David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia is back in cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration of the reconstructed version (first seen in its entirety in 1988). No, I didn’t know what 4K meant either so I had to draw on the wisdom of the oracles. (I used a search engine.) It’s the pixels, dummy. 4K denotes a resolution of approximately 4,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels high, compared to the previous standard of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. That’s more pixels than you’ve got popcorn in your Mega Meal Deal Bucket.
But we need not concern ourselves with pixels. What matters is the new clarity they provide, the familiar spectacles which they render with fresh vividness: Peter O’Toole’s eyes, which are now so alluringly blue that you feel you could dive right through the screen and into those azure peepers, leaving behind only a sand-splash; the tiny orange flame from which Lean cuts to the singed Arabian sunrise. When the wind ripples across the desert, you would swear now that you could make out each individual grain of sand shifting beneath it as if under the writhing of a vast invisible sidewinder.
I’d never seen Lawrence of Arabia on a cinema screen before. And though it’s a cliché to say that seeing it on television isn’t really seeing it all… well, it’s a cliché for a reason. The decades of respect and admiration lavished on Lean’s best-known and most-loved work (here is Steven Spielberg talking about the effect the movie had on him) has had the effect of interring it, as with most films regarded widely as masterpieces. Seeing it at the cinema can only rescue it from its reputation and bring it back to life. (I’d also recommend Kevin Jackson’s thorough and compelling study of the film, in the BFI Classics series, as an après-screening chaser.)
This is a film partly about depth of experience and depth of vision—both literally, in its most famous shot (of Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali riding toward the camera from afar), and figuratively, in its use of a flashback structure which purports, like Citizen Kane, to explain a man who turns out in the final analysis to be beyond mere explanation. So it feels only right that seeing it at the cinema takes a sizable chunk out of one’s own day: once you factor in the overture (how I love overtures, especially at the cinema, where they are now more of an anachronism than in the theatre), an entr’acte and an intermission, you’re looking at four hours, more or less, in the dark.
I’m a big fan of intermissions at the cinema. The ones stipulated by the filmmaker, I mean, rather than those imposed by the management. (I don’t know how widespread the practice was, but I remember the Odeon chain simply halting The Godfather Part III and Dances With Wolves so that one of their employees, who had clearly drawn the short straw that day, could flog some choc-ices from their wearable tray.) Intermissions are only commonplace now for Bollywood films, which are structured with that necessity in mind, but many other movies could really benefit from them. It suits Lawrence of Arabia to have that break approximately two-thirds of the way through; I feel it helps us to register more keenly the change in tone that’s marked by the arrival in the desert of the journalist Jackson Bentley (played by Arthur Kennedy), a fictionalised version of Lowell Thomas. With Bentley’s appearance comes an acknowledgement of the mythologizing process which T E Lawrence underwent, and a slight shift by the picture into a more analytical and contemplative sphere.
The theatrical engagement paves the way for the release of Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray. Blu-ray, schmu-ray: see it at the cinema for maximum impact, maximum surrender.
Lawrence of Arabia is on release from Friday.