October 5, 2012

What sands of time did not erase in ‘Lawrence’

Sony Pictures' 50th anniversary restoration of 'Lawrence of Arabia' seems fresh and modern, in its political themes and its stunning visual clarity.

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 film’s real-life hero, T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), 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 Empire’s 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 Nasser’s pan-Arabism to former President George W. Bush’s 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. Army’s counterinsurgency strategists and by skeptics, who quoted Lawrence’s warning about wars against rebellions – “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”

Breakthrough restoration

The film holds up not only for its historical parallels but also because it’s 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 film’s 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 stock’s 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 it’s Blu-ray and mastered from theatrical 4K restoration. Of course, technicians had to “down-res” to Blu-ray’s HD format because there are no 4K disc-players or TVs. Maybe there will be for the 60th anniversary.

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