I attended a screening of a digital 4K version of Lawrence of Arabia in Cannes last May. The same version, painstakingly assembled by Sony’s Grover Crisp based on 24 year-old elements created by Robert Harris and Jim Painten, is showing this evening at the Academy in Beverly Hills. Freddie Young‘s 70mm cinematography looks as beautiful as ever, and perhaps even a bit more than it did when Lawrence first opened in late 1962. Or so it seems. The digital Lawrence looks very nicely burnished.
But — and I hate to say this — what I saw in Cannes didn’t look as sharp and precise as I wanted it to look. The lenses and cameras used by Young in 1961 and ’62 just didn’t and couldn’t deliver the clarity and detail that you can see in films shot with the digital Red camera. That’s because this technology delivers what looks to me like a much sharper and richer picture — better lenses, more sensitivity, a film-like image but with much more complexity.
The honest truth is that a part of me wants to see an angel from heaven come down to earth and offer to carry three or four Red cameras back in time to 1960 or ’61 and and give them to Young and David Lean and say “please use these, gentlemen…you won’t be sorry…your film will look much, much more handsome and transporting if you do.” I’ve become used to Red-like clarity in theatres, and I really like it. And if I had my druthers I’d want Lawrence of Arabia to look a tiny bit sharper and crisper than it does now. It looked very nice when I saw it in Cannes, mind — I fully understand what 50-year-old films look like and had no complaint with what I saw at the Salle du Soixantieme on May 19th— but the dreamer in me still wanted more.
I realize that the Bluray of Lawrence of Arabia will look great, and that I’ll be very pleased when I play it on my 50″ Vizio. And no, I’m not hoping to see a “shiny” Lawrence Bluray a la Universal Home Video’s “shiny” Spartacus. I’m just saying that 50-year-old Panavision cameras and lenses could only do so much, and that a part of me wishes they could have done more.