Release Date(s)1962 (June 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Horizon Pictures/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
In 1916, at the height of what came to be known as World War I, British and French forces in Egypt needed to convince the desert tribes of Arabia to revolt against their Turkish overlords, who had allied themselves with Germany. Enter T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a too-smart-for-his-own-good lieutenant in the British Army, who is sent on an intelligence mission to the camp of the Arab leader Price Faisal (Alec Guinness). But rather than simply observe, as is his charge, Lawrence becomes an advisor to Faisal—and his advice is that the Arabs should resist fighting the conflict in the British fashion. If Faisal’s men were to join the British Army, he argues, they would become just one more poor quality unit of that army. But if they were to fight instead using their strengths—crossing the desert at will and striking at will, the way the British Navy crosses the ocean—they would be unstoppable. And so begins a whirlwind led in part by Lawrence, one that forever alters the nature of the conflict, the future of the Arab people, and Lawrence’s own destiny.
Regarded by many as one of the greatest films ever made, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is certainly the film that defined the idea of a cinematic epic. Only Sergei Bondarchuk’s lesser-known (and until recently seldom-seen) War and Peace (1966-67) is of greater scale as a film production. O’Toole gives an accomplished and career defining performance here, as do Anthony Quinn (as Auda aubu Tayi), Omar Sharif (as Sherif Ali), and José Ferrer (as the Turkish Bey). Guinness too is remarkable on screen, though for better or worse it’s his later appearance in Star Wars that would come to define him. The screenplay, adapted from the real Lawrence’s own historical account/autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was largely written by Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivago, A Man for All Seasons) with help by Michael Wilson. But one cannot praise this film without also noting the contributions of cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre, and editor Anne Coates, each of whom delivers career best work. Almost literally every frame of Lawrence of Arabia could be called a work of art in its own right.
Lawrence was shot on 65 mm Eastman photochemical film using Mitchell BFC and FC cameras with Super Panavision 70 lenses. It was finished on film and released theatrically in both 2.20:1 (for 70mm exhibition) and 2.35:1 (for 35 mm exhibition). The release history of the film is complicated, with different edits and running times appearing over the years, but it was restored in 1988 by Robert A. Harris (working with Lean and Coates) to a length of 228 minutes. In 2012, a new digital restoration was completed by Sony featuring an 8K scan of the original 65 mm negative (at the proper 2.20:1 ratio) and a then-new 4K Digital Intermediate. This source was further remastered for the film’s release on Ultra HD in 2020, a process that included a new high dynamic range grade (available here in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options).
I’ve seen Lawrence three times theatrically, twice projected in 70 mm (one of them a private screening at the invitation of Harris) and also the 50th Anniversary 4K Digital restoration screening at The Academy back in 2012 (introduced by Sony’s Grover Crisp, who supervised that restoration). And I personally find this to be the single best presentation of the film on home video to date—one that captures a great measure of that theatrical grandeur. If you saw the 2012 restoration theatrically, you’ll have a good idea of what you’re in store for here. The increase in fine detail is remarkable. Texturing of rock, sand, and fabric is tighter and cleaner than ever before (the establishing shot of Wadi Rum is extraordinary). Photochemical grain is present and organic, but never excessive or distracting. Colors are rich and accurate without appearing oversaturated, and they’re now more nuanced than ever before—which makes a significant difference in the varying tones of desert and sky throughout the film. You can see it almost immediately in the watercolor paints on the map Lawrence is making when you first meet him in Cairo. And what I find most pleasing is the impact of HDR—shadows are just a little deeper, yet retain detail, while the highlights have a more natural shine. As was the case with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 4K from Universal (recently reviewed here), the grade is very restrained. And whether you’re looking at HDR10 or 12-bit Dolby Vision, there’s little to no color banding in evidence. (I do find myself wondering what difference—if any—a new 8K scan of the original negative made today—as opposed to 2011—might have made, but that’s the resoration nerd in me, and is neither here nor there.)
All of this said, I find this 4K presentation of Lawrence of Arabia to be breathtaking (and it’s worth noting that Harris himself agrees). The average data rate for this title is over 50 Mbps, and often it’s well into the 60s. The film is presented over two discs and the added room really allows the 4K image to breathe, lending a greater dimensionality to the presentation. It’s hard to image that just two decades ago, standard-definition DVD was the best we had (and not so long before that, letterboxed SD laserdisc was state-of-the-art). The ability to watch this film at home in this level of quality is a remarkable thing indeed.
From an audio standpoint, the film’s English soundtrack is available in the same 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio version found on the phenomenal 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release from 2012 (reviewed here), along with a new 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible English Dolby Atmos mix too. I find them to be very comparable in terms of overall clarity, with good fidelity to the original 6-track 70 mm theatrical sound experience. The difference is that the soundstage now feels a little smoother and wider in Atmos, and also a bit grander thanks to the addition of the height channels, which add just a bit of scale and majesty to the staging. Dialogue is clean, tonal quality is robust, and the occasional sound effects that require it have solid bass and heft (the train explosions, for example). Jarre’s score sounds rich and pleasing. Additional audio options are included in Czech, Hungarian, Mandarin (PRC), Portuguese, and Latin Spanish Mono, French, Italian, Polish Voice Over, and Russian Voice Over 5.1 Dolby Digital, and German, Japanese, and Castilian Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish.
Sony’s long-awaited Ultra HD Steelbook package is a 4-disc set, with the film in 4K split over two discs, a movie Blu-ray (the same disc released in 2012), and a Blu-ray Disc of bonus features. Note that these are the exact same discs released in Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box set in 2020 (reviewed here), including the corrected bonus disc. Disc One (4K) includes the following extra:
- Unused International Prologue (4K – 1:00)
This was entirely new in 2020 (the only new special feature in that package), but is actually quite good. It’s a recreation of a quick bit of text that was shown in front of the film in some international markets to set the historical stage—the place, time, and context in which the story takes place. If you aren’t already familiar with the film, it’s helpful for casual viewers.
Disc Three (the movie Blu-ray) adds the following:
- Secrets of Arabia: A Picture-in-Graphics Track
Finally, Disc Four delivers the lion’s share of the special features as follows:
- Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia (HD – 21:07)
- Making of Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 61:29)
- Deleted Balcony Scene with Introduction by Anne V. Coates (SD – 7:06)
- The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia (HD – 7:51)
- A Conversation with Steven Spielberg (SD – 8:49)
- Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1963 Version) (HD – 5:04)
- Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1970 Version) (SD – 4:32)
- Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast (SD – 2:00)
- In Search of Lawrence (HD – 5:00)
- Romance of Arabia (HD – 4:37)
- King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set (HD – 2:01)
- In Love with the Desert (SD – 83:54)
- Lawrence at 50: A Classic Restored (HD – 13:30)
- Steven Spielberg on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 1:26)
- William Friedkin on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 5:43)
- Sydney Pollack on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 2:38)
- New York Premiere (SD – 1:08)
- Advertising Campaigns (SD – 4:51)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 4:44)
- Theatrical Teaser Trailer #1 (HD – 1:53)
- Theatrical Teaser Trailer #2 (HD – 1:18)
- 70mm Restoration Trailer (1989 Release) (HD – 1:55)
- TV Spot #1 (HD – 1:02)
- TV Spot #2 (HD – :12)
As you can see, this is the exact same content found on both special features discs from the 2012 Blu-ray set. Much of it was carried over from the film’s 2001 DVD release, but the content that was new and exclusive in 2012 is here too, including the deleted “balcony” scene from the film with introduction by editor Anne V. Coates. This was originally meant to be included in the Director’s Cut of the film in 1989, but though the film elements were located then the audio mix was incomplete—specifically Jack Hawkins dialogue was missing. The restoration team attempted to have a Hawkins sound-alike dub the dialogue but it just didn’t work well enough for the film, thus the scene’s presentation here. Also new in 2012 were The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia and the outstanding Lawrence at 50: A Classic Revisited which offers background on the new 4K restoration from Crisp and company (along with rather shocking before and after comparisons). Vintage material presented here in full HD includes the short films King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set and the original 1963 version of Wind, Sand and Star. And of course you get the 84-minute In Love with the Desert SD documentary on the production from 2001, as well as archival interviews with directors William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Steven Spielberg. A series of trailers and TV spots for the film rounds out the collection. In a nice touch, the special features have optional subtitles for those who may find them useful. There’s also a Digital Copy code on a paper insert, and the new Steelbook artwork is undeniably handsome.
Speaking personally, one of the reasons I find David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia so compelling—its magnificent craftsmanship and visual splendor aside—is that the story is presented with all of its historical complexity intact. T. E. Lawrence was a fascinating figure, an ambitious man who was ill-fitting in his own culture, but who found a place he felt he belonged in the Arabian desert. And yet his ambition, pride, and circumstances soon got the better of him. Lawrence is an enigma in this film, to others and indeed even to himself, and real man behind the character remains one to this day. It’s rare to see such complexity on the big screen, painted on a canvas this large and this well. Lawrence of Arabia is a cinematic masterpiece and there’s never been a better way to experience it at home than 4K Ultra HD. Best of all, the title is finally available outside of Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box set. It’s therefore very highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt