Roger Ebert once said about Lawrence of Arabia “to get the feeling of Lean’s masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film”. Sadly I fall into the huge category of people not around in the 60s to have only seen the film on a TV screen (admittedly a very big TV but still…).
Ebert’s words ring true for me. I struggle to embrace the film in the experiential way it was intended for an audience to view it, as it demands the viewer to become immersed in the vastness of the desert. If you are in a living room it just doesn’t cut it. And yet I still want to get on my high horse about what I consider an under-appreciation of one shot in particular.
When Lawrence of Arabia is talked about/dissected/analysed there are a couple of shots that are named as the most iconic moments in the film. The first is the famous edit that cuts from Lawrence blowing out a lit match to the burning red desert as the sun climbs the horizon. For those who need clarification here it is:
The second is the repeated motif that Lean uses, whereby a small dot appears on the horizon and we hold for an inordinate amount of time as the dot becomes a person. For different reasons this creates a strange, meditative tension as we squint to try and make out the figure coming closer.
Moments like the above are the very reason why Ebert advises watching a 70mm projection. At home the majesty of the endless desert surrounding the approaching figure loses all its power. Perhaps that is why the shot I consider the best is very different to both of the above acclaimed pieces of visual cinema.
As someone who has only seen the film at home, the scenes/shots that blow me away the most make up the attack on Aqaba.
Perhaps it is because of the sheer amount of action happening across a ginormous landscape. Maybe it’s the logistics that went into setting the scene up. But to me this moment, particularly around the 1:34 mark in the above clip, is the perfect matching of a steady, ultra wide 70mm shot with epic, literally sweeping action.
It is beautiful and horrifying all at once; the realism of a large scale invasion so perfectly realised without the need for fast cutting and rushed edits. This is polar opposites at work; the juxtaposition of the still desert and the frantic barbarity of the arab soldiers – the unflinching distant POV that somehow makes the battle feel all the closer. It is true wonder writ large. It is the reason I would love to see Lawrence of Arabia on an IMAX screen from a pristine 70mm projection.
As Ebert also said “It is spectacle and experience, and its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say”. I only hope one day I can see and feel it the way Lean himself would have wanted.