by J.R. Hammerer
The longer after a film’s release, the more likely that it will be discovered by new fans through home video as opposed to theaters. Aside from repertory houses and 3D conversions, re-releases have all but ceased to exist. It is a shame, because some movies must be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated.
Someone at Columbia University must have gotten this memo, for perhaps the ultimate big screen movie is re-surfacing. “Lawrence of Arabia,” David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a one night only release in cities nationwide, tonight, Thursday, October 4th. The roadshow presentation (complete with actual intermission!) will also come with an introduction by supporting actor Omar Sharif, newsreel footage of the original New York premiere and production, and an interview with Lean fan Martin Scorsese on the film. The new restoration had previously played at Cannes in their Cannes Classics program, and at the New York Film Festival this past Sunday, presented by original restorer Robert A. Harris. He shared an anecdote of how Lean always found it funny that the film took longer to Harris to re-create the film–two years– than it took for Lean to make it–sixteen months.
The film made quite a splash when it was first released all those years ago. Planned by Lean and producer Sam Spiegel as a follow-up to their hit “Bridge on the River Kwai,” it would become an instant classic upon release. With its stunning desert photography, editing and score, the film is a technical marvel, and its pre-CGI, cast-of-thousands filmmaking style is all the more remarkable nowadays. But Lean’s handling of the human elements is every bit as impressive, the Arab society portrayed as exotic but still earthbound and not without its faults, and the criticism of British imperialism surprisingly committed. Finally, Lawrence himself is one of the great film characters, and Peter O’Toole’s leading performance is iconic. It is simply one of the greatest films ever made, and audiences flocked to experience its truly epic artistry–some of them, such as a young Steven Spielberg, inspired enough to become directors as well.
However, the ensuing decades were not kind to “Lawrence of Arabia.” The grand Hollywood epic fell out of fashion as Old Hollywood died and the New Hollywood rose to prominence, falling apart over huge investments like “Cleopatra” that lost millions and were quickly forgotten. In turn, Lean’s standing among critics fell into decline–Andrew Sarris, in his “American Cinema,” described his pictures as having “too little literary fat and too much visual lean,” and in the two decades after “Lawrence” he would only make three more films. To top it off, “Lawrence” itself would have twenty minutes cut from its 222-minute length after the roadshow release, and another fifteen to end at 187 minutes for a 1970 re-release.
In 1986, archivist and producer Harris proposed a restoration of the original premiere version to Columbia Pictures. It was not easy; although multiple prints of the 202-minute version were available, there were no studio records indicating what the restorers were looking for, and the negative itself had been cut as well. The cans storing the film were covered in rust and crushed, the weight of the film the one thing holding them in shape. It was only through the information of editor Anne V. Coates that they were able to find the missing original footage. Once found, they went through careful re-editing, color correction, and re-recording, with Lean himself coming in to supervise in the later stages. The restoration was premiered at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and did much to restore Lean’s reputation. Harris would simply keep one of the crushed cans, the memento speaking volumes of Hollywood’s approach to its own history.
For the new re-release, Columbia decided to go back to the original 65mm negative and use the digital technology developed in the years since Harris’s restoration to make the film as pristine as possible. It wouldn’t be easy; even back in the late 80s the negative suffered from color decay and old splices that could fall apart at any moment. They finally created an 8K scan of the original negative, which they then used to repair problems caused by film decay. The scan was so sensitive that it picked up concentric lines at the top of the frame originally caused by melting in the desert heat during handling. After color correction and re-mastering, the film is now ready to have its grand re-entrance.
It’s something worth waiting for. “Lawrence of Arabia” had always been a beautiful film, but my God! At a time when large-gauge formats are making a comeback, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” in 70mm and Christopher Nolan’s tireless promotion of IMAX, “Lawrence” reveals their ultimate power. Lean exploits the resolution to the format, frequently placing tiny figures far in the background to reveal the limitless scope of the desert. It can’t work as well on a television screen, for those small figures are barely visible. Not so on the big screen; we can see the reflections on Lawrence’s goggles, the sand kicked up by camel’s feet, and, yes, that tiny dot appearing out of the mirage to become Omar Sharif.
I had never seen “Lawrence” on this size before. I first discovered it on an old pan-and-scan VHS release from shortly after the first restoration, and didn’t get to experience the full aspect ratio until I bought my DVD copy. All these were made from 35mm scaledowns, but now I’ve finally experienced it in its 70mm glory on the big screen, and now I know that I have finally, truly seen it.
J.R. Hammerer is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.