A Master's Voice

As 'Lawrence of Arabia' comes 'round again, a digital soundtrack does justice to the film

September 20, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Movie fans have come to believe that when Robert A. Harris restores a film, he puts it in an audiovisual state of grace that no future ugliness can penetrate.

And why not? The work Harris did with Jim Painten on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia set new marks for classic-film reconstruction and presentation. And Harris and his current partner, James C. Katz, have met that standard again and again, with Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, George Cukor's My Fair Lady and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Rear Window.

But just like filmmakers Lean, Kubrick, Cukor and Hitchcock, Harris is at the mercy of people who make prints and operate theaters. As he recalled over the phone this week from his office in Westchester County, N.Y., a couple of years ago he was attending a film-festival tribute to himself and Katz in San Luis Obispo, Calif., when the lights went up for a very different view of Lawrence of Arabia's azure-and-gold splendor: "The first reel was green, and the last reel was pink."

Anne V. Coates, Lean's editor, turned to him and sarcastically cooed, "Ohhhhh, isn't that lovely! David would be most pleased."

Thanks to an executive named Grover Crisp, director of asset management at Sony Pictures, the movie is once again sweeping into theaters in a version that meets Harris' exacting expectations. And, according to Harris, there's no better place to view it than Baltimore's Senator Theatre, where it begins a two-week engagement today.

"It's one of my favorite theaters in the world, a little gem," says Harris. "It doesn't have 5,000 seats, but it has all the ambiance of a movie palace. When you see the film at the Senator you know there will be enough illumination, that the curtains will open on cue, that the lenses are right, and that the sound is as perfect as it can be."

For the first time, Lawrence of Arabia is going out with a soundtrack transferred to a 70mm digital format. Harris says that if the transfer clicks, it will sound identical to his renowned 1989 restoration prints, which introduced the term "Director's Cut" to movies and brought in $14 million at the box office - an amazing sum for a then-27-year-old film. And the digitalization should help preserve the sound's pristine quality for decades to come.

Poetic sound - including, of course, the eloquent words of Robert Bolt's script - is as important to the movie's impact as stunning visuals. The audio presented restorer Harris with some of his greatest challenges when he reconstructed the film from a ravaged 187-minute condition to its original 222-minute running time (plus an extra minute or two) and then to its current, near-optimum 218-minute condition (fine-tuned by Lean himself in 1988).

"We needed pyrotechnics to make the audio work," says Harris. "Of the 35 minutes that had been cut, 20 had no audio at all."

Re-recording voices

Harris and his sound wizards used so many different audio sources (optical and magnetic) that they even recorded different levels of hiss to segue naturally from one source to another. In New York, London and Savannah, Ga., the Lawrence team summoned new vocal performances from Anthony Quinn (as Auda auba Tayi), Peter O' Toole (as Lawrence), Alec Guinness (as Prince Feisal) and Arthur Kennedy (as the Lowell Thomas-like journalist Bentley), then blended them with the old.

The reason the results are near-optimum is that Harris was unable to restore half of a crucial scene in which Jack Hawkins' General Allenby persuades a dispirited Lawrence to continue leading the Arab revolt against the Turks. Bolt told Harris that he considered it the best piece of writing he'd ever done, including A Man for All Seasons.

But Hawkins had died of throat cancer in 1973, after battling it for eight years. Harris and Lean tested Charles Gray as a vocal replacement - he had frequently supplied the voice to Hawkins' screen performances for those eight years - and found that Gray was accustomed to recording Hawkins' lines from scratch, not providing an impersonation.

Harris and Lean always planned to find another actor. But after three and a half weeks in the editing room, at the beginning of May 1988, Lean had to leave to be honored at Cannes. Despite valiant support from Columbia President Dawn Steel, without Lean's physical presence Harris lost his clout with studio bean-counters, who couldn't conceive of lavishing such care on a 1962 movie. Since Harris had already applied the "Director's Cut" imprimatur - and Lean had signed off on it, with the understanding that he and Harris would get that scene in somehow - the film went out missing 90 or so precious seconds.

"Then David was on to his next project, Joseph Conrad's Nostromo," says Harris. "And we never thought we'd lose him in 1991." (Lean died on April 16 of that year.)

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