On a hot Thursday night at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater, Sony premiered the digital 4K restoration of the Lawrence of Arabia director’s cut in the U.S. (it debuted at Cannes in May). It was like “riding the whirlwind” with greater color and clarity; and makes you appreciate the romantic lure of the “fiery furnace” for Lawrence even more. The desert is hotter and more other worldly (you could almost count the grains of sand); flesh tones are warmer — in fact, reds leap off the screen. It’s the best of both worlds: 70mm resolution and Technicolor dye-transfer printing. Freddie Young’s cinematography was never more seductive. Grover Crisp, Sony’s EVP of film restoration and digital management, said the digital restoration (overseen by Sony Colorworks) was more of an enhancement of Robert Harris’ acclaimed reconstruction/restoration in the late ’80s.
“All our work on Lawrence of Arabia was aimed at correcting for damage to the image, so that we could present the film in the best possible way,” Crisp emailed me. “The negative itself exhibits all the various issues one would expect of a negative five decades old, and we spent several months going through the negative, locking down splices, making repairs to get it ready for scanning [at 8K resolution at FotoKem]. They struck an enormous number of prints off the negative in the original release, then it was cut a couple of times, then put back together decades later. Normal wear and tear was one thing, resulting in a lot of scratches, some color fading, warping, dried, and cracked emulsions.
“The emulsion cracks, for example, appear in a number of shots throughout the film, mostly in the second unit footage, and on release prints this problem looks like some kind of flare off the lens. Many people have thought this effect was related to the photography, but in fact it was just damage to the emulsion side of the negative. We referred to these as columns of light because of the vertical nature of the problem. This problem also clearly grew worse over the years, but working at MTI Film on this particular item, we were able to find some solutions. Not entirely, seamlessly removed, but greatly improved, I think. These are the kind of things that could not be addressed in a typical photochemical workflow. Many of the scratches could be reduced and essentially camouflaged through wetgate printing, but we did not have that benefit in the 8K scanning of the 65mm 5-perf negative. This high resolution imaging is pretty unforgiving in what is revealed, both the great detail in the image, as well as the most minute flaw.”
The grand mirage entrance of Omar Sharif’s Sherif is an obvious instance of emulsion damage that has been corrected by MTI in LA. Some reels were sent to Prasad EFX in India for general cleanup; additional restoration and remastering was done at Chace Audio in Burbank.
Editor Anne Coates and Harris consulted about color, density, and contrast. Lawrence will get a theatrical release on Oct. 4 with a Blu-ray due on Nov. 13. Crisp was not at liberty to discuss the inclusion of any additional footage on the Blu-ray, but said “people who are aware of the issues surrounding the various edits of the film over the decades should be pleased with what they get.”
Perhaps we’ll finally glimpse the missing “balcony scene” between Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), in which Allenby cunningly seduces him into returning to Arabia by stroking his ego as a sympathetic father figure. Screenwriter Robert Bolt considered it the best scene he’d ever written and it’s easy to see why: it elegantly explains Lawrence’s need for approval and Allenby tells him he’s extraordinary — a poet and a visionary. However, they’re missing Hawkins’ audio track, and Charles Gray’s revoicing in 1989 didn’t work, so we’ll have to wait and see what develops. An abbreviated version of the scene appears in the director’s cut.