MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: Lawrence of Arabia

One of the greatest color films ever produced, David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia shows the Earth unadorned by its decorative vegetation or man-made blemishes, with landscapes so vast that humans are no more than tiny specks passing across the surface, hardly larger than the grains of sand beneath the feet of their camels.  Set during World War I in the Middle East, the film concerns not only battles, but the political maneuvering which would set the stage for power equilibriums in the region that are continuing to this day.  As a movie, Lawrence of Arabia seems to do everything right, from Peter O’Toole’s magnificent, exhaustive performance as the title character to Maurice Jarre’s transcendent musical score.  Each choice Lean makes in framing his characters—registering their close-ups and then withdrawing to show their surroundings—imparts a resonance of structure that reinforces the joy of the film’s cinematic power.  Lawrence of Arabia may be depicting self-interested military adventurers in a war that was entirely about self-interest, but it demonstrates what roles an individual can play in the course of history, and just as images move from the hero’s face to desert vistas and the sun beyond, so does the story shift between his internal psychological struggles, the greater entanglement of British colonialism and Arab nationalism, and the irrelevance of these allegiances in the eyes of God.

So far as we’re concerned, Blu-ray was invented for Lawrence of Arabia, but it took Sony Pictures Home Entertainment an interminable amount of time to release the 1962 Columbia Pictures production in the format.  This is the 227-minute version of the 1962 film, which includes footage restored to the movie in 1989 under Lean’s supervision, though differing from the film’s original theatrical premiere version and its later, shorter incarnations.  The presentation may be a little too ‘knowing’ when it comes to the characters discussing the political implications of their choices, but is nevertheless a rich and justifiable preservation of the grandeur Lean originally intended the film to have, which had deteriorated or been lost altogether before the restoration was accomplished.

The DTS sound is absolutely wonderful, even as its inherent frailty calls to mind vacuum tubes and hi-fidelity.  There is rarely an exceptional bass, but otherwise the audio is crisp and stable, with outstanding tonal detail.  The surround mix is not as directional as it was on the old Criterion LD, but the clarity and amplification steadfastness are without fault.  Sony took a shot at doing the film as best as it could be done with a two-platter ‘Superbit’ DTS DVD release in 2004, which had to break the platters at a point other than the Intermission to fit everything in.  The BD’s sound, however, is still noticeably improved, and you don’t have to change platters, even for the Intermission.  There are French and Japanese audio tracks and English, French, Dutch, Japanese and Arabic subtitles.

Purists may grumble about the quality of the color on the BD, but that is only because the color transfer is so good it is hard to believe the film ever looked so colorful.  The desert is alive with chromatic detail, and fleshtones are as finely defined as they are consistently accurate.  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.25:1.  Again, however satisfying the Superbit DVD had seemed, the BD is better, with stronger, more precise and vivid hues.  Also featured on the BD is a running text essay that accompanies the film, talking both about the production of the movie and the real story of T.E. Lawrence, similar to the DVD-ROM material that appeared on the original 2001 DVD release.

A second BD platter in the set holds more special features, many of which appeared on the first release of the DVD.   The centerpiece is a 61-minute retrospective documentary, including interviews with Lean during his work on the restoration, and anecdotes by many members of the cast and crew.  The documentary goes into the film’s interesting pre-production history and the stresses of the two-year shoot, also explaining how most of the biggest signature sequences were achieved.  While we wish they’d included a drawing to better explain how they did the quicksand stunt, the interviews are rich in descriptive detail and are effectively supported by film clips, behind-the-scenes clips, archival photos and other materials.  Near the end, editor Anne V. Coates appears and shares some fascinating insights on how the editing was originally conceived and how they approached the restoration.  It is also revealed that Lean used O’Toole’s voice for the motorcyclist who calls across the canal to Lawrence, “Who are you?” thus enhancing, subliminally, the introspective symbolism of the question that goes to the heart of what the film was trying to achieve.

Along with a good 5-minute piece about the film’s marketing, four ‘original’ production documentaries, made concurrently with the film, are also included.  In those days, such programs evolved from promotional newsreel stories and consisted primarily of silent behind-the-scenes footage supported by narration.  Three are in black and white, one running 2 minutes and two others running 4 minutes each.  The footage is terrific, showing the actors, not always in the greatest comfort, accommodating the desert locations and waiting for their calls.  There is also a lot of material on the Arabian crews working on the film, and on the locations, which look stunning even in black and white.  The fourth documentary, which also runs 4 minutes, is in color and was produced after the film’s Oscar win, including interviews with O’Toole in voiceover and great behind-the-scenes footage of the camera team in action, followed by men with brooms.  As the narrator explains, “After each [take], the desert had to be smoothed down like the infield at a baseball game.”

A 9-minute reflection by Steven Spielberg, who identified closely with the film when growing up in the desert-like environs of Phoenix and who collaborated in the production duties on the 1989 restoration, is included as well..  He shares choice memories of working with Lean and also suggests, intriguingly, that among its other attributes, Lawrence of Arabia has, perhaps, ‘the greatest screenplay ever written for the motion picture medium.’

New to the BD is a minute-long newsreel clip about the film’s opening and a glorious 21-minute interview with the indelible and aging O’Toole.

Sony has also released a Fiftieth Anniversary Limited Edition four-platter set that is substantially pricier.  In addition to the two platters featured on the standard BD release, there is a third platter of special features, along with a 42-minute soundtrack CD.  The third platter contains a 7-minute sequence with added footage, which, as Coates explains, was left out of the restoration because they weren’t comfortable with the substitute voice they were using for Jack Hawkins.  It is what is called the ‘balcony scene,’ between O’Toole and Hawkins (“I believe your name will be a household word when you’ll have to go to the war museum to find who Allenby was.”), and the added couple of minutes of dialog is so rich in character and historical reflection that it is well worth the additional investment.  Heck, if the filmmakers hadn’t been so darn fastidious, they should have left the scene in anyway.

The large box—it almost looks like an LD special edition—contains a nice souvenir-inspired hardcover picture book (though if you want to look up the definition of ‘temerity,’ the dictionary may include a photo of Spielberg’s signature on the book’s opening page) and a ‘genuine’ 70mm frame of O’Toole.  The third platter also features a highly satisfying 74-minute retrospective documentary from 2000 featuring property man Eddie Fowlie, who gives a detailed tour of the locations in Jordan, Spain and Morocco that were used for the film as he also discusses where he obtained the props, how the sets were dressed, and how they made the sand look untrampled; an 8-minute appreciation of the film by Martin Scorsese that has a few interesting points, although it is not as insightful as Spielberg’s piece (and, gag, Scorsese mentions the dopey allusion to the film in Prometheus); a 13-minute segment about re-doing the color and cleaning up the image with current digital technology, with many examples that show why the BD is a significant improvement over previous presentations; an interesting 2-minute newsreel piece about the King of Jordan visiting the set; a 5-minute promotional clip in color, profiling O’Toole, with some great behind-the-scenes footage; 10 minutes of testimonial reflections by William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Spielberg again; four trailers and two TV commercials.

Leave a Reply

The Ultimate DVD Geek

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many recappers, while clearly over their heads, are baseline sympathetic to finding themselves routinely unmoored, even if that means repeating over and over that this is closer to “avant-garde art” than  normal TV to meet the word count. My feed was busy connecting the dots to Peter Tscherkassky (gas station), Tony Conrad (the giant staring at feedback of what we’ve just seen), Pat O’Neill (bombs away) et al., and this is all apposite — visual and conceptual thinking along possibly inadvertent parallel lines. If recappers can’t find those exact reference points to latch onto, that speaks less to willful ignorance than to how unfortunately severed experimental film is from nearly all mainstream discussions of film because it’s generally hard to see outside of privileged contexts (fests, academia, the secret knowledge of a self-preserving circle working with a very finite set of resources and publicity access to the larger world); resources/capital/access/etc. So I won’t assign demerits for willful incuriosity, even if some recappers are reduced, in some unpleasantly condescending/bluffing cases, to dismissing this as a “student film” — because presumably experimentation is something the seasoned artist gets out of their system in maturity, following the George Lucas Model of graduating from Bruce Conner visuals to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenwriting.”
~ Vadim Rizov Goes For It, A Bit

“On the first ‘Twin Peaks,’ doing TV was like going from a mansion to a hut. But the arthouses are gone now, so cable television is a godsend — they’re the new art houses. You’ve got tons of freedom to do the work you want to do on TV, but there is a restriction in terms of picture and sound. The range of television is restricted. It’s hard for the power and the glory to come through. In other words, you can have things in a theater much louder and also much quieter. With TV, the quieter things have to be louder and the louder things have to be quieter, so you have less dynamics. The picture quality — it’s fine if you have a giant television with a good speaker system, but a lot of people will watch this on their laptops or whatever, so the picture and the sound are going to suffer big time. Optimally, people should be watching TV in a dark room with no disturbances and with as big and good a picture as possible and with as great sound as possible.”
~ David Lynch