Lawrence of Arabia appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Too many problems emerged for this to be regarded as anything other than a flawed transfer.
Many of the concerns related to sharpness. The movie suffered from quite a lot of edge enhancement, and those haloes made shots rather tentative. They never became grossly ill-defined, but they usually seemed rather iffy. Some moiré effects cropped up due to stairs and Arab headbands, but these remained modest, and I saw no instances of jagged edges.
Colors created some problems due to inaccuracy. If you examine Lawrence on its own, you’d probably think it looked okay in regard to its hues. However, the colors were mistimed and off for some scenes. For example, sand came across as too pinkish, and skies occasionally lacked the natural blues they should display. These variations didn’t seem tremendously wrong, and they slipped by a lot of other reviewers and me when we initially checked out the disc in 2001. However, even if the problems were minor, they still were there, and this meant the colors tended to be a bit problematic.
Black levels seemed fine, and contrast levels appeared acceptable. Shadows were more erratic, especially during the many “day for night” shots in the film. Like many flicks of the period, Lawrence used a fair amount of this style, a method that usually renders the image more dark than it should be. The DFN shots were less attractive than the rest of the movie and could be rather murky.
For the most part, Lawrence lacked significant print flaws. I noted occasional specks and nicks, and some odd vertical white bars danced in the center of the screen during a number of scenes. The latter were light and could easily be missed, I suspect, but I saw them at least 10 times throughout the film. (Apparently these are stuck in the original negative and resulted from the heat on location, which makes them totally unavoidable without undesirable digital tampering.) I also witnessed some minor “pulsing” in some images during the first scene at Feisal’s tent; this only affected three-shots in which we saw Lawrence, Ali and Brighton, and while it was light, it remained pretty noticeable.
All the different areas left Lawrence as a disappointing image. The softness and edge enhancement were consistent distractions. The other issues weren’t as prominent, but they created problems as well. All of this meant the disc only deserved a “C-“.
Though not without flaws, the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack appeared generally positive. I wasn’t ready for such a fine auditory experience. Lawrence offered a wonderfully active and involving mix. Across the front spectrum I heard clearly delineated music throughout the film, and the side channels also boasted quite a lot of ambient sound. Sometimes I found the speech that came from the right or left to seem too localized - occasionally it sounded like a mono recording that had been artificially made stereo - but most of the dialogue appeared to emanate from fairly natural spots in the field. Effects were placed neatly, and they blended together well to create a vivid and lively impression.
Surround usage seemed terrific as well. Most films of this vintage simply offer mild reinforcement of the forward channels, but Lawrence went far beyond that. The score appeared so actively from the rears that it seemed to provide a distinct personality of its own, and effects also presented unique audio. The latter generally appeared to be monaural, but I thought I detected some stereo surround indications at times. In any case, the rear speakers added lots of engrossing effects, especially during battle scenes. On those occasions, the surrounds became very involved in the process and they created a surprisingly convincing and rich environment that made the action even more exciting.
Audio quality appeared inconsistent and occasionally showed its age, but for the most part I thought the film sounded very good. Dialogue generally seemed nicely clear and natural, without many signs of edginess. Due to problems with the original audio stems, some lines were re-recorded when the restoration was performed in the late Eighties. These instances usually seemed pretty obvious, with the most glaring example taking place soon after the intermission. When Bentley and Feisal first chat, not only do some of the latter’s lines not match his lip movements well, but I also saw some abrupt cuts right before the audio changed.
Nonetheless, these problems only appeared during a few scenes. Otherwise speech was pretty warm and distinct. A little edginess interfered with a few louder scenes - particularly in the parliament toward the end of the film - but again, these were minor, as were any concerns related to the movie’s effects. Actually, I expected a fair amount of distortion from these elements, but I didn’t really hear any. Even during explosions or gunfire, the track remained clean and accurate. The effects showed their age, as they lacked the dynamics we’d expect from modern efforts, but they still sounded very clear and accurate for their age.
As with the speech, music seemed moderately inconsistent, but for the most part the score appeared very well rendered. At its worst, these aspects of the track appeared typical of movies from the era. The music could be a bit thin and lifeless at times, though it never seemed poorly reproduced. However, during most of Lawrence, the score came across as wonderfully bright and dynamic. Highs appeared nicely clear and distinct, and bass response could be warm and tight. When I heard drums beat, they appeared bold and offered the appropriate thump. Inevitably, the soundtrack for Lawrence of Arabia betrayed some flaws; these are inevitable for a movie that’s rapidly approaching its fortieth birthday. However, I thought it sounded well above average for the era, and I found it to provide a very satisfying mix.
On this two-DVD package, we find a few different supplements. Most of these are on the second disc; all that DVD One includes are some DVD-ROM materials that I’ll discuss later.
The main components on DVD Two revolve around video programs, the most significant of which is a new documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Creatively named The Making of Lawrence of Arabia, this 61-minute and 25-second show offers a good look at the creation of the film. It combines film clips, a few production shots, and interview snippets from a variety of participants; we hear from actors O’Toole, Sharif, and Quinn, director Lean, director of photography Freddie Young, production designed John Box, property master Eddie Fowlie, editor Anne V. Coates, costume designer Phyllis Dalton, second unit director Peter Newbrook, Lean’s assistant Norman Spencer, film historian Adrian Turner, and assistant director Roy Stevens. O’Toole and Lean were interviewed in 1989, but the other participants seem to have been filmed more recently.
Although this program doesn’t compare with the stunning documentary found on Cleopatra, it nonetheless provides a fairly solid impression of the production. I’ve seen many features produced by Bouzereau - he also did those found on the Hitchcock DVDs from Universal - and they’re uniformly fine. The show doesn’t try to offer a thorough chronological examination of the production; instead, it starts with the basics of the film’s beginnings - how Lean and company got interested in the subject and how the actors were cast - and then jumps about other subjects with little rhyme or reason. Although the presentation doesn’t seem disorganized and messy, it does feel as though it could have come about in a more logical progression.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of good material to be found in the program. We hear a nice mix of facts and anecdotes as the participants give their impressions of various aspects of the shoot. I wasn’t overwhelmingly impressed by this documentary, but I thought it seemed largely compelling.
A separate interview appears in A Conversation With Steven Spielberg. That director’s fondness for the works of David Lean is well-known, and one can even find obvious homages to Lawrence and other Lean works in some of Spielberg’s films. With obvious enthusiasm, Spielberg discusses his experiences with Lawrence and comments upon the reasons for his fascination for the movie in this eight-minute and 45-second bit. It’s a solid little piece that was fun to watch; Spielberg provides some good information, and it was fun to see the delight Lawrence continues to inspire in him.
In addition, the DVD includes four original featurettes. Three of these appear to have come from the time of the movie’s first theatrical appearance. “Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast” provides a two minute look at the four-legged stars of Lawrence, while “In Search of Lawrence” wastes five minutes with pompous declamations about the heat. “Romance of Arabia” offered a little more material about the film, but that four-minute and 35-second piece also seemed a bit thin.
“Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic” appears to come from a re-release of the movie, as it discusses the awards won by Lawrence; however, I couldn’t determine the exact timeframe. Anyway, this was probably the best of the four featurettes. While it still lacked depth, it provided some nice production material plus voice-over snippets from O’Toole during its four and a half minutes.
A few other video pieces also appear. We find a fairly dull 65-second newsreel from the film’s New York premiere, and in Advertising Campaigns, we get a four-minute and 50-second run through the various print promotions used for the movie. That program includes a nice voice-over that discusses the campaigns.
Finally, some standard DVD extras complete the main package. We get brief and fairly useless Talent Files for actors O’Toole, Guinness, Hawkins, Sharif, Quinn, Ferrer, and Rains, plus listings for screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, director Lean, and producer Sam Spiegel. The DVD also features trailers for Lawrence, The Guns of Navarone, and a post-Lawrence reissue of The Bridge On the River Kwai. The first of these is 16X9 enhanced, but the others are presented in non-enhanced letterboxing.
Most Columbia-Tristar DVDs include booklets with production notes, but Lawrence improves upon the usual situation. Here we find a 12-page text that apparently replicates the original souvenir book available during the film’s theatrical run. These notes add some solid information about the making of the movie and add a nice component to the package.
In addition to these extras, we find some excellent DVD-ROM materials as well, most of which appear on the first disc. First up is Archives of Arabia, a piece that offers a slew of production photos and other images plus a text commentary for the film. The presentation shows the still images in the top half of the frame, while text fills the lower right and the movie can play in the lower left. Each chapter of the film has its own set of facts; these don’t change during the progression of the chapter, so you don’t need to actually watch the entire movie to read all of the information. We get a lot of technical details about the production plus a nice mix of historical facts and other film-related bits and pieces.
As for the production shots, there are 240 of these on the first DVD and 132 on the second disc. They all correspond to the current chapter of the film, and they get their own captions as well. The latter offered a wealth of additional information about the movie. All told, “Archives” presents a very solid series of notes about Lawrence.
In DVD One’s Journey With Lawrence: His Travels and Times, an interactive map of the Middle East, we discover additional details about the facts behind the film. This area concentrates on geographical material, information about the Arab tribes, and Lawrence’s experiences. I found this area to be a surprisingly deep and rich look at all of these domains, and there’s a true wealth of facts to be found. Obviously it lacks the range that could be found in a book, but nonetheless the map gives us a pretty detailed examination that goes far beyond what I expected; one could easily spend an hour or two with this area, whereas I thought it’d fill about 10 minutes.
Speaking of books, the Bibliography on disc one lists tomes by and about Lawrence, plus websites and books about the movie. I liked this area because we learn basic details about each of the books or sites; it’s not just a simple listing, so one can peruse the list and more easily ascertain which volumes would be of interest. Lastly, the DVD-ROM area finishes with an On-line Gateway. This goes to the CTS DVD site, and it also includes links to Sony Pictures Entertainment and CTS Home Video. All in all, the DVD-ROM portion of Lawrence added a lot of substance to the package.
The plaudits Lawrence of Arabia has received over the years are completely appropriate, as this stunning epic fully deserves as much praise as can be heaped upon it. Lawrence is an amazing piece of work that never fails to entertain and delight. As for the DVD, it provides flawed picture with very good sound and some pretty interesting extras, especially for owners of DVD-ROM drives. Put simply, movies don’t get any better than Lawrence of Arabia, and this flick belongs in the library of every collector. Too bad this transfer disappoints.