Lawrence of Arabia is a must-see on the Hyland's big screen

Restored for its 50th Anniversary, David Lean’s great epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is set to kickoff the New Year at the Hyland Cinema with three showings on the 5th, 7th, and 9th of January.

Some young people have an engrained prejudice against older films, even the classics, that is difficult to surmount. It is true that there is a difference in pace in older movies - shot lengths have fallen precipitously with time and in today's world of fast-cutting action pictures and television storytelling, many people just aren’t trained, or have been untrained, for the tempo of older films.

You will often hear them called ‘slow’ or deliberate. It’s a bit like how older novels, with their lengthy expository prefaces and huge sentences, don’t enrapture the way our more spare modern prose does to even many active readers. I know a lot people who are regular filmgoers who just can’t get around the boredom they find in the classics. This remains a sore spot for devotees like myself.

The only cure for this affliction I have yet come across is to make sure that a person sees a great film for the first time in a proper theatre. Part of the problem is that people sit down to watch them in chunks on TV and sometimes even with commercials. For all the merit of Turner Classic Movies, which presents the films uncut, properly formatted, and with necessary contextualizing introductions to the films, you can’t get the right atmosphere outside a real cinema.

And if there is a movie that needs to be appreciated in the isolated concentrating space of a cinema, it’s Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, it’s stupendous as an achievement of cinema and won a myriad of Academy Awards and other film accolades, but still, with its 200 + minute running time, it’s not something you can fully take in unless you let the scope of it wash over you. If you have never seen this film, the Hyland is giving you a great chance to savour one of the true film landmarks.

I happen to think that Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1956) is his best film, but there’s no rivaling the iconic aura of Peter O’Toole’s unusual star making turn as T.E. Lawrence. O’Toole is positively flamboyant in the film as he rises to the image of a folk hero in rallying an Arabic revolt against the Turks as part of the British war effort during World War I. The film’s huge cast includes Jack Hawkins and Claude Rains as British military officers, Alec Guinness (in face paint it must be said) as Prince Feisel, and another star making turn in Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish.

I don’t dispute that the film’s pace is languid, but some of this is surely by design. The masterful sequences where Lawrence wanders the desert are supposed to hypnotize and allow the landscape to become an active character in the film. There’s no way to appreciate the impact of Omar Sharif rising out of the horizon and toward the foreground of the image unless you see it properly screened on a medium that can handle the 70mm depth of field in that shot. The Hyland’s new digital projection equipment will be put to the test to see if it can truly rival the texture of film, especially 70mm Panavision.

I suspect if you do go see the film, the shot in question will stay in your memory as it has in mine. There’s also the famous storming of Damascus that looks spectacular. Lean chose to shoot it from a distance, instead of in the midst of the battle scene, to appreciate the scope of what was going on. Most epics are actually about deception: closing off the frame to hide the fact that there really aren’t that many extras, or that if its too close to the fore, the matte painting doesn’t hold up to ocular scrutiny, but here, Lean has the full magic of location on his side and the crispness of a huge canvas to capture it. It’s as much about appreciating these audacious images and others such as a plane crash or a cavalry charge as it is about the politics of Arabic independence or peculiarity of Lawrence himself.

In fact, the film is somewhat vague and unsatisfactory on these points. It doesn’t really grapple with what made Lawrence tick, we only guess at it from O’Toole’s performance, or furthermore the political reality of the eventual issues with British imperialism. This would be why I have more esteem for Lean’s The Bridge on The River Kwai, which actually penetrates into the madness of confinement and isolation. Here, O’Toole’s Lawrence is an enigma. Perhaps that’s in keeping with the unfathomably expansive desert vistas he travels.

Paul Hantiuk is local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer.

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