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Winner of seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture of 1962, Lawrence of Arabia stands as one of the most timeless and essential motion picture masterpieces. The greatest achievement of its legendary, Oscar-winning director David Lean (1962, Lawrence of Arabia; 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai), the film stars Peter O’Toole – in his career-making performance – as T.E. Lawrence, the audacious World War I British army officer who heroically united rival Arab desert tribes and led them to war against the mighty Turkish Empire. (Taken from the PR.)

Unfortunately we received this disc over a week after the release date, so this is going to be a shorter review than normal. I'm going to dispense with any commentary on the film itself - after all, there's not anything original I could say about a recognised classic - and focus on the technical aspects of the release.

Video


I've long contended that Sony leads the pack when it comes to Blu-ray quality and this release only serves to reinforce that opinion. Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.20:1 (1080/24p AVC) the film looks absolutely marvellous thanks to the new 8K scan/4K intermediate and extensive restoration work. The feature was originally shot on 65mm and this shines through in the level of detail on this Blu-ray. I'm not going to repeat the usual cliché that it 'looks like it was filmed yesterday', because it doesn't. No, even better than that, it looks like it was filmed in the early 60s and lovingly restored while remaining as true to the film-makers' original intent as possible. While the image has been thoroughly cleaned up to remove almost all traces of print damage, dirt and other film artefacts, grain has thankfully been left well alone. The result is a superbly filmic image, with nary a trace of digital tinkering such as edge enhancement or filtering, and compression is also impressive given the long runtime.

The palette is wonderfully rich, with each and every scene awash with bold hues of the sort that you just don't see in today's films. Sands stretch on forever like a golden ocean, and thanks to the purity of the cerulean skies I swear I could almost breathe the untainted desert air. There are literally dozens of shots that are simply breath-taking in their composition and beauty, with the fiery reds and oranges of the sunrises a particular highlight. In fact, you could freeze frame at virtually any point and the resulting image would look like it had been painted by a master. Contrast is excellent and what few night-time sequences there are offer a pleasing level of shadow detail.

However, there are one or two minor issues, which are more than likely the result of the film’s age than with the Blu-ray presentation. Firstly, there are a number of scenes that aren’t quite as crisp as the rest of the film, and there is also one scene in which a number of frames appear to be missing. The latter is more noticeable due to the fact it occurs during a conversation between two characters (there are two jumps in total). Still, these minor imperfections matter little when weighed against the other overwhelmingly positive aspects of the presentation. The entire film is a visual feast and this Blu-ray release showcases the Oscar-winning cinematography like never before. It is quite simply one of the best restorations I’ve seen on the format.

Audio


The disc includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but unfortunately there's no original audio on offer. I'm sure most people won't lament its omission, but I like to have the option of listening to the original track when watching my films (the recent Jaws release really benefited from this option). Even so the 5.1 remix is respectful and predominantly front-focussed, with the surround channels used in a discrete supporting capacity, rather than a series of over-elaborate, forced set-pieces. The main role of the rears is to provide room for Maurice Jarre's incredible score to swell and envelope the listener, but the occasional effect also finds its way back there from time to time (early on the sound of T.E. Laurence's motorcycle passes over the viewer's head). They also see more action during the various crowd and battle sequences, not to mention playing a hand in bringing the desert to life by way of swirling sandstorms and the like.

However, as previously mentioned the bulk of the action occurs at the front of the soundstage, with some effective pans and some neat localised effects. Dialogue is generally very well-positioned in the mix, with only a few indistinct lines during the entire runtime (and accents played a part in those), although there is one scene where sync appears to drift ever so slightly. This occurs during the aforementioned scene with the missing frames, so it's probably something that couldn't be avoided. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was the potency of the LFE channel, with numerous moments eliciting a fairly sizeable rumble from the subwoofer. Hundreds of Bedouin riding across the desert on horseback certainly made their presence known! The only negative thing I have to say about the track is an unavoidable side-effect of the time at which it was made. By this I mean fidelity isn't up there with more recent pictures, or even some other features from the era. Don’t get me wrong though; it’s not detrimental to one’s enjoyment of the film. All things considered this is a great track that breathes new life into an aged picture.

Extras


Oddly for a home video release the extras are on disc one and the feature is on disc two (although I believe this to be a labelling error). While there isn’t much in the way of brand-new, high-definition content, the set does feature a fairly comprehensive and interesting selection of bonus material.

  • Secrets of Arabia: This is a BonusView track that offers up information on the production, T.E. Lawrence and the region itself
  • Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia: This is a great little interview in which O’Toole remembers his time on the film, packed with anecdotes and fond remembrances of his director and co-stars
  • The Making of Lawrence of Arabia: This documentary runs for over an hour and offers up all sorts of fascinating information about the production
  • A Conversation with Steven Spielberg: The popular director talks us through his love of the film, his involvement in the 1988 restoration project and his experience of meeting David Lean
  • Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast: A small 60s puff-piece about the animals used in the film
  • In Search of Lawrence: This is a very short period promotional piece narrated by a ‘voiceover man’
  • Romance of Arabia: Yet another short promotional featurette that frames the production with the beauty of the land, its culture and inhabitants
  • Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic: This is a retrospective featurette from 1970 that follows a similar path to those that have gone before
  • New York Premiere: Black and white newsreel footage of the film’s US premier
  • Advertising Campaigns: A short featurette that discusses the varied methods used to promote the film over the years

Overall


Whether you're into historical epics or not this release sets a new benchmark for restorations. When a film from 1962 can be made to look and sound this good it really shows what the Blu-ray format is capable of delivering, not to mention that it puts certain other 'restorations' to shame (I'm looking at you George Lucas). Personally I’m more familiar with - and fonder of - films from the seventies and onwards, and I find a lot of older features too stilted for my tastes. However, Lawrence probably falls somewhere in the middle. I respect the achievement immensely – it’s a superbly crafted piece of work – but it doesn’t speak to me in the way that my favourite movies do. I realise films are a product of their time, but I was bothered by some of the historical inaccuracies, and various supremely English actors essentially ‘blacking up’ to play Arabs didn’t sit well. Still, if experience has taught me anything it’s that film is entirely subjective and that my opinion is just that – my own. It’s still a remarkable, culturally significant picture with an exceptional performance from all involved (particularly O’Toole), not to mention an outstanding Blu-ray release. As such it comes very highly recommended.

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

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