Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review
Well, we’d been waiting for a long time to see the results of this painstaking 8K scan/4K intermediate restoration from Colorworks and the Chennai and Hollywood Teams, and the resplendent results this AVC encoded transfer of Sony’s Lawrence of Arabia are now available for all to behold. And, quite simply, to admire.
If the film itself has reviewers reaching for the thesaurus for praiseworthy superlatives, then this scintillating image will have them struggling to extend the dictionary’s quota of descriptive adulation even further. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest and most undeniably stunning visual experiences ever committed to film. David Lean’s masterpiece is pure Cinema in every conceivable way, and is presented in its 2.20:1 aspect on this BD, which I’m certain looks almost as rich, as detailed and as jaw-droppingly sublime as it did during its original 70mm presentations. Just a little bit smaller, perhaps.
The esteemed Robert A. Harris was pivotal in the 1988 restoration process that also brought in the talents of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to reintegrate the lost footage and to match everything up. That was an incredible achievement in itself, but this hi-def 2012 treatment of 65mm elements goes much further.
Grain, which you’d think this desert-dwelling saga would be rife with, is present and correct, but not in the least bit obtrusive. It is fine and light and consistent. For sure, there has been some noise removal applied, but the tool has been used wisely with absolute care and loving attention. The image retains its profound film-like texture and the visual integrity is prime and acute, and blisteringly detailed. Without a doubt, there are going to be things in this picture that most people will never have noticed before, and this stretches from the glistening close-ups of faces to the acres of landscape shots filled with people, action and opulent settings or captivating desolation, in which every rock, fissure, crag and far-away figure or dune is immaculately composed. You obviously want visual depth to be at a premium, and it is hard to think of a movie, or a transfer, that can rival this level of yawning distance so adroitly or immersively rendered. You do scan that horizon and those distant ridges for figures and details because you can see things out there … and the only shimmering around such far away perimeters is from the heat-haze of the desert, itself.
I’m sure that there are probably frames and shots that can appear softer and less well-defined than others, but you would have to have the tenacity of a video technician to root them out. Looking at this film as an ardent fan with some knowledge of what has gone into its comprehensive clean-up, you cannot dispute that it is now more glorious than ever, and you can see and truly appreciate the work that has gone into providing with such meticulous attention.
There are no issues with the colour timing as far as I am concerned, although I am not about to say that this is precisely how clean and deeply saturated it looked when showcased upon the big screen back in 1962. The fact is that David Lean and Freddie Young did not have film-stock that looked as rapturous as was so obviously intended – thus, the 1988 restoration sought to provide the film with the sort of lustre that it deserved … with Lean’s approval, of course. The image has looked different throughout its various incarnations – sometimes darker, ruddier and more overcast, and sometimes more anaemic - but this is smooth and often achingly gorgeous. The azure desert sky is matchless, even, and hypnotic and, like the burnished red, yellow and orange of the endless sands beneath it, utterly without trace of banding or fuzzing. The shot of the intensifying glare of the sun as it bears down on poor wandering Gasim could have been plagued with the stuff as it deliberately warps the vision, but it looks clear and appropriately hot and unbearable. Skin-tones are terrific throughout, and as natural as they can be given the intense sun-tans that the cast were getting, the constant dirt that resides upon them, and, in some cases, the rather overt and now, given the clarity of this hi-def image, even more glaring use of makeup. Quinn’s fake nose really looks obvious against the separate colouration of his face now.
Whites never once bloom, which is marvellous considering Lawrence, resplendent in his sheik’s robes often strides about in the dazzling rays of the ever-gleaming sun. The contrast between the scorched vistas of the desert and the green and blue of coastal regions or cities is never jarring, the sudden pockets of colour sitting attractively but comfortably in the frame without any hint of smearing. With such a huge and deep canvas, it is remarkable to discern even distant elements of crisply rendered fidelity.
Even the people standing on the far rocks watching the Arab army move out to take Akaba can be clearly picked out and the little splashes of colour – red, green and gold – are clearly delineated in their costumes. Collar-flashes on the British uniforms, the red fezzes on the denizens in Cairo, the startling streams of blood on tanned bodies and, always, the penetrating blue eyes of Peter O’ Toole shine forth from a picture that is varied and engrossing even when it is primarily composed of nothing but sand. Purples and midnight blues also provide plenty of soothing mystique to the image. The entire spectrum is called-upon, and the transfer is never found wanting as to its presentation.
Perhaps there are a couple of discoloured wavering columns in a smattering of long-distance shots, such as the introduction of Sherif Ali, but these are certainly down to the source material, and not indicative of any failing of the transfer. Contrast is, as I’ve already implied, exacting and precise, with ample opportunities to reveal a fabulous level of subtlety and accuracy. Black levels are, likewise, incredible and nigh-on faultless. Shadow-play is wonderful and I can find no instances when it is never less than spot-on.
I could easily spend another couple of thousand words describing how detailed this image is, but I think you already get the picture. There is an incredible amount on offer. Skin has the texture of the hard bedrock sands – cracked and fissured, and both elements are perfectly resolved at all ends of the frame, and as far back into the image as possible. Material and props, clothing, vehicles and buildings, tents, finery and camel-hides all reveal acres more finite information than you have ever seen on home video. Look at the little piece of silver-white card that goes flitting off across the hard, compacted earth as Lawrence doggedly searches out the stricken Gasim. I’ve never seen that before. Look at the plumes of sand whipped across the surface of the dunes, and the close-up grit that billows around during the storm. How about the striations in the rocks, or the loose shale and detritus littering the abandoned post on the banks of the Suez Canal? Or the decanters, glasses and bottles, and snooker-balls, that adorn the Officers’ Bar? This is sharp, clear, and clean and so immaculately detailed at all times, that your eyes won’t want to return to real-life afterwards.
Far off delineation is amazing. The legs on even the furthermost camels remain distinct against the limitless backdrops, distant figures look tight and sharp and never smudged or blurred or just plain lost … unless, of course, they are supposed to look that way against the molten horizon. Edges do frequently have halos around them. But this isn’t the price of any artificial sharpening or enhancement. This is how they appear when set against such a blistering and sun-drenched backdrop and with Freddie Young’s original photography. Aliasing is never an issue, and I didn’t have a problem with any shimmering occurring with any of the panning shots.
About the only really noticeable thing is that when Bentley meets Prince Feisal, there are a couple of missing frames, leading to a very slight judder. I’m certain that this is inherent to the source and was present on the DVD edition of the 1988 restoration as well. So no points lost there.
There have been some phenomenal hi-def transfers of the classic old school epics – most notably Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and even Jaws, but I would say that Lawrence of Arabia goes a step or two beyond even these hugely impressive performances. With all of the benefits of modern restoration techniques and encoding processes and none of the failings or deficits that can so often derail such endeavours, this, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg’s famous quote really is a miracle of a transfer.
You have to acknowledge the awesome work done here … and, as such, Lawrence of Arabia gets an unreserved 10 out of 10.
Something that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the majestic video transfer is the amazing impact that this BD has with regards to Lawrence’s impeccable DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. If anything, I was more pleasantly surprised by the audio results than the visual ones because, to be honest, we always knew that this was going to look incredible … so this is much of an unexpected bonus.
Culled from the 70mm print, this is a walloping good track that really embraces the surround aspects of the mix with amazing depth and believability. Some reviewers have seemed a little blasé about the quality of this track, but I loved it. Of course there are limitations to a soundmix that is now 50 years old. I mean, although the majestic score from Maurice Jarre doesn’t sound as huge and flowing and dynamic as more modern audio transfers of such sweeping score as those of John Williams’ War Horse, or as punchy and aggressive as that of Paul Leonard-Morgan’s for Dredd, but the elements are clean, distinct and vivid, and just as hypnotic and undulating as you could wish for. Strings genuinely shiver and tremble with clarity. Heavy notes from the piano and the Ondes Martinot have depth and some ominous reverb during the Sun’s Anvil sequence of Lawrence’s rescue of Gasim. Percussion rattles out sharply and the unusual brass flourishes that Jarre loved have a sudden, crisp sizzle. Bass drums have some degree of weight, though Jarre often used them to help depict enormity by having them mixed lower or recorded further away. That said, there are still some moments when they roll and hammer with pride. Action is well catered-for, with explosions, charging horses and camels, machine-gunfire, screaming men and lots of swirling crowd noise. The hooting of the steamship on the Suez Canal is sudden and authentic, the humming of the army motorcycle on the other side of the crucial watercourse just as realistically positioned. The stereo spread across the front is deep and wide, steerage terrifically accurate. Subtleties, such as the tramping of camel-feet and the rattle of the saddles and straps, the scraping of sand and the gorgeous splosh of leather water-satchels dropped down wells etc, all come across very clearly and believably. There is a nice little ghostly squeak of a door or a signpost moving on rusty hinges in the wind that is very evocative.
The surround usage is excellent. But this is a film that runs for almost four hours and such effects are mainly consigned for rather specific elements that have a fuller bearing on what we are witnessing and never appear for the simple sake of wraparound.
The gunshot that rings out from the approaching Sherif Ali cracks out from deep in front of you, rips forward towards Lawrence’s ill-fated guide with a solid punch and then echoes and reverberates out behind you, the thunderclap actually bouncing back again in the shockwave created by the vast space into which it has just been issued. Then, only a few minutes later, as Lawrence proceeds alone towards Prince Feisal’s camp through an eerie, but highly acoustic canyon, he begins to sing, his own voice folding out into the rocks all around him and providing him with a beautiful echo that ripples out from the rears with absolute authenticity. This is the sort of thing that actually brings a smile to your face. Not only is it a great showcase for the surround channels, but it serves to totally immerse you in the film.
Naturally, the score is also given plenty of room to move around the rear channels too, though this is merely reinforcement for what is, primarily, a frontal musical assault.
And even if the sub doesn't get the workout that some war-junkies crave, it does get to provide some meat for the floor-trembling passage of massed horses, the rumbling of locomotives and the various explosions and crashes that Lawrence's tactics demand.
Although dialogue is immaculately presented for the most part, I noticed a little variance in its volume towards the end of Bentley’s meeting with Prince Faisal – the same scene that had the missing frames – but I tend to think that this is also inherent to what may have been a slight error with, or damage to the original source. This is also present in the DVD version if I remember correctly.
Overall, this is excellent and gets a very strong and rewarding 8 (almost 9) out of 10.
We get two discs, with the film on some copies found over on the second platter (as is the case with my edition) and the special features on the first.
In a Blu-ray exclusive on the movie-disc, we get Secrets of Arabia, a picture-in-graphics mode that allows you to view facts and trivia from the making of the film, the life and times of Lawrence, and from the turbulent history of the region itself.
All the other features are over on the second disc.
Another feature new to this BD is Peter O’ Toole reminisces for a 21-minute interview that is absolute gold. His diction, his sense of humour and use of intelligent and sensitive anecdote is second-to-none. An excellent feature that feels fresh and vivid.
In A Conversation with Steven Spielberg the Beard discusses his fascination with the film and Lean’s methods. He, of course, worked on the great restoration of it, and he describes vividly what it was like to show the full version of the masterpiece to the man who created it. I have to say, though, that although he probably cannot help it, Spielberg really, really annoys me with his constant hand gestures and, most acutely of all, that little thing he does when he clasps his hands together, extends his two index fingers and strokes his beard under the chin with them. He does this in every damn talking-head interview, and it just really riles me. Ha, but that’s my problem. Not yours. A good interview, otherwise.
We have some vintage featurettes – The Camels Are Cast, In Search of Lawrence, Romance of Arabia and Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic – and footage from the New York Premier but the film is lovingly and comprehensively discussed in the more thorough 61-minute retrospective Making of Lawrence of Arabia documentary that covers all the facets that you would hope for with copious contributions from those involved and lots of behind the scenes footage and imagery. Excellent, again.
A commentary would be great for a film if this stature, but this selection does a fine job of revealing what went into making such a cherished and highly acclaimed epic.
Lawrence of Arabia, a film as elliptical and off-kilter as its depiction of its titular character, is an unparalleled masterpiece of Cinema. It deserves, nay demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, though it is fair to say that Peter O’ Toole’s truly iconic, once-in-a-lifetime performance would shine like burnished gold from out of any viewing platform. Without him, the film would still be an experience that would undeniably transport you to a distant time and place so vividly that you will probably find sand in your shoes. But with him, that experience becomes almost spiritual.
A fine supporting cast bestows grandeur and validity. Alec Guinness may not convince as an Arab prince, but he still creates a truly fascinating character out him, regardless. Omar Sharif lives up to Lean’s description of Sherif Ali being a lion, yet his gradual revealing of hidden layers of morality and pity are what makes him shine. Anthony Quinn is proud, idiotic, courageous and highly amusing as the tempestuous Auda, the warlord with the big fake snozzle. The screenplay and the score weave spells that would captivate even if Freddie Young’s cameras had been permanently pointed at the ground … but with the cinematography, and the skilled, intimate and peerless direction from David Lean, you can easily see why the film was presented with seven Academy Awards.
Mind you, Peter O’ Toole really should have picked one, as well.
So you get one of the greatest films ever made in this glorious 50th Anniversary package … and you get it with one of the most astonishing and beautiful of AV transfers too. I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the resplendent restoration that this hi-def treasure has had, so all that remains for me to do is to urge you to slap on a couple of inches of sun-tan lotion, don some loose-fitting robes and mount your camels for one of the most influential and richly rewarding cinematic experiences that film-lovers have blessed with.
And you don’t have to cross a desert to get yourself a copy.
Lawrence of Arabia is a glowing masterpiece that you already know you should own on Blu-ray.
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