May 31, 2011

23.05: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (catch-up classic)

David Lean’s celebrated epic played at the Embassy Theatre a few years ago, and I passed up the opportunity to see it there. Perhaps that was for the best, as I wonder if my cinematic tastes were matured enough. So, when it made a recent welcome return to the (rather smaller) Paramount cinema I made sure I got along. And though it was wonderful to be seeing it in a cinema at all, on a restored 35mm print, I only wished I’d seen it on the huge Embassy screen and preferably in a 70mm print as Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films shot in that massive format. Still, it was... well, I think I'm still absorbing it. You can see why Mr. Spielberg admires it.

I honestly cannot see a film like this being made today. It is epic in length and epic in the breadth of themes and ideas. Most films made to a similar length today have considerably more whiz and bang crammed in. With a film like this, I barely feel qualified to offer my opinion on it. Lawrence of Arabia is one of those giants of cinema; a film that has been discussed, critiqued and celebrated by pens mightier than mine. I shall do what I can.

Quite possibly the most fascinating aspect of the story for me was the overall arc; Lawrence tells the story of a man, an army clerk, who becomes a fierce hero and legend to a disparate group of peoples. But it doesn’t just stop at elevating him to hero status (usually where these types of films end off) but also goes on to show Lawrence struggling with that status. He is visibly coming apart at the seams, yet is forced back to the desert; forced back to his duty. He begins his hero’s journey jaunty with British oddity and eccentricity and as he moves farther away from that and deeper into the desert and desert life, you see that oddity giving way to something entirely different. Arrogance, perhaps. Stunning self belief for one. I know nothing about the real T. E. Lawrence, and from what I understand not many people do; the man was something of an enigma. Within the film, he is a contradictory character, larger than life but recognisably human and Peter O’Toole grasps with the role with hands, feet and teeth. His blue eyes stare out from the desert, piercing you. You can see, from his eyes alone, when he has snapped; when his great boy's own adventure gives way to ugly, bloody real life.  

Make no mistake, Lawrence of Arabia is a huge film. The landscapes are vast; the sandy dunes stretch for miles and strand the tiny figures of people within them. Accordingly, it's influence matches. Not only is Spielberg a fan (reportedly watching it each time before he makes a new film, to comfort himself that he will never make anything as great) but you can see where Lucas grabbed some shots for Star Wars and, because I'm a sci-fi nerd, I'll throw in Frank Herbert and Dune. Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel/series drew on many influences but I couldn't help but see the parallels of a white, middle to upper class white man coming to the desert and becoming a warrior saviour to a disparate group of desert people. 

Lawrence of Arabia swept me up into the journey; I all but forgot the rather exhausting run-time (intermission was a well timed and much needed respite). I am a stickler for film prints over digital projection, especially when it comes to classic films. But, for the first time, I really craved that crisp, clear picture you get with digital. It was an amazing print, especially for being over 20 years old, but there were marks and scratches all through the sweeping desert shots. I'd recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible, in the best image quality possible.

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