Lawrence of Arabia

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By Scott Ross

David Lean’s best movie is one of the few intelligent — even intellectual — epics. It’s certainly unique in focusing on an essentially unknowable protagonist. The movie is an overwhelming experience on the big screen, which is really the only way to see it; no matter how wide your television, this is the sort of movie for which Panavision was created. If you aren’t watching those vast expanses of sand, or the train blown off the rails and heading pell-mell toward the camera, on a huge canvas, you aren’t really seeing them at all.

There’s a great cast (Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Jose Ferrer, Omar Sharif and Claude Rains); a literate and remarkably suggestive screenplay (initially credited to Robert Bolt; Michael Wilson’s credit was restored decades later); an iconic score by Maurice Jarre; and best of all, Peter O’Toole’s stunning central performance.

Among the movie’s many pleasures is what I consider the single finest edit in the history of the movies: Lawrence, in profile, blows out a match, and Lean immediately cuts to a humbling vista of sun-drenched desert.

I don’t know whether the notion for this transition was Lean’s — a noted film editor before he took to directing — or that of his editor, Anne V. Coates, or indeed the suggestion of one or more of his screenwriters. My money is on Lean. But whatever its provenance, it’s a thrilling moment, one of the highest in all of world cinema.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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