Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia: The 50th Anniversary

"Lawrence of Arabia" was released 52 years ago. This is a little piece I wrote last year. Let me come out with it. It wasn't just a film. It was something more. Much more.

I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia back in 2009. I must have been 15 then: young, eager, and on the lookout for anything to keep up my interest. I remember seeing its opening shot for the first time: its hero, T. E. Lawrence, riding his motorcycle and getting killed in an accident. That must have been the first movie I saw in which its hero dies less than five minutes after it starts. From then on, undoubtedly, it was magic all the way. For Lawrence of Arabia is no ordinary film. It’s not even a film per se. It’s more so a miracle.

A recounting of its plot is unnecessary. Basically it tells us of British Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in Arabia during the First World War – including, of course, how he unsuccessfully tried to win her independence from the British. It ends on a bitter note. And through its 200+ minute duration, you see – sheikhs, tribal leaders, British generals, Arabian boys, an American journalist, and of course Lawrence. And yes, you do not see a single woman through it all. Not one single woman. I remember that was what caught my eyes the most when I first saw it.

Last year, to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, a 4k scanned, Blu-Ray version of it was released. For the benefit of those who do not know, 4k scans are now the optimal way in which old films are restored. Basically the film reel is sent through a scanner, which tentatively is then used to erase any marks, and repair any worn out visuals or unclear spots, from the reel.

The film, incidentally, is also magnified to a super-resolution: in Lawrence’s case, 4096 pixels horizontally into 2160 vertically. That’s 8.8 million pixels in one frame. The version I had watched before was a Director’s Cut, a DVD version of the original restoration that had been done back in 1988. It had notable glitches, especially with regard to its audio.

I would recommend anyone to see this scanned version. Right down to the facial expressions of its characters, you can see everything in clear-cut intensity. I even could see, at one point, each and every grain of sand in the desert! That demonstrates the beauty of modern technology: how the future can be used to rescue the present. After all, wasn’t a 4k scan used to “rescue” our greatest film, Nidhanaya, just three or four months back?

Lawrence’s director was David Lean. He also made The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was shot here, and Doctor Zhivago. Critics venerate him as the director of big-budget epics, and Lawrence is rightly regarded as his most magnificent. It won ten Oscars, including Best Picture (though not Best Actor), and appeared in the top ten in the American Film Festival’s decennial 100 Best Films of All Time in 1997 and 2007. It was also third in the British Film Institute’s list of the greatest British films of all time.

What the 50th Anniversary edition does, in short, is to show us the magic of Lean’s vision. His trademark shot was the man in the distance: the man either moves from one side of the camera to the other, or he simply moves towards or away from us. In both occasions he reinforces the majesty of the film to us. This was Lean’s biggest strength, and the restored edition of his masterpiece seeks to bring closer to us that man in the distance, and to reinforce more strongly the majesty of not just his film, but of cinema in general.