Lawrence Of Arabia

Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins
Extras: Making Of Documentary, 4 Original Featurettes, Newsreel Footage, Conversation with Steven Spielberg, Trailers and much more

When David Lean’s 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" first appeared on movie screens, it was hailed as an evolutionary leap in large-scale filmmaking and storytelling. When it blazed in 1989 again, courtesy of an extensive restoration to its former glory, it sparked new awareness in preserving our continually tenuous film heritage. When it migrated to the then-nascent home video industry, the letterboxing of director David Lean’s astounding <$PS,widescreen> vistas provided a flashpoint against the standard practice of panning and scanning carefully composed film images. Finally, its early availability on laserdisc exalted the title as one befitting the best possible technological presentation.

Just shy of its fortieth anniversary, "Lawrence" finally makes its digital debut. Representing a virtual dissertation of the film, Columbia Tristar Home Video’s superb new two-disc DVD boasts an impressive amount of supplemental materials including no less than three newly produced documentaries, ranging from an overall charting of the film’s production and famous resurrection to a "chat" with director Steven Spielberg about his impressions of the film. Trailers, interviews, DVD-ROM extras, not to mention a robust transfer and a 5.1 soundtrack that’s not only visceral but thoughtful, just marks the beginning of why "Lawrence" belongs in any DVD collector’s library.

On a purely material level, the film dramatizes Lawrence’s unification of the various Arab factions during World War I. The film starts as Lawrence (Peter O’Toole’s in his first film), a lowly British office on assignment in Arabia, receives appointment as a "military observer" to Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness), who is waging war with the Turkish Empire. At first, Feisal responds to Lawrence’s knowledge of the terrain and the culture, something that his superior Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), also dispatched to counsel Feisal, does not possess. Distrust from Feisal’s aide Ali Kharish (Omar Sharif, in his first western film) turns to admiration when Lawrence engineers an attack that weakens the Turkish hold on the waterfront city of Aqaba and paves the way for other Bedouin tribes to band together. Lawrence’s larger than life vision of himself and his destiny transforms him into "El Aurens" among the guerrilla warriors who serve with him. As the legend of El Aurens grows within Arabia and England, he slowly must come to grips with the destiny he has created for himself…and now no longer controls.

What more can be said about "Lawrence" that hasn’t already been said by critics more literate and observant than myself? Filtered through Lean’s direction, Robert Bolt’s and Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own journals, and O’Toole’s enigmatic debut performance, Lawrence was a conundrum, flaunting the convention of previous epic portrayals. Gone was the nationalism fervor of Roderigo Diaz saving Spain in "El Cid" or DeMille’s Victorian Moses, stoically parting the Red Sea for the children of Israel. The great gift of "Lawrence" to world cinema was that the film was as much an "interior epic" (as Scorsese once said) about the inner turmoil of a hero as how his intervention stirred a nation to martial and political action.

The two DVD-9 set divvy up the film and extras as follows: Disc 1 contains the film, including Overture, up to the Intermission and no special features. Disc 2 contains the remainder of the film with Entr’Acte and Exit Music as well as housing the numerous special features. Even with the split of the film on two discs, it’s an absolute joy to be able to watch "Lawrence" without having to endure eight side breaks necessitated by the Criterion CAV (full-feature) laserdisc released in 1990. Both discs have fully animated menus highlighting images or moments from the film to house the various menu options. The programmers at Sony (the technical arm of Columbia TriStar home video) must have a sense of humor. Every time a selection is entered, a cloud superimposed with horse-riding warriors blows across the screen from left to right, kind of "wiping" to the selected option. Use your cursor back button and the cloud travels from right to left.

Any representation of "Lawrence" on video begins and ends with how the visual landscapes, as painted by Lean and cinematographer F.A. Young, transmit with reduced resolution. Considered one of the crown jewels of the Columbia film library, "Lawrence" on DVD is no less spectacular but, like the title itself, subject to deeper analysis. Let me start by saying that translating "Lawrence" is a tough nut to crack from the get go. Much of the power of the film lies in the juxtaposition of the drama reduced to tiny dots adrift among huge, gigantic vistas. Projected on a 60-foot wide screen, the images jolt with their irony. Even on the largest projection screen TV or sophisticated video display systems, those complex visions undergo compromise.

Having said that, the transfer to "Lawrence" is excellent. The 2.35 <$16x9,anamorphic> video just explodes with detail. Benefiting from the 1989 restoration, the source elements are pristine with nary a speckle or blemish. Coupled with DVD’s increased resolution, the image is very smooth and film-like at all times with no registration problems or digital artifacts apparent. Deep black levels allow for balanced contrast at all times during the film. For instance, check out the shadow delineation during Lawrence’s first meeting with Feisal (Chapters 12-13) with faces moving in and out of darkness. Edge enhancement crops up intermittently, yet the image is never too "crisp" to seem out of place with the overall presentation. Detail loss is minimal, even when the narrative swings from night to blazing sunlight in an instant.

In color rendition and fidelity, there lies the first contradiction. Hues are beautiful, unwavering and accurate. I’ve saw "Lawrence" four times since 1989, each time projected in 70mm in state-of-the-art theatrical venues. In the first scene when we see Lawrence, painting the ocean on a map, the blue color just leapt from the screen. (I remember gasping, along with the rest of the audience). Here, in Chapter 3 on the DVD, the same scene is solidly depicted but there is no "wow" factor. The colors don’t jump off the TV screen the way they do on the transfers for, say, "Ben Hur" or "North by Northwest." Then again, the ambers and oranges of the desert vistas do not, for a moment, look anything less than vivid and intense. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism because the consistently "non-showy" quality of the color palette here is, for lack of a better word, respectful. Fleshtones are natural looking and again the detail that comes out in the amazing make-up of Anthony Quinn as rebel leader Auda Ibu Tayi will make anyone’s jaw drop.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack sounds even better than the original theatrical presentation. The discrete audio creates a totally enveloping soundfield, punctuated by Maurice Jarre’s stirring score. The sound effects mix adds some nice, thoughtful touches. In the famous jump cut from the match to the desert scape (Chapter 7) the audio goes from the sound of whooshing air to a slight but steady LFE rumble as the music swells, timed to the sunrise. It was thrilling! The rear channels are active during the appropriate moments (the canyon echoes in Chapter 10 sound accurate for the first time!) and not at any time does the surround activity seem forced or flashy. Sound effects and dialogue integrate very well and never did the center channel appear congested or overloaded. A few directional dialogue pans occur, but for the most part the discrete sound mirrors the 1989 "modernization" (i.e. dialogue stays in the center) of the soundtrack. A two-channel <$DS,Dolby Surround> option is provided. Spot checks yielded a pleasant matrix surround presentation with front soundfield frequently collapsing into the center channel. If you are not able to access the 5.1 soundtrack in your system, the Dolby Surround will not disappoint, but it’s a far cry from the sheer dynamism of the discrete audio. French, Portuguese, and Spanish mono audio options are also available on the disc.

DVD special edition guru Laurent Bouzereau produced two of the three original "featurettes" on the DVD. The first is an hour-long examination of the film from practically every conceivable angle. Titled "The Making of ’Lawrence of Arabia’," the exhaustive document manages to include just about all the creative personnel from the film to provide some perspective on the making of the film, as well as the restoration. Archive interviews from 1989 offer soundbites from David Lean and Peter O’Toole while new video interviews yield reminiscences from Omar Sharif, editor Anne V. Coates, art director John Box, film historian Adrian Turner, costume designer Phyllis Dalton and assistant director Roy Stevens. Interspersed with <$PS,letterboxed> clips and a generous helping of behind the scenes footage, the documentary discusses how the film came into being, the difficulties of capturing the desert on film, the slow erosion of the film’s running time over the years and its eventual rebirth. Some of the insights are well known: how Albert Finney had won the part and then backed out or that they had to refrigerate the cameras so the film wouldn’t melt and ruin the mechanisms. What I didn’t know is that, according to Sharif, Guinness adopted Sharif’s actual speech patterns for his Feisal or that the great British filmmaker Alexander Korda had been approached by Lean to do a film biography of Lawrence. While covering almost thirty years of ground between the filming and the restoration, the documentary is briskly paced for a collection of talking head shots.

Bouzereau also produced "A Conversation with Steven Spielberg." The eight-minute reminiscence crosscuts Mr. Spielberg’s thoughts and recollections of the film with specific scene references and backstage footage of Lean. The part of this documentary that made me drool is when he explains when he watched the complete restored film with David Lean (back in ’89) and how Lean proceeded to give explanations of every scene in the film. Spielberg uses the analogy of running commentaries on DVD, saying that was exactly what he was getting from Lean, but live. (Dang Steven, why didn’t you have a tape recorder handy that day!)

The third, newly produced featurette isn’t so much a documentary as a narrated journey through the advertising materials for the film. Labeled "Advertising Campaigns," the section tours the various posters, stills and souvenir books created to sell or market "Lawrence" set to narration and music. The voice over is informative, explaining how different visual elements were employed during the film’s release over the years and how changes were made or scrapped when it came to the film released internationally. Definitely a change from the stodgy, frame-flipping of most DVDs. Previews for "Lawrence," as well as the Lean film "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the non-Lean "Guns of Navarone" grace the "Theatrical Trailers" section. The trailers are <$PS,letterboxed> ("Lawrence" is only a 1.85 trailer, while "Bridge" and "Guns" are at a full 2.35 width.) and appear in good shape, with saturated colors and minimal blemishes.

A booklet within the two-disc casing reprints the copy from the original 1962 souvenir program. Primarily focused on the historical Lawrence and how his life and writings translated to film, the program reads more like a compelling history book than a throwaway tract. Once the copy devolves into the making of the film does the superlatives emerge ("Arthur Kennedy, noted for the uncompromising truthfulness of his performances…").

Talent files round the special features. Not much to sing about here, just the standard filmographies for Lean, O’Toole, Sharif, producer Sam Spiegel and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.

I just want to briefly list the disc’s DVD-ROM features. As I do not have a DVD-ROM drive or capabilities, I am unable to judge these extras. For those who do, the disc offers historical photographs of Arabia, a "Journey with Lawrence: an Interactive Map of the Middle East, " advertising campaign materials, theatrical trailers and talent files. I am assuming that the advertising campaign, trailers and talent sections are identical in their DVD-ROM incarnations to their DVD-Video counterparts.

I have only two more words on the subject of "Lawrence of Arabia" on DVD: get it!