“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
― Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.
To celebrate the respective anniversaries for director David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing individual limited edition steelbooks with original artwork that include 4K UHD restorations of each film. Both films were nominated for and won Oscars in several categories and are considered, to this day, to be examples of classic cinema. The kind folks at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment sent me a review copy of Lawrence of Arabia, so this restoration review will focus solely on that release. Be advised that the steelbook is a four-disc set comprised of two 4K UHD discs and two Blu-rays, with one Blu-ray dedicated to legacy special features. If you’re a fan of Lean’s seminal epic, recommending this restoration is neither impossible nor a miracle, but a forgone conclusion.
Written by Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) and Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and inspired by the life of World War I Colonel T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia follows then-British Army Lieutenant Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) as he’s sent on a mission to meet with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) to determine his needs in his revolt against the Ottoman Turks who stand against the British and French allied forces. Though ranking officer Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) asks him to be quiet during the meeting, Lawrence is anything but, setting into motion a series of events that would unify the tribes of Arabia. Doing so would take a heavy toll on Lawrence, finding himself hailed as a savior one moment and a fool the next.
Before I offer my thoughts on the film, let’s discuss what everyone wants to know about this 60th anniversary edition: the restoration.
None of the production notes include mention of what was used to create the 4K UHD video or audio restoration, but the restoration includes both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, implying an update to both the video and audio from the previous 2012 release. At the end of the film, there are credits identifying contributions from both the 1988 restoration and 2012 restoration, so it’s worth noting that this restoration appears to include materials from the two prior restorations. This is important because the prior Blu-ray was a 4K scan made from the original available negatives, so it’s reasonable to presume that the same 4K scan of the 20112 Blu-ray is used here. The difference between the two likely being the inclusion of Dolby Vision to assist with color correction and balance and Dolby Atmos to provide enhanced sound through more audio tracks (7.1) and clarity. For the most part, this is a guess as, again, there’s no indication in the materials themselves to base this upon. Incidentally, the copyright date listed on all four included discs is 2020, so perhaps this restoration has been in the works for a while and could only now be released (or it was intentional made with the 60th anniversary in mind).
The important thing — the part potential buyers will want to know — is how does it look and sound: like you’re going on a journey of the soul. The much discussed sunrise sequence when Lawrence is transported to the deserts of Arabia after blowing out his match is beautiful to behold, the black perfectly matching the letterbox bars at the top and bottom as the red bleeds all over the screen with the sun’s piercing of the horizon. Similarly, as Lawrence journeys across the Devil’s Anvil to save the life of one of Sherif Ali’s (Omar Sharif) men, shots of the sky include an almost pure white sun with the radiating light being varying shades of blue which get darker (even though a light sky blue at its darkest) as the waves go further from the sun. A shot of Lawrence, dressed in his British uniform, includes various browns, each one markedly different from the other, a palette of browns that neither overtake nor conflict with each other. The Dolby Vision really helps add depth in this moment, preventing Lawrence from appearing as a glob of brown. The close-up and mid-range shots are really where the Dolby Vision looks the best, enabling viewers to notice the details in clothes, animal fur, and the actors themselves. A benefit is O’Toole’s eyes become especially piercing, while a downside is you can notice more of the makeup adorning the actors, especially the ones not of Middle Eastern ancestry. Other noticeable issues appear in the wide landscape shots as, beautiful though they may be, there’s a lot of noticeable grain and a few moments of visible vertical lines indicating an old or damaged source negative. This is something that I’m more likely to notice as that’s the purpose of reviewing the home release versus someone who’s watching the film out of either love or curiosity.
The Dolby Atmos track cannot be evaluated as I don’t have an Atmos compatible setup, but I did watch the film using the 5.1 Dolby track. There’s an imbalance in the setup where the score is far louder than the dialogue, requiring a swift hand on the remote in order to adjust the levels so as not to get blown out of the house when Maurice Jarre’s (Ghost) beautiful score kicks in. Also of note, the back speakers mostly picked up ambient sounds like hooves on sand, with the front speakers and center doing the bulk of the work. That said, during the attack on the Turkish garrison or, later as Lawrence leads Ali and his men on various raids on the Turks, the full force of the surround sound kicked in, enveloping me in the ferocity on screen. Depending on your setup, be advised that you may need to have a steady hand to make adjustments as you go.
Regarding the steelbook itself and the included materials, here’s a quick run-through before a video walkthrough. The front of the disc is a collection of moments from the film, the larger image and colors that dominate the whole package are the rising sun over the desert with Lawrence wearing the gifted robes while riding a camel in the center. Behind him to the right and in the distance are several camel riders representing the tribes who followed him with two biplanes in the sky above him to the left. On the back is a sole image of the blade gifted to him by Ali with the robes. Inside are four discs — the film on Blu-ray, a Blu-ray dedicated to special features, and two 4K UHD discs which contain the film split by the natural intermission — each with their own unique art. Based on research for this home release review, the disc art seems to be taken from previous home release editions and the special features seem to be a collection of the materials included on each of them. At this time, there does not appear to be anything new included with this 60th anniversary release. To get a look at the steelbook release, head to the video below.
Few films are without their areas of issue, even the best of them, of which Lawrence of Arabia certainly is counted among. This is an epic, not just because it runs nearly four hours, but because of the measured and deliberate pacing, tangible sets and action sequences, and the willingness to explore humankind’s folly due to pride and greed. Due to the sheer practicality of the sets, I’d argue that films just aren’t made like this anymore, given the reliance on VFX to make adjustments in post small (adjust lighting, tweak foliage, create the illusion text as naturally occurring in the scene) or large (entire backgrounds or characters, establishing locations, whole armies). Everything in Lawrence is real, giving an incredible weight to choices and their consequences, good and bad, as they play out. This film takes place during World War I, yet, with its focus on Lawrence and his world with the tribes, we tend to forget that the work he’s doing is as part of a larger machine, making his transformation from idyllic soldier to glorious leader to broken warrior both a surprise and heartbreaking. What’s particularly fascinating, looking from now to then in terms of narrative, is seeing how frequently European imperialism (and American) gets in the way of other nations standing on their own, going so far as to manipulate situations so as to undermine success. It’s a greedy system which prevents Lawrence from having the tools he needs to keep his promises to Ali and the other tribes and it’s that same greedy system which prevents the Arabian council from working. Yet, in our media, our stories, our approved history, it’s always presented as the Middle East as backward or less developed, when all it took was a little interference to undermine all they achieved. The current Taliban is a by-product of American influence, a then ally against another foreign power. We tend to forget these things when we discuss current history, as though the American government isn’t responsible for what is happening now or what happened then. Especially as the film delves further into the psychological toll upon Lawrence as he tries to save as many as he can, only to lose his way to pride and bloodlust, one can find a wider expression of disillusionment regarding imperialism influence on the world as a whole. When Lawrence selflessly saves lives, he’s touted as a hero, but upon the willful act of taking, he destroys all he’s built. Sounds quite familiar.
Additionally, I couldn’t help but consider the implications of Guinness in the role of Prince Faisal and the way the character manipulated Lawrence, finding a way to use him just as much as the British military did, to ensure that Faisal risked little and earned much without changing the status quo. The dialogue felt far more biting knowing that the actor was of British ancestry, though it may have more to do with my view of the current geopolitical landscape than the specific intent. Casting Anthony Quinn (Last Action Hero) as other tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi somehow feels less egregious an act as casting Guinness, perhaps because Quinn is Mexican and therefore aware of the impact of American/British imperialism, but even that feels weird to watch and cheer for as Quinn is spectacular in the role.
Whenever I engage in a restoration review, outside of my own feelings on the film, it always comes down to whether or not the restoration is worth the time and energy (and money) for prospective buyers. Though the audio was a bit troublesome to manage, the look of the film, the pacing of the narrative, and the performances pull you in so deeply that it’s mostly a minor irritant. In this case, I feel comfortable making the recommendation for the 4K UHD edition of Lawrence of Arabia, especially if (a) it’s a film you love and want to see it in the highest quality possible and/or (b) you’ve never owned it before. The fact that it seems to collect all the legacy features where prior anniversary editions did not is a clear bonus for those who love the film, as is the fact that it comes with three formats in the steelbook version: 4K UHD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and digital. Plenty within to make the case for the upgrade and not much at all to argue against.
Lawrence of Arabia Disc Information:
- Feature presented in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision, fully restored from the original camera negative
- Feature split across two 4K Ultra HD discs
- Dolby Atmos + 5.1 audio
Lawrence of Arabia Legacy Special Features:
- Secrets of Arabia: Feature-Length Picture-in-Graphics Track
- Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia
- Making of Lawrence of Arabia Documentary
- Deleted Balcony Scene with Introduction by Anne V. Coates
- The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia
- A Conversation with Steven Spielberg
- Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1963 & 1970 Versions)
- Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast
- In Search of Lawrence
- Romance of Arabia
- King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set
- In Love with the Desert Documentary
- Lawrence at 50: A Classic Restored
- New York Premiere Footage
- Advertising Campaigns
- Vintage Trailers & TV Spots
- Archival Interviews
- Steven Spielberg on Lawrence of Arabia
- William Friedkin on Lawrence of Arabia
- Sydney Pollack on Lawrence of Arabia
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital June 7th, 2022.
For more information, head to Sony Pictures’s official Lawrence of Arabia webpage.