No studio today would make a film like Lawrence of Arabia 227 minutes long, featuring a cast of hundreds riding camels through the desert, shot on location (there were no computer graphics in 1962). Yet Sony Pictures new 50th-anniversary restoration playing in more than 600 theaters nationwide seems fresh and modern, in its political themes and its stunning visual clarity.
The films real-life hero, T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter OToole), was a British officer who gained fame during World War I for leading Bedouin tribesmen in guerrilla assaults on their Turkish occupiers, paving the way for the Ottoman Empires downfall.
In the process, he came to see himself as a demigod, destined to unite the Arab people and give them freedom an illusion crushed by big-power politics and the Arabs own tribal rivalries: a mix that has thwarted dreams for the region ever since, from Gamal Abdel Nassers pan-Arabism to former President George W. Bushs bid for democracy in Iraq.
Lawrence figured in the debate over our own recent tangles with insurgents, in Afghanistan and Iraq. His memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was tapped both by the U.S. Armys counterinsurgency strategists and by skeptics, who quoted Lawrences warning about wars against rebellions messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.
The film holds up not only for its historical parallels but also because its thrilling and, in its present incarnation, it looks breathtaking.
The key is the 4K digital restoration.
When a machine called the Imagica EX scans across each frame of a films negative, it creates a digitally encoded replica that consists of 4,096 pixels on each horizontal line. Multiplied by the 2,160 pixels on each vertical line, this makes for a total of 8.8 million pixels per frame.
By comparison, high-definition TV broadcasts and Blu-ray Discs are made from scans of 2.2 million pixels per frame. In other words, 4K images have four times as much detail and resolution as HD or Blu-ray.
The significance is this: The 8.8 million pixels in a 4K scan are enough to reproduce all the visual information in a frame of 35 mm film the full range of bright to dark, the entire spectrum of colors, even the sheen of grain that distinguishes film from video.
This restored Lawrence might look better than the original. Because of the film stocks exposure to the desert heat, some of its photochemical emulsion dried and cracked, resulting in vertical fissures. Some were just a few pixels wide, said Grover Crisp, Sony vice president for film restoration, but some scenes had hundreds of them, filling as much as one-eighth of the frame.
New Blu-ray coming
For such an acclaimed film, Lawrence has had a troubled life.
In January 1963, one month after its premiere, it was cut by 20 minutes. Another 15 minutes was chopped for a prime-time ABC telecast. All 35 deleted minutes vanished until 1987, when Robert Harris, president of the Film Preserve, working on a 25th-anniversary restoration, found the footage scattered in hundreds of canisters.
Between the detective work and lots of video improvement (before the days of digital), it took Harris 26 months to restore the movie 10 months longer than it took David Lean to make it.
And home video has been spotty. The first DVD, in 2001, was made from a bad HD transfer. A redo two years later was better.
A Blu-ray Disc out Nov. 13 fixes those problems, in part because its Blu-ray and mastered from theatrical 4K restoration. Of course, technicians had to down-res to Blu-rays HD format because there are no 4K disc-players or TVs. Maybe there will be for the 60th anniversary.