Watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm, or Holy @%@!, This is Awesome!

The Cinerama in Seattle. Yes, there’s a screen behind those curtains.

Having received word that a company I was hoping to work for had rejected me without so much as an interview, I did what any sensible person would do: I booked a ticket to see Lawrence of Arabia at Cinerama, part of their the Big Screen 70 mm Film Festival (co-presented by SIFF Cinema).  I had decided earlier that week that if I didn’t have an interview the next day, I would go (the movie was playing on Tuesday from 8 pm-12 am).  With the doubly bad news that I wouldn’t be getting an interview at all with a job for which I had written one of my best resumés, it seemed an easy choice to make, only wondering if it was worth spending $12 of my limited funds to see a film that I had enjoyed when seen on TV (a 15″ or 17″ one), but had not thought a great film.

Oh, how silly of me.

So, to all of you out there who only watch movies on TV, a word of warning: movies like Lawrence of Arabia, which were MADE to be shown on a big screen, suffer greatly at the hands of TVs that, no matter how large, cannot capture the huge screen-filling majesty that said films were made to be shown on.  The desert in Lawrence of Arabia is meant to envelop the viewer with its vastness, something it fails to do at home.  Even on a huge Cinerama screen, I found myself leaning forward to capture movement at the corners of the screen, or (in one scene) to make out, tiny as the head of a needle (but clear, since we’re talking 70 mm here), a camel in the middle of a vast desert.

In particular, Lawrence of Arabia uses its imagery and cinematography (incredible night photography) to tell its story, much more than its dialog or characters (though I noticed just how good–and sparse–the dialog is in this film, surely heightened by my ability to appreciate the stunning visuals that much more).  As such, shrinking such images so as to fit a smaller screen is akin to shrinking the Mona Lisa so as to fit on a postage stamp.

Most of the visual fireworks come in the first half of this almost 4-hour film (and yes, there is an intermission).  There’s that camel scene, the many appearances of objects approaching in the distance (in the greatest of these, all one sees is a tiny black line on the horizon), and the scene where Prince Faisal’s (Alec Guinness) army, led by Lawrence, swarms through Aqaba.  And yet, in Part II, I distinctly remember the shot where, after Lawrence has ordered a massacre of Turkish troops, one can see his blues eyes glowing in the dark, while the rest of his face is hidden in shadow (but one can still make out his features, thanks, again, to the clarity of 70 mm).

But let me focus on, for me, the greatest scene in the film. It is when one of Lawrence’s party has fallen off of his camel in the part of the desert known as the Sun’s Anvil.  Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) tells Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) that he is going back for the man, even though Ali tells him the man will be dead in an hour.  We see the man walking in the desert (again, in some of those glorious long shots), removing belts and equipment as the sun continues to beat down on him.  Meanwhile, the two boys whom Lawrence has recruited as his servants wait with the army at camp for Lawrence to reappear.

The pacing of this scene is fantastic.  We see the man in the desert collapse under the heat.  We see the servants waiting and watching for Lawrence.  There is nothing on the horizon.  Then, that small vertical line appears.  The servants sit up and look harder.  Yes, there is definitely something out there.  Not until one of them yells out, “Lawrence!” and kicks his camel into action does Lean switch to show Lawrence on his camel, the man slumped over behind him, but alive.  Then the music swells (gloriously played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra), as Lawrence rides closer and closer to camp, and the camp reacts to his arrival.

I almost cried.  Not for the audacity of the deed, nor for the saving of a life.  I almost cried for the beauty of this scene–truly one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed in a film.  Though the rest of the film is fantastic, it is this scene alone, so rightly pointed out by Roger Ebert in his Great Movies review of the film, that makes the film successful.  Emotionally, it is the climax of the film, regardless of what comes after.

Also, there is something to be said for the communal aspect of this movie, especially concerning the reactions to it playing in 2011, as opposed to 1962.  For example, when the American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) tells Prince Faisal that Americans always side with people who want their freedom, would audiences in 1962 have chuckled as did the audience I saw it with?  Likewise, would audiences have laughed at the blatant references to the real T.E. Lawrence’s homosexuality in gestures that O’Toole employs?

I only know for certain that audiences then, like audiences now, were enthralled by what they saw on the screen.  And to think that I almost didn’t go.  But, when Ebert, in that same Great Movies review, wrote that seeing this film in 70 mm on a big screen “is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film,” he wasn’t kidding.