Interactive film trivia - Maps: Journey with Lawrence
Lawrence of Arabia - Collectors Edition
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 218 mins .
PG . PAL
Welcome to Madam Lawrence - House of Pain
Obviously, Lawrence Of Arabia means a huge amount to somebody at Columbia Australia. It was one of the few titles they decided to release on PAL laserdisc back in 1992, and now they're releasing the world's first DVD edition of this 1962 classic in a magnificent 2-disc set, of which the first 10,000 will be a limited edition run with a unique cloth-covered case.
Master director David Lean went all-out on this film. It's a majestic four-hour biopic, one of the last films shot in 70mm, and with no female speaking parts whatsoever. The production team originally intended to shoot in the desert of Jordan for five months; Lean's perfectionist streak stretched their stay to over two years, but the end result was well worth it. Lawrence won seven Academy Awards (and a swag of others) and became one of the most highly regarded films of all time.
A cast of thousands
The real-life T.E. Lawrence was a British Intelligence officer stationed in Egypt in World War I. The film documents his efforts to unite the various nomadic Arab tribes to fight together against the invading Turks, but the sparse plot is nearly incidental. The viewer comes away with vivid memories of a huge, unyielding desert and the romanticised, larger than life character of Lawrence. This is a motion picture experience, folks. VHS does it a disservice.
The film made stars of actors Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, and they were admirably supported by Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness. Truly, the force was strong with these ones.
It's rare that Columbia put a foot wrong on their transfers, and almost unimaginable that they'd mess up such a high-profile title, so let me say right off the bat that fans are going to be ecstatic with the job that's been done. I've never seen the film look as crisp and clean as it does on DVD, and those who have never seen it before couldn't have a better introduction.
Mine your step.
Backed by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese, expert restorer Robert Harris saved this film from the horrors of Columbia's vault just before the negatives were irreparably damaged, and the film was re-released theatrically in 1989. I compared the DVD with my PAL laserdisc (circa 1992) to see how far transfer quality has come in the last decade, and I was amazed at the improvement on the DVD. The slightly washed-out, muted colours are reproduced perfectly and detail is impeccable. The DVD even adds more side information to reflect the 70mm aspect ratio, reflecting Columbia's understanding that modern DVD buyers want to see the entire frame, even if individual details do become smaller.
The real highlight of the transfer, though, is the lack of grit and grain. If not for the obviously dated film stock, this could be a transfer from a modern blockbuster. The only issue I have with the video is some minor aliasing, which seems unavoidable on sharp transfers. Kudos to Columbia.
Shell Optimax - Powerful stuff
The 70mm format always allowed for a multichannel soundtrack, but I have no idea how Lean originally released the film. I do know that the 1989 re-release had a multichannel mix of some description, and the 1992 laserdisc was in Dolby Surround.
The DVD is in Dolby Digital 5.1, and comparisons with the laserdisc show a less brash and aggressive mix, with more separation between channels. The constant low-level hiss is gone, but it seems that it was removed with EQ rather than an advanced audio restoration system. The high-end sparkle has gone, leaving a mix that sounds muffled and recessed compared to the laserdisc, but certainly better than four hours of hiss!
The low end has been goosed considerably to fill out the sound, and the extra grunt is noticeable immediately. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that Columbia have released the entire film, including the intro and intermission music, on home video. Maurice Jarre's memorable Oscar-winning score sounds fantastic, and it's great to be able to hear it as Lean intended. The screen is black during the music-only sections, also as intended.
It came from the Desert
Fidelity is reasonable, although there's only so much that can be done with elements as old as these, and distortion crops up in the famous 'NO PRISONERS!' scene. This is part of the original soundtrack though, and can't be helped. Extra work has been done to give the rear speakers a reason to live, but for the most part they are silent, leaping to life only for the score and the occasional aggressive surround effect.
The sheer length of the film required Columbia to split it over two discs, but the break is during the intermission, so it's a natural change.
As befits a film of this calibre, the extra features are plentiful:
Making of 'Lawrence of Arabia' - a 60-minute retrospective, made in 1989. This documentary is stunning, and packed to the gills with information. Did you know that Marlon Brando was originally slated to be Lawrence? Or that 35 minutes of footage were cut from the film back in the 60s and missing audio had to be re-recorded by the original cast for the restoration? Virtually everybody is interviewed, David Lean, Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, the costumer, the props master, the list goes on. A fantastic hour's viewing.
Theatrical Trailer - At 4:42, this is nearly a featurette in itself. It's the original 1962 trailer, not for the 1970 or 1989 reissues (I wonder why we didn't get those?) and looks fairly rough, but is worth a viewing, if only to see how turgidly slow trailers were in the 60s.
Conversation with Steven Spielberg - in which Spielberg explains his early fascination with the film and describes the first time he watched the restoration, with David Lean sitting next to him providing a running director's commentary!
Four featurettes - Of significant historical interest, these are original behind-the-scenes featurettes from 1962.
Marketing Campaigns - A look at how the studio marketed a four-hour film with no major stars, and the re-release campaigns.
News footage of the US premiere - Running for just over a minute, the B&W footage seems overly dark, and is only of marginal interest.
Maps: Journey with Lawrence - Billed as an 'interactive' journey through Arabia, but essentially a series of period photographs of various locations, many taken by Lawrence himself. I found the navigation a little awkward, and this section seems like an afterthought compared to the rest of the package.
Archives of Arabia - DVD-ROM feature.
It's a shame that Lean isn't still alive to provide a commentary. Perhaps Spielberg should have been carrying a dictophone back in '89?
Prince Feisal uses the Force
Fans of the film probably aren't even reading this anymore, they're frantically ordering their own copy before the limited edition discs run out! If you've never seen Lawrence, this is an immaculate looking edition, and it does Lean's vision and the team at Columbia proud.