WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
You're probably not reading this review of Lawrence of Arabia: Superbit for my capsule summary of this towering film's plot. You're most interested in whether this new Superbit edition packs the visual wallop that has been rumored on Internet forums like this one. Right? Well, wait no longer. You'll find a detailed answer below, in the "How's It Look?" section, but suffice it to say, this is a damn fine presentation…with a few reservations.
For those of you who have stayed with me, here's that (very) short synopsis. David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia recounts the grand career of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), a British army officer serving in the Middle East during World War I. We follow the brash Lawrence as he enters the desert and ends up a key figure in the Arab revolt against the Turks. We watch as he treks and is tortured, as he suffers agonizing defeats and celebrates hard-won victories. Most importantly, we watch the growth of Lawrence as a person, as each event in the desert shapes the way he will respond to the new challenges he faces. I believe that's enough, for no encapsulation of plot can do justice to the sweep of this film, the grandeur of its visuals and of its storytelling.
This new Superbit edition contains the film's director's cut, the same 227-minute version that you might already have in the beautifully packaged Limited Edition, which debuted 2 years ago. It's the same cut released to theaters in the late 1980s, personally and painstakingly restored by David Lean and film-restoration guru Robert Harris. I was fortunate enough to enjoy my first-ever viewing of the film at that time, at the gigantic Edwards Newport Cinema in Newport Beach, California. I was—no exaggeration—overwhelmed. You know the knock-out moments: the lone man emerging from out of the hazy, bleak horizon; camels slogging across endless sand dunes as Maurice Jarre's music soars; the desert heat seemingly sizzling the celluloid itself; the larger-than-life sand-gritted performances…they all left me staggering from the auditorium at film's end.
Cut to a dozen years later. Although I was happy with the release of the Limited Edition DVD—which admittedly boasts decent supplements and above-average image quality, considering the film's age—something always nagged at me about the video presentation. Was it too washed out and bleak? I wasn't sure at the time, being too far removed from that first viewing to compare the original DVD's image with that of the theatrical presentation. Now that I've compared the two DVD releases, I come to this conclusion: Not until the release of this Superbit DVD have I recaptured that sense of majesty and awe that I experienced on my first viewing. And the man most directly responsible for that is Robert Harris, who has been brought back onboard to oversee the film's latest translation to shiny disc.
A word about how the new Superbit DVD (somewhat controversially) handles the film's Intermission: Lawrence of Arabia contains a break close to the two-and-a-half-hour point—obviously not at the middle point. The Superbit DVD presentation spreads the film over two discs, but to maximize the bit potential of each disc, the disc's authors have decided to break the film nearly a half-hour before the Intermission. Although it's not a natural break and is somewhat jarring, I believe—as does Harris—that the choice is a wise one. Some people might have voted to actually move the Intermission to another point in the film, but let's face it, an Intermission—particularly in the case of Lawrence of Arabia—has a greater purpose that simply providing relief for fanny fatigue and bladder bloat.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Lawrence of Arabia in a Superbit presentation that is far superior to the film's Limited Edition incarnation of 2 years ago. The film's original 2.20:1 theatrical aspect ratio appears in anamorphic widescreen, down-converted from a new high-definition transfer.
For this Superbit release, Columbia/TriStar has enlisted the talents of film-restoration expert Robert Harris, and the differences between this release and the previous are remarkable. I performed many direct comparisons between the two releases, and each time, I witnessed obvious improvements in sharpness, detail, artifacting, and most of all, color. Finally, we have a Superbit release that represents a huge step forward in image quality.
Detail is exemplary. To be sure, detail on the previous release was impressive, but this Superbit presentation boasts much better fine detail, reaching into backgrounds. Also, this release's color presentation puts the older release to shame. Throughout the film, blue skies astound, rich desert landscapes sweep, and skin tones radiate with a vivid naturalness. In comparison, the Limited Edition image looks pale and ugly. In the new transfer, black levels are spot-on. The new image even corrects—or at least, improves—some annoying source flaws, including the ghostly vertical lines in the scene that introduces Omar Sharif's character.
The transfer is not without flaws. Despite assurances from Mr. Harris to the contrary, edge halos remain evident. In the original release, the halos are quite hideous in places, appearing as large shadows and ringing. Their presence is reduced on the Superbit release, but on a large display, they're still distracting. But the greatness of this transfer squashes concerns about minor edge halos. This is a spectacular presentation.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
This Superbit DVD contains both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 track. Let's start with a short discussion of the original source elements. Sadly, they haven't held up all that well, falling prey to a loss in fidelity over the years. The soundtrack almost completely lacks a resonant low end, which is a shame, because this is definitely a film that would benefit from thundering bass. As a result, the audio hovers toward the higher end of the spectrum and often comes across as brittle and hollow. Some of the louder dialog can be tinny and distorted. Surround activity is minimal, confined to occasional ambient noise.
I compared the Dolby and DTS tracks at various points throughout the film. In all cases, I noticed very little discernible difference between the soundtracks. Neither will knock your socks off. But on close inspection, the DTS track is the preferable experience, providing slight improvements in punchy bass and general openness.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
True to the Superbit philosophy, the disc contains no extras.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Even if you're a fan of Lawrence of Arabia and already own the Limited Edition, consider the Superbit presentation a must-have. Although I noticed virtually no improvements in the audio presentation, the video is in another class altogether. Thanks, Mr. Harris!