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Review of 2012 2-disc Blu-ray edition 2001 2-disc DVD edition
on April 6, 2001
** UPDATED NOV-15-2012 **
An extraordinary film has now become an extraordinary Blu-ray. David Lean's 1962 desert epic film about the enigmatic British officer T.E. Lawrence and his successes and struggles in the Arab countries during the early 20th Century remains (sadly) as relevant as ever regarding the Western world's unending struggles in the Middle East regions. The Oscar-winning classic is also a landmark event in film history, as it set a very high standard in epic film-making, acting, and, for the making of this Blu-ray, in film restoration as well. Director Lean and then-unknown actor Peter O'Toole's contribution in this film remain influential in the five decades since the film's initial release. And if it had not been for the efforts of restorers Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten, who discovered the film's original negative inside crushed and rusting film cans in Columbia's vaults in the 1980s, and proceeded to restore it to its original glory, we would not have had the pleasure of holding this Blu-ray in our hands. This 2-disc Blu-ray exclusive (no corresponding DVD is available) and a 4-disc (3 Blu-rays plus CD soundtrack) box set are the result of multi-year efforts on the part of the best professionals in the film business.
The aforementioned restoration by Harris & Painten, completed in 1989 and yielding a 227-minute director's cut, was the basis of this Blu-ray release. The running time is sometimes indicated as 217 minutes, which is the running time without all the music interludes: overture, intermission, and exit music.
With a great film restoration as the basis, a digital scan in 4K resolution of the negative, and the great capacity and superior video & audio specs of a Blu-ray disc, this Blu-ray is unsurprisingly the look and sound of perfect, to borrow an old phrase. The picture is across-the-board perfect. Colors, brightness, contrast, and the amount of details are presented in demo-perfect levels, making the gorgeous deep-focus photography by Freddie Young an absolute pleasure to look at. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless English track, also based on material gained from the 1989 restoration, in which the restorers went to such great lengths as having the actors re-record missing dialogs, is the best this movie has ever sounded on home video. Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Japanese tracks are also included. Subtitle options are English, French, Japanese, Arabic, and Dutch. Those who need a Spanish audio track would need to get the region-free UK Blu-ray to get it, as the US Blu-ray does not have it.
The term "4K scan" refers to the 4096 horizontal pixels, a scanning density that is believed to be required to capture all the details of a 35mm film frame. Since "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed in 65mm, almost twice as wide as 35mm film, it is apt to call this an "8K scan". Hence, some publications refer to this as an 8K scan, although 4K is a correct term as well if you talk about scanning density.
All 227 minutes of the film were put on a single Region-free dual-layered Blu-ray disc, hence no disc break as in older DVD editions. The overture, intermission, and the exit music are all played to a black screen, as per director David Lean's original wish.
Regarding bonus features, the movie disc also contains a "picture-in-graphics track" that is vaguely similar to a DVD-ROM feature (remember PCFriendly?) of the 2001 DVD edition, in which the movie playback is accompanied by on-screen trivias, stills, and maps. But fresh material seems to be used for this Blu-ray. The interface could be a little unwieldly, as the screen is divided into four areas with smallish navigational controls.
A second Blu-ray disc contains more bonuses, which include all featurettes (but not the trailers) found on the 2001 DVD edition. A couple of surprises here. Two vintage shorts, "In Search for Lawrence" and "Romance of Arabia", which were presented in crappy black-and-white on the 2001 DVD, are in glorious color on the Blu-ray, and in nice 1080p HD to boot. A nice brand-new extra is a new 21-minute interview, in HD, of Peter O'Toole, accompanied by film clips and stills.
All other extras on the 2001 DVD are presented unchanged on the Blu-ray, except that all have English, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai subtitles. These features include an hour-long making-of documentary, a Steven Spielberg interview, a newreel of the New York premiere, a montage of publicity material, and vintage shorts "The Camels Are Cast" and "Wind, Sand and Star".
** REVIEW OF 2001 2-DISC DVD EDITION BELOW, POSTED APR-06-2001 **
Apart from the slightly soft, washed-out picture quality during the opening credits of the movie, the DVD edition of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is superb. The movie itself is spread onto 2 discs, with the disc break occurs just before Intermission. The Overture, Intermission, and the exit music are all played to a black screen, as per director David Lean's original wish. The picture quality looks as fresh and clean as, quite frankly, any film made in the 90s. In the dramatic shot where Lawrence appears on the far horizon after he rescued his Arab companion, the higher picture resolution of DVD makes it possible for us to notice his tiny figure whereas on VHS tapes or laserdisc it is so small it is almost impossible to see. Anyone who is serious about watching this film should get this DVD instead of any other version in order to appreciate the opulent cinematography and majestic atmosphere of this epic.
The disc has over 100 minutes of old and new documentaries and news footage about the making of the film, plus two well-designed DVD-ROM features (for Windows PC only): a interactive map showing the various journeys undertaken by the real T.E. Lawrence, and a "split-screen" feature that simultaneously plays the movie and shows you text of behind-of-scene information of the particular chapter of the movie that is playing. Since the DVD lacks a second audio commentary, being able to watch the film while reading facts about it is not a bad substitute.
The included "booklet" is a reproduction of the 1961 program given to theater goers, we are told. A nice touch: the disc case resembles Lawrence's diary in the movie.