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Lawrence of Arabia

…because David Lean’s classic redefined the standard for epic filmmaking. Lean shot on location in the desert with actual 70mm cameras to recreate T.E. Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in spectacular panorama. "Lawrence of Arabia" also features one of the most famous and pun-worthy match cuts, a literal match’s flame extinguishing into a dramatic sunrise over a desert landscape. With a run time of 226 minutes, the film also relies heavily on its two-hour long original score, which composer Maurice Jarre completed in just six weeks.



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Lawrence of Arabia Behind the Scenes, 1960's - Film 16784

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Maurice Jarre

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In the current filmmaking climate, bigger tends to mean more money for CGI effects. "Lawrence of Arabia" shows us what a visionary director can actually do with nearly unlimited resources and no computer graphics. While most wide scope films enlarge the stock to 70mm, David Lean hauled the actual 70mm camera – which weighed about 100 pounds and required four people to lift – out to the desert locations in order to capture images that were both extravagant and realistic. While the film does include expertly staged battle scenes with literal armies of extras such as the fighting in Aqaba, the film’s scope really serves to emphasize the psychological effects of the Arabian Desert. Perhaps this was based on firsthand experience, as the crew had to deal with many of the same harsh weather conditions as Lawrence and his soldiers. In fact, Lean asked Panavision to develop a special 482mm lens (known to cinematographers as the “David Lean lens”) to properly film the effects of a mirage. Sure, the film’s star Peter O’Toole reportedly modeled his authoritarian director from "The Stunt Man" on David Lean, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

Composer Maurice Jarre’s stirring, dramatic soundtrack plays an important role in the film. Jarre’s music won the Academy Award, and was also ranked #3 by the American Film Institute on its list of the all-time greatest soundtracks. Much of the film’s three hours plus of edited footage features men wandering through the desert (seriously, though, it’s really great). As there’s little dialogue in these scenes, the music often has to fill the void and convey the right atmosphere to heighten the impact of the visuals. Jarre was actually not even the first choice to write the score. The producer originally wanted three different composers to write a single score for the movie, in keeping with the whole bigger is better theme. However, Jarre was the only composer available of those original three. Despite that, the producer hired a more well-known composer to create themes that Jarre could implement into a full score. However, David Lean hated those themes, and personally chose Jarre to be the sole conductor based on a sample of what eventually became the main dramatic score. Yet because of all the other composers the producer tried to hire, Jarre only had six weeks to create his now famous and award-winning music that is nearly impossible to separate from the film.

"Lawrence of Arabia" is as much a feat of editing as it is of film production. This isn’t only because the film moves at a relatively quick pace over its 3 hours and 26 minutes. To edit the film, Anne Coates and her team reportedly cut through 33 miles of physical film stock. Although Coates rightfully credits the film’s script and direction for providing the narrative template, her work still played an important role in conveying the dramatic spectacle. This is probably most clear in the famous match cut of the extinguishing flame to a desert sunrise. Originally, Lean had envisioned a dissolve, but when they viewed the rough assemblage, they both preferred the direct transition. In fact, Coates had introduced Lean to some of the work of the burgeoning French New Wave filmmakers, who often used direct cuts. While this now iconic edit may be one of cinema’s happiest accidents, it shows the importance of experimentation and old-fashioned cutting systems, as Coates does not believe they would have seen this with a digital editing program.

Resources

Book

Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology

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Behind the Camera on Lawrence of Arabia

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What’s the Big Deal?: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

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Twice Around: Anne V. Coates talks about Lawrence of Arabia

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Lawrence of Arabia Review – www.rogerebert.com

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Lawrence of Arabia (BFI Film Classics)

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Lawrence of Arabia – Jeremy Kagan

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