Because there’s always someone who needs to see Lawrence of Arabia.David Lean’s classic just might be the greatest film ever made that absolutely needs to be seen in a movie theater.David Lean’s classic just might be the greatest film ever made that absolutely needs to be seen in a movie theater (another possible candidate: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran). Citizen Kane? Perfectly satisfying on DVD. The Godfather? One might be more tempted to use the pause button outside of a dark theater given its run time, but artful gangster drama is still great on television (i.e. The Sopranos). Even with an epic adventure like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while I’m glad I got to ideally experience it on the big screen, the “Extended Editions” are great for home viewing. (Obviously I’m discarding the really small screen, but does anyone besides commercial actors watch feature-length movies on cell-phones?)
But Lawrence? You need that giant screen. You need the sense of scale–the endlessness of the desert with a little line of a man coming over the horizon. Shot on 70mm ultra-widescreen film, Lawrence was an event in 1962 and a stirring reason for a television-addicted public to go to the movies. Judging by the crowd at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, I’d say it still is. As theater attendance dwindles, studios today are focusing on trying to create such “event films”, the most financially successful of which in recent years was James Cameron’s Avatar. But for all its three dimensional beauty, I can’t imagine repertory screenings of Avatar being a big deal 50 years on. Where Lawrence surpasses other “event films” is in its layered storytelling and brilliantly realized central character.The incredible sense of scale in Lawrence‘s classic images hit right at the story’s fascinating dichotomy: it is at once an epic of geopolitical revolution and an intimate character study.The incredible sense of scale in Lawrence‘s classic images hit right at the story’s fascinating dichotomy: it is at once an epic of geopolitical revolution and an intimate character study. As histories, both have their flaws, but as stories, they’re incredibly powerful. On the political side of things, it remains fascinatingly relevant to the contemporary Middle East. (Tribes who hate each other unite to overthrow a common enemy while handling external manipulation from Western powers, only to go back to hating each other after their supposed victory.) All praise goes to Peter O’Toole for knocking his first big movie role out of the park. He immediately makes you fall in love with the man, shows how he becomes an influential leader, and renders his gradual development from outcast to hero to egotist to tragic figure all the more powerful. Additional praise for the film’s editor, Anne Coates, for cutting a three and a half hour film that doesn’t feel a second too long, and for some of the most beautiful transitions in cinematic history.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre, having recently gained digital projection capabilities for its main screens, showed the film in a new 4K Digital restoration. Digital conversation has been controversial. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, disparagingly refers to digital projection as “TV in public” and has threatened to retire from filmmaking. Defenders often focus on the “public” aspect of the theater as a positive facet. With Lawrence of Arabia‘s restoration, there’s nothing “TV” about it. The scale of it screams movie theater. This was my first time seeing the movie, so I can’t compare the digital to the original 70mm print. The one experience I’ve had with viewing a 70mm print–seeing The Master at the Coolidge Corner Theatre–was astonishing (even if I didn’t “get” the film until a subsequent viewing), but film deteriorates. Long-term digital preservation opens up its own can of worms with file formatting, but it was simply beautiful. (My dad, who saw the movie during its original release, was blown away by the clarity.) If it screens anywhere else in the future and you get the chance to see it, do so. It’s why movie theaters exist.