This Friday, January 11 at 7 PM, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Mason Park will screen a freshly restored 4K digital print of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The classic film celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year and, while we weren’t able to mark the occasion at the time, it would be irresponsible of us, as movie lovers, to let too long of a time go by without screening the film.
Alan Cerny, of Ain’t It Cool News, will be on hand to provide an introduction to the film. In preparation of the screening, I sat down with Alan (a.k.a. Nordling) to pick his brain about what makes LAWRENCE OF ARABIA a classic.
Do you remember the first time you saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA?
I sure do - back in VHS days, and a fullscreen VHS at that, which means it really counts as seeing half of it for the first time. I was a teenager, so I don't think I really appreciated what I was seeing until later. But I remember, even in pan and scan (ugh) the raid on Aqaba as being amazing (what I could see of it.) Later a widescreen version of the film was released on VHS and I saw it then and even then I remember being blown away by the visuals. Then laserdisc, DVD, and finally Blu-Ray. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA has always stuck with me, because frankly, I don't think anyone would ever attempt it today. It's a character piece, shot in the desert, almost four hours long, and the first major action set piece doesn't happen until almost 90 minutes into the movie.
In your opinion, what’s the appeal of seeing a classic movie on the big screen?
Because these movies were never meant to be seen at home - LAWRENCE OF ARABIA especially, with its amazing imagery, Lean's use of the widescreen format, the sound, the scope... I don't feel I can fully appreciate a movie like this unless I see it in a theater, where people react to moments and scenes. I have always believed that movies are supposed to be communal experiences, shared with others, and not solitary endeavors. I've seen a lot of classic movies on the screen, and one thing is made certain to me - movies are timeless. Audiences react as they always do, and even a movie like THE GENERAL, made over 75 years ago, when seen with audiences seems fresh and new again. Some things are universal.
What is an important life lesson you learned from watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA?
It's the journey, not the destination. Even in Lawrence's failures, he has created something larger than himself. He set a pretty much unattainable goal at the time the unification of the Middle East - and perhaps came closer than any man before or since in making that happen, but that wasn't the point of the movie. "Big things have small beginnings," as the movie says, and when Lawrence is swept up in the events that he helped create, I am reminded that grand events throughout history are started in simple rooms, with people talking. But for me, the effort in changing the world is always more important than whether or not you succeed. I think people are too afraid of failing, and thus never start anything. But the real rewards are in the journey, not the destination.
What is it about LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, you think, that allows it to resonate as strong today as it first did 50 years ago?
Because even now, with all our modern digital cameras, no one has made a movie quite like it. No one's ever shot the desert as gloriously as Lean and Freddie Young did. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA wasn't the first movie to cover this story, but it certainly should be the last. And yet, through all the splendor of the movie, Lean has created a fairly intimate movie. It's a character piece. And although we never quite get inside Lawrence's head. Peter O'Toole's amazing performance is still the watermark for which most actors shoot for. I think the only modern equivalent would perhaps be Daniel Day-Lewis for what Peter O'Toole does here in this movie. Making movies is such a crapshoot that a filmmaker is lucky to get three things right. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA gets everything right. The script, the cinematography, the score, the direction, the acting - it's an amazing balance that is damn near unbelievable. LAWRENCE was a difficult movie to make - it took Lean a year and a half to shoot it. No movie now ever takes that long to make - the studios would never allow that to happen. This was a movie made when directors and filmmakers were artists given a canvas, not company drones on an assembly line.
What would be your response to somebody who claims LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, at 216 minutes, is too long?
For me, the best movies are the long ones. But for those who can't handle the length (heh heh) I always remember that it's the truly great stories that demand our attention, and the great movies, like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or SEVEN SAMURAI, are truly not long enough. The time, for me, goes very fast, because I want to spend time in that world for as long as I can. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is as long as it needs to be, no more, no less. Patience is still a virtue, but if you're like me, and an active participant in the movie you're seeing, the time isn't even an issue. I'm there during the raid on Aqaba. I'm there during the train attack. And I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, when I'm watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It's never boring, never slow. It's just long because it has to be. Remember, it's the journey, not the destination.
Follow Alan Cerny on Twitter.