Release Date(s)1962 (June 16, 2020)
Studio(s)Horizon Pictures/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
[Editor’s Note: Though we’re reviewing the films in the set one by one, Lawrence of Arabia is currently only available on physical 4K disc in Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box set. It’s available on Amazon by clicking here, or on any of the artwork pictured in this review.]
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, 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, 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 the greatest film ever made, David’s Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is remarkable for many reasons. It is certainly the film that defined the idea of the 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. This film is, and rightly so, widely regarded as a masterpiece.
Lawrence was shot on 65mm 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 more widely in 2.35:1 (for 35mm exhibition). The release history of the film is complicated, with different edits and running times over the years, but it was restored in 1988 by Robert 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 65mm negative (at the proper 2.20:1), resulting in a new 4K Digital Intermediate. This source has apparently been further remastered for the film’s release on Ultra HD, a process which included a new high dynamic range grade (and note that Sony’s 4K release includes both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options).
So how does it look? Well, it should be noted that Lawrence has been available in 4K Digitally for a couple of years now (from Apple, Amazon, and Vudu), but without high dynamic range. It’s also available in 4K as a download from Kaleidescape. Of course, any streamed version is going to be highly compressed. What’s been notable about the Kaleidescape presentation is its file size: A whopping 111.3 GB. So here’s what makes the new Sony 4K disc release so remarkable: The film is split over TWO discs, one a BD-100 and the other a BD-66. And other than a brief, one-minute International Prologue as a bonus feature, the film content is the only thing contained on these discs. So the entire film is potentially 150-60 GB in size! And that extra data makes a huge difference.
I’ve seen Lawrence three times theatrically, twice projected in 70mm (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 that 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 65mm negative made today—as opposed to back in 2011-2012—might have made. But that’s the resoration nerd in me, and 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). Checking the details (via my Oppo player’s “information” display) reveals that the average data rate for this title is over 50 Mbps and often it’s well into the 60s. That added room really allows the 4K image to breathe, lending a greater dimensionality to the presentation. It’s hard to image that just 20 years 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 70mm 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 Ultra HD package is a 4-disc set, with the film in 4K split over two discs, a movie Blu-ray (the exact same disc released in 2012), and a Blu-ray Disc of bonus features. Disc 1 (4K) includes the following extra:
- Unused International Prologue (4K – 1:00)
This is entirely new (the only new special feature in the package), but it’s 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 film’s story takes place. And I must admit, if you aren’t already familiar with the film, I think it’s helpful for casual viewers.
Disc 3 (the movie on Blu-ray) adds the following:
- Secrets of Arabia: A Picture-in-Graphics Track
Finally, Disc 4 adds the lion’s share of the edition’s special features as follows:
- Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia (HD – 21:07)
- Making of Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 61:29)
- A Conversation with Steven Spielberg (SD – 8:49)
- Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast (SD – 2:00)
- In Search of Lawrence (HD – 5:00)
- Romance of Arabia (HD – 4:37)
- Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1970) (SD – 4:32)
- New York Premiere (SD – 1:08)
- Advertising Campaigns (SD – 4:51)
This is the exact same content found on the first special features disc in the 2012 Blu-ray set (much of it carried over from the film’s 2001 DVD release). Unfortunately, there’s a problem here. This disc was also supposed to include the following content from the 2012 Blu-ray’s second special features disc (as follows):
- 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)
- Lawrence at 50: A Classic Restored (HD – 13:30)
- King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set (HD – 2:01)
- Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1963) (HD – 5:04)
- In Love with the Desert (SD – 83:54)
- William Friedkin on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 5:43)
- Sydney Pollack on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 2:38)
- Steven Spielberg on Lawrence of Arabia (SD – 1:26)
- 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)
None of that is here, and Sony has confirmed to me that this is an error. A new special features Blu-ray containing all of the extras is currently being replicated and will be made available by mail to everyone who purchases this Columbia Classics box set. (Note that we will include details on how you can obtain a copy here when they become available). So note that the A+ extras grade above is conditioned upon the content on that corrected disc.
It should also be noted that the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box includes Movies Anywhere Digital codes for all of the films in the set, including this one. And while the discs come packaged in a traditional 2-disc keepcase (with a cardboard slipcover featuring a photo of O’Toole as Lawrence), the insert artwork is based on the film’s original theatrical poster (you can see both pictured below).
Speaking personally, one of the key reasons I find David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia so compelling—its magnificent craftsmanship and visual splendor aside—is that its 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 historical circumstances 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 such to this day. It’s so rare that we see such complexity on the big screen, painted on a canvas this large and well. Lawrence of Arabia is surely one of the greatest films ever made, worth your time for many reasons, and there’s never been a better way to experience it at home than this new 4K Ultra HD presentation. Unfortunately, it’s only available currently in Sony’s new Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box set, though it will surely be released individually at some point in the future (if not later this year then perhaps in 2021). In the meantime—if you’re willing and able to purchase the box set—it’s not to be missed. Very highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt