Only a handful of films are commonly accepted as being among the greatest of all time. These films include The Godfather, Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. Never having seen Lawrence of Arabia, I jumped at the opportunity to see a restored 70mm print at The Lost Dominion, Ottawa’s second annual 70mm film festival last month.
As with any film, it is best to go in with no expectations and judge the film on its own merits–not someone else’s opinion. Unfortunately, this is near impossible with Sir David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as it is held at such high regard.
It was a film I knew almost nothing about, other than the fact it starred a young Peter O’Toole and was considered in the upper echelons of film. Sitting down for the almost four hour film, I prepared myself for the possibility of disappointment and even boredom. While this may appear to be a strange way to prepare myself for a film that is so highly regarded, I thought that if I were to expect something life-changing, I would surely be disappointed.
Sir David Lean’s film not only lived up to expectations, but it greatly surpassed them. It is not a film that is revolutionary, or unlike anything I have seen, but rather it is a film that is built upon the traditions of classical filmmaking, and accomplishes something fantastic. During the near four hour run time, not once was I bored or even aware of the time. From the opening shot of Lawrence on his motorcycle I was enveloped in the film until the final credits.
The film delves deep into the mind and personality of T.E. Lawrence, keeping its focus entirely on this one man. What makes the film so fascinating and unique is the epic scale of the film as a backdrop to this character study. It could have easily fallen prey to its own scale and lost the focus on Lawrence, making the film unsatisfying. However, it doesn’t and at the end of the film, you are left feeling that you personally know this man. This level of scale and personal focus is something that is rarely accomplished in film, and is one of the reasons why Lawrence of Arabia, is still such a special experience.
It would be unjust to discuss this film without mentioning the utterly astounding cinematography. Shot in 65mm by Freddie Young, it has a look that cannot be compared to almost any other film. I viewed a restored 70mm print and viewed any other way the film would not have the same impact.
It is a frustrating situation as it is hard to recommend film fans to view Lawrence of Arabia if not on a 70mm print. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but as the quality of the film had such an impact on me, I feel that it is unjust to see the film any other way. The print had a glow to it that just cannot be seen on DVD, and as there is currently no Blu-ray release, a satisfactory alternative isn’t yet available.
Sir David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia is truly one of the great accomplishments in film history. It is a character study on such a grand scale that is elevates itself above most every other film. The experience of viewing that restored print is one I will never forget, and only strengthened my love for film.