Six Damn Fine Degrees #16: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

If there is one film, just one, that should be seen on the big screen in unadulterated 70 mm, it has to be Lawrence of Arabia.

It was originally one of those properties which had often been attempted, but due to the sheer scale had yet to come to fruition. Producer Sam Spiegel acquired the rights in 1960, with director David Lean already in mind. The cast, however, was another matter. Marlon Brando was considered to play the lead, but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts. Albert Finney, the subject of last week’s lovely entry by Sam, got as far as making elaborate screentests before backing out. He was not willing to commit to a long-term contract, binding him to Spiegel. In the end Peter O’Toole joined the team, arriving in Amman, Jordan in 1961. Filming would continue in Seville and Morocco. Though historical characters like Prince Faisal and Auda Abu Tayi were played by the likes of Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn (both white) in heavy make-up, the essential composite character of Sherif Ali is portrayed by Egyptian superstar Omar Sharif, whose blistering performance gives the film its heart.

Lawrence of Arabia could be called a war film (it is after all a film about the battle against the Ottoman empire during WWI), or it could be called an adventure (it is, after all, about a man’s adventures in the desert). It transcends both of these characterizations, however. It is a film in a genre which is now long gone, the genre of films like, perhaps, Ben Hur (1959) or Spartacus (1960). With swathes of extras, shot at least partly on location, and with little concern for history. That kind of epic. But even among this subgenre, there are few films which can touch it it for sheer stark beauty. Director Lean, aided by cinematographer Freddy Young, shoots the film with imagination, but also with a great deal of precision. These are desert landscapes where the audience is not so much made to feel the heat or the confusion of battle, but is a mere spectator: free to take in the immaculate imagery. Lawrence himself too, though we learn much about him over the course of the film, remains a cypher. A man, half mad with messianic delusions wanders the desert and finds love of a sort, but never manages to find himself, and nor do we. This aesthetic also manages to sear away much of the blood and guilt, leaving us to ponder over the idea of a man, the idea of a war and at its core the idea of a burning, impossible love.

This effort at abstraction is grounded in the very beginning of the film. It starts, not accidentally, with the death of Lawrence. Not in any great battle, but in a motorcycle accident. The film has its ancillary characters murmur about the sort of man Lawrence actually was, and whether he deserves the honours showered upon him. It is also vividly shown in the second half of the movie, where Lawrence strides on a toppled train, and we only see his shadow. While his men look up to him as their commander, they are cheering at a shadow. It is this precision, this attention to detail within the vast canvas that makes the film a unique experience.

And I could easily go on analysing the film for pages. But this Six Damn Fine Degrees entry is not about the adventures of the fictionalized T.E. Lawrence swinging wildly between glory and despair. It is about the adventures of the film itself: about how Lawrence of Arabia was very nearly lost to us, forever. Because in Hollywood, even a film this indelible, this famous, this smothered in accolades, is not safe from destruction.

It all started when the film finally wrapped in August of 1962. In order to have it ready for Her Majesty the Queen to watch in December, all 50 kilometres of footage needed editing to deliver a completed product. Opinions vary on whether this deadline compromised the cut (Lean said he got the cut he wanted, editor Anne Coates remembers it being hurried). In any case, Lawrence of Arabia in all its glory duly premiered for the monarch as planned. When after its premiere the film was shown to slightly wider audiences, critics raved and a complete Lawrence hype ensued. Not everyone was taken with it, however. Predictably its running time ran into criticism by exhibitors: audiences, it was believed, would balk at the nearly four hour running time. And so Lawrence of Arabia was unceremoniously cut by 20 minutes, to three hours 29 minutes, after fewer than 50 performances in 1963.

Lean would later insist it was cut behind his back. It had definately not been cut by the studio. And how can it have been cut by Spiegel without Lean’s knowledge? Whatever really happened that fatal January, it is clear that eventually a version was screened in 1971 which was shorter still, missing yet another 15 full minutes. And that this was the version which aired in two parts on television in 1973 (by now lacking 35 minutes from the version seen by Elizabeth II).

Enter Bob Harris around 1986, who considered Lawrence of Arabia to be ‘the finest film ever made’. He had acquired fame as a restorer on the incredibly famous silent French epic Napoleon (1927) and started a search for the missing Lawrence footage. Did it even still exist? And even if it did, some of it was shot in extreme circumstances. Could the physical film have survived? As Ebert tells it, Harris even sent him one of the crushed film cans: a symbol of how little Hollywood cares about its heritage. He had to go through 6.000 pounds of bits and pieces of film, but he found it. Some of it with no sound, some of it in bad condition. But it was all there.

Harris was, of course, exhilarated by the find. But inevitably, now that there was a project to undertake, the legal troubles began. A carousel of different studio executives tried to deal with contracting and an enormous law-suit, brought to prevent the restoration from languishing in production purgatory indefinitely. But help was on the way. Martin Scorsese, ever passionate about film preservation, spoke on the project’s behalf, later joined by Steven Spielberg. When the differences with the studio were finally settled, Scorsese even agreed to act as a kind of stand-in director. Eventually, however, Lean himself joined the project, and many of the cast were available to re-dub parts of the film that had been left soundless.

And so, Harris’ work finally finished – the restoration had taken longer than filming the original -, Lean set to work to make the final director’s cut of Lawrence of Arabia in 1989.

Even with the print restored, the film struggled to make its way to the home market. The first DVD release in 2001 was made from a dodgy HD transfer. Quite apart from the fact that this film was made to be seen on the big screen, the hamfisted process by which the film was “cleaned up” threw off colours, blurred detail and softened focus. It took until 2012, when a 4K digital restauration directly from the negative made it to the archives, and then eventually to Blu-ray.

As Ebert says in his article on the film, this beautiful restored version does give a good idea of the scale of the movie. Omar Sharif riding ever closer through a blinding desert towards our protagonist. The wonderful fade from the lighted match to a blazing sunset. The camel at the beach, the ship in the desert. Of course it is true that ideally you should “Somehow, somewhere see it in 70 mm on a big screen”, as Ebert sternly admonishes, but as COVID-19 continues to rage and studios and streaming services are focusing ever more on ‘original content’, interest in this part of our cultural heritage threatens to dissipate. And even if all these things weren’t happening, you would still have to find a theatre willing to show it in all its four-hour 70mm glory! So, by all means, watch it at home. Just watch it at the very highest resolution you can get, on the very biggest screen you can find.


Also, check out this lovely essay by Michael Wilmington!

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