Columbia Classics 4K UHD Collection Vol. 1 — Review (Part 1 of 2, 1939–1964)

Beloved classics MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and DR STRANGELOVE make their stunning 4K debut

The Columbia Classics 4K UHD Collection is a gorgeous and prestige presentation of six of the studio’s greatest achievements. The set includes 6 certifiable classics produced from 1939 to 1996, both thematically and physically splitting its entries into older and modern eras: the double gatefold design effectively splits the films chronologically.

I’ve previously posted an unboxing of the set, showing off its overall impressiveness as a package.

This review covers the three films “left side” of the set, with three classic era films made prior to 1970.

  • Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Dr. Strangelove (1964)

An important note: the screen captures in this article are from the Blu-ray discs (not 4K discs), and are included for illustrative purposes only. The corresponding 4K images look better than these — in some cases, a great deal better.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

No representation of Columbia Pictures is complete without celebrating director Frank Capra, whose incredible run of critical and commercial hits, not to mention Academy Award winners and nominees, defined an entire era of film history as simply, “The Capra Years”.

If It’s a Wonderful Life is the director’s crowning achievement (and it is), then Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which, owing to a combination of moving into self-producing and the onset of World War II, proved to be his final Columbia picture, is a very close second. Featuring much of the same cast, including James Stewart in the lead, the film similarly puts forward the theme of achieving victory over cynicism: in this case, the battle of a freshman Senator single-handedly taking on the corruption and hypocrisy of Washington simply by doing the right thing even when everyone is against him, dramatically culminating in a one-man filibuster for truth on the floor of the Senate. On paper this finale might sound quaint, even boring. Not so. It’s as passionate, inspiring, and electrifying as anything put to screen.

A “Boy Rangers” officer by profession, Jefferson Smith is not only figuratively but literally a boy scout, groomed by local political machine to be their patsy — they think him a naive idiot who will be their stooge, but greatly underestimate his moral fiber. When he gets wise to the game, he fights back, but they retaliate by framing him for their corrupt schemes.

I wrote more extensively about the film for its prior Blu-ray release (which is included in this package), so I won’t go into too much detail here, but this is my favorite film in the set and one I love returning to. Both devastating and inspiring, and sadly just as relevant today as 80 years ago (if not more so in our age of political fraud, deliberate misinformation, and cancel culture), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of Columbia’s crown jewels, and rightfully included in this set of the studio’s most important defining films.

The 4K presentation is absolutely breathtaking, though the excellent Blu-ray, culled from (presumably the same) 4K restoration, is nearly as impressive to my eyes.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Likely the most anticipated 4K release in the set by most viewers, David Lean’s beautiful and sprawling widescreen epic Lawrence of Arabia, shot in Super Panavision 70, remains, as ever, a feast for the senses.

The film is built around a striking and immensely character in the performance of Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence, a natural leader who inadvertently finds his place in the world but starts to believe in his own legend and give a foothold to his ego and obsessive manic tendencies. A British officer sent to the Arabian peninsula, Lawrence discovers a natural rapport with the people, and uses his influence and outsider status to act as a natural arbiter and unifier among the squabbling Arab tribes.

Already available on a stellar reference-level Blu-ray from a then-new 4K restoration (presumably the same one used for this 4K release), Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps the definitive film that comes to mind when the word “epic” is uttered. It needs no introduction and its dominant place in any consideration of Columbia’s achievements is assured.

It’s my opinion that films with wide aspect ratios like Lawrence of Arabia often stand to gain the most benefit from 4K upgrades. By being fitted into a 1920×1080 frame for standard Blu-ray, they are scaled down by their width rather than up to full height of 1080 pixels, “squished” relative to other films with narrower ratios. The expansion to 4K provides not only additional resolution, but also “correction” for the loss of resolution that occurs at 1080p. (The same letterbox scaling is also true of 4K but at such a large resolution the impact is virtually nonexistent).

With its majestic desert landscapes, deep large-scale cinematography, a sweeping and majestic score by Maurice Jarre, and an adventurous tone amid sober wartime drama, Lawrence is not only a wonderful film in its own right but one of the most obvious stylistic influences on the Indiana Jones series.

At nearly 4 hours long, Lawrence of Arabia (which I personally prefer to experience in a single sitting rather than splitting at the intermission) is a full evening’s commitment, but it flies right by as you’re swept into the majesty and drama of an extraordinary man who finds — and loses — himself in a faraway desert land.

I’m grateful that Columbia made the decision to split the film into two 4K discs, allowing them the fullest possible quality and bitrate rather than compressing them to fit into one disc. For this film in particular, quality trumps the very mild inconvenience of switching discs at the intermission.

I have one — only one — complaint about this edition, an unfortunate technical authoring flub: the film has a 4-minute prelude set to a black screen before the Columbia logo and opening credits roll, and similarly a 4-minute black screen intermission which opens the second disc. I can’t fathom why there aren’t chapter stops here to skip the wait times. These are literally the two most obvious chapter stops in the entire film and their omission smacks slightly of a snooty desire to punish the viewer for skipping the musical prelude and interlude. A small but irksome complaint in an otherwise stellar and reference-quality release. (The Blu-ray edition of the film, which fits the entire film on a single disc, also neglected to include a prelude skip but does allow you to skip the intermission).

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Stanley Kubrick’s straight-faced Cold War satire posits the absurd fragility of peace and the threat of mutually assured destruction. When a high ranking general (Sterling Hayden), alone in possession of the authorization code needed to terminate his command, send bombers on a mission to nuke Russia, the US President and his military advisors convene in an effort to recall the planes. International nuclear contingency plans are clear; retaliatory strikes will inevitably and automatically occur if the bombers (among them Slim Pickens and a young James Earl Jones) are successful in their mission.

The absurdity of the situation is constantly underlined. An opening intertitle unconvincingly declares that U.S. Air Force states that the situation in the film is assuredly impossible. A top military advisor (George C. Scott) advises the President on how this situation, which should never be remotely plausible, has occurred. (The scariest part? His explanation makes perfect sense). A farcical phone call in which a shamefaced but indignant President explains to his Russian counterpart that he’s about to bomb them but it’s not intentional.

And throughout the film, from the opening credits’ depiction of an aerial refueling to the finale’s famous image of Major Kong’s descent to Earth straddling a giant rocket between his legs, the machines of war are captured emphasizing their phallic and penetrating nature.

Alex Williams covered the Criterion Blu-ray release of the film and had some terrific observations worth reiterating:

Dr. Strangelove more than deserves the plentiful attention heaped upon it; Kubrick’s boldly witty take on Cold War paranoia is directed with the utmost seriousness, even as leading man Peter Sellers turns in a troika of tremendously silly performances.

…Even the film’s silliest moments are lent weight by Kubrick’s somber black-and-white lensing, and several of his most iconic images are found here; there’s a reason Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead into oblivion makes every history of cinema highlight reel.

For people (and here I include myself) who have the didn’t have to live through the paranoia and existential terror of the height of the Cold War, it’s a little hard to appreciate how ingenious, revelatory and relevant Dr. Strangelove actually was: a comedy which took the gravest and most constant of nightmares which hung over our collective heads like a great sword of Damacles, and pokes and prods at it to elicit a wry chuckle at its expense.

I don’t have the Criterion disc for comparison, but this 4K edition is noticeably crisp, a very worthy upgrade over the included Blu-ray which is packaged in this set (which appears to be the same as the prior Sony release).

The Package:

Columbia Classics 4K UHD Collection Vol. 1 includes slipcovered editions of all 6 films packed into a unique double-gatefold box which also houses a hardcover book. I’ve previously posted a deluxe unboxing of the set which goes into very deep detail on the set’s packaging.

Special Features and Extras — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Blu-ray Disc Only)

  • Commentary by Frank Capra Jr.
  • Frank Capra’s American Dream (109:02)
     The crown jewel of this disc’s bonus content. A feature-length celebration of Frank Capra, hosted by Ron Howard and featuring interviews with many well-known actors and filmmakers.
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:43)
  • International Trailer (3:55)
  • Conversations With Frank Capra Jr.: “A Family History” (25:56)
  • Conversations With Frank Capra Jr.: “The Golden Years” (17:53)
  • Frank Capra Jr. Remembers: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (11:51)
  • Frank Capra: Collaboration (19:20)
  • The Frank Capra I Knew (13:05)

Special Features and Extras — Lawrence of Arabia (4K Disc)

  • NEW: Unused International Prologue

Special Features and Extras — Lawrence of Arabia (Blu-ray Disc)

Due to a manufacturing error, the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection currently includes an incorrect LAWRENCE OF ARABIA special features disc, which does not include the full amount of intended content. This does not affect the 4K UHD presentation of the film itself. The correct special features disc will be available to consumers who purchase the set, whether as a pre-order or as part of a future order, pending the eventual availability of sets that already have the correct disc included. Consumers should receive communication from their retailer about this corrected disc soon, but may contact the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Customer Care team with any questions at [email protected] or 1–800–860–2878.

Update: I’ve received the replacement disc and posted about it here:

I received a pre-replacement screener disc for review and have noted the missing elements on the Special Features Blu-ray with a running time of “X”.

  • Peter O’Toole Revisits Lawrence of Arabia (21:07)
  • Making of Lawrence of Arabia Documentary (1:01:29)
  • Deleted Balcony Scene with Introduction by Anne V. Coates (X)
  • The Lure of the Desert: Martin Scorsese on Lawrence of Arabia (X)
  • A Conversation with Steven Spielberg (8:49)
  • Wind, Sand and Star: The Making of a Classic (1963 & 1970 Versions) (X, 4:32)
  • Maan, Jordan: The Camels Are Cast (2:00)
  • In Search of Lawrence (5:00)
  • Romance of Arabia (4:37)
  • King Hussein Visits Lawrence of Arabia Set (X)
  • In Love with the Desert Documentary (X)
  • Lawrence at 50: A Classic Restored (X)
  • Archival Interviews with Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, and Sydney Pollack (X)
  • Lawrence of Arabia Premieres (1:08)
  • Advertising Campaigns (4:51)

Special Features and Extras — Dr. Strangelove (on 4K Disc)

  • NEW: “Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb” Featurette
  • Mick Broderick Interview
  • Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike Interview
  • Richard Daniels Interview
  • David George Interview
  • Rodney Hill Interview
  • Archival Stanley Kubrick Audio Interview
  • The Today Show Clips featuring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott
  • Exhibitor Trailer
  • Theatrical Trailer

Special Features and Extras — Dr. Strangelove (on Blu-ray Disc)

  • The Cold War Feature-Length Picture-in-Picture Track
  • Inside Dr. Strangelove (46:04)
  • No Fighting in the War Room (30:04)
  • An Interview with Robert McNamara (24:26)
  • Best Sellers, or Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove (18:27)
  • The Art of Stanley Kubrick from Short Films to Strangelove (13:50)
  • Split-Screen Interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (7:17)

A/V Out.

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All 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the Blu-ray disc (not 4K) with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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