. Additionally, there is a reproduction of the original movie program and a brief history of the movie’s marketing campaign.

What might seem an odd addition is the inclusion of Spielberg’s message. However, he played a hand in seeing the film restored to its current – and former – glory in 1989. His comments and boyish enthusiasm should help make the movie more appealing to today’s audiences weaned on fast-paced, superficial music videos.

The DVD-ROM features, while including the typical fluff of studio Web links, also include some marvelous material. Behind the scenes photographs and historical photographs taken of and by the real Lawrence accompany text providing information on the making of the movie (including the prologue quoted above). There’s also a mini-screen to watch the film as you explore the extra content.

The highlight of all the supplements, though, is a DVD-ROM section with interactive maps tracing Lawrence’s travels through the desert countries from his thesis days in college through the revolt and peace treaty. Thankfully, this is no hack job as Jeremy Wilson, a noted biographer of Lawrence, served as an editor on this section. Photographs and sketches accompany the text and maps.

Combining historical information on the true life Lawrence along with the film’s own history makes for a nice package that is a must for fans of both the real Lawrence of Arabia and David Lean’s epic.