Oh boy! What better way to begin the cinematic year than by watching one of the most spectacular movie classics of all time on the big screen, on 70mm film, complete with overture and intermission?
My dad made a valiant attempt at opening my eyes to movie classics as a kid. At a very young age I watched such movies as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965), ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956) and ‘Ben Hur’ (1959) (the two latter leaving me with something of a fascination for a young Charlton Heston in the process, though I don’t think that was among dad’s intentions). Though rewatches at an older age have given me a different watching experience of these movies and shown me how much of the plot details I missed as a kid, being inexperienced and also still learning English and trying my best to keep up with the subtitles, I still remember how fascinated I was by what I perceived of the exciting stories, the exotic sets and the beautiful costumes. Sure, they might have felt a little long-winded at times, with running times commonly surpassing 3 hours, but at the same time there was something about the pace of old movies I learned to appreciate, even back then.
There really is something to the old classics that is hardly ever present anymore – which isn’t to say all older movies are greater than all recent ones, but I do miss how they took their time to create an atmosphere and transfer you into their universe, making you feel you could happily stay there and watch the story unfolding long after the movie is finished.
Anyway, despite my upbringing, for some reason or other there’s still a long list of classics I haven’t seen. They just never seem to get prioritized (though occasionally I get a hangup and watch several within a short space of time). Tonight I’ve had a hard-punching reminder that it’s time to rectify this.
‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962, directed by David Lean) has been on my radar for years, but has sadly remained in the embarrasingly great classics gap on my movie checklist. I never knew much about the story, which is a big-scale adventure based on the real life of a controversial British military officer, who led Arabic tribes to war against their Turkish oppressors. My main incentive to watch the movie has been its leading performance, Peter O’Toole in the role as T. E. Lawrence, which is considered one of the greatest acting performances of all time.
Since the movie’s recent re-release onto Blu-ray, my determination to watch it has been reinforced. So when Cinemateket (House of Film) put this movie on the program for this year’s 70 mm festival, I didn’t have to think twice: the time had finally come.
‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is magnificent, absolutely magnificent. Every set, every picture is breathtaking. Not a single scene feels redundant, which isn’t a given for a movie of an intimidating running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes. The story is as engaging as it is unbelievable. The suspense, encouraged by great, dramatic music typical for movies of that time, is present throughout. I can’t believe how lucky I was to get the chance to watch it on a big screen!
And let’s not forget (as if it were possible) Peter O’Toole, Lawrence himself. He is, essentially, this movie. The character is a lot more complex than I had expected, this British officer chasing after a greater purpose, never quite seeming to find it even when he thinks he has, turning increasingly megalomaniacal and almost losing himself altogether. O’Toole masters every aspect: the awkward, clumsy castout, the enthusiastic and determined optimist, the brave adventurer, the fierce leader, the warmonger, the delusional megalomaniac. The role demands almost every character trait and human emotion conceivable, and he delivers them all with total conviction. And it really is this that makes the movie: it’s Lawrence’s unsettling development, his constant unpredictability, that really drives the movie forward.
Seeing Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi in the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy) as an Arabic prince is also delightful, though the strongest performance after O’Toole’s is easily that of Omar Sharif, playing Lawrence’s righthand man, Sherif Ali. Sharif also plays the title role in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965, also directed by David Lean), one of the other classics showing during the festival, and another I haven’t yet seen, so now there’s another incentive to catch that one as well.
Other movies showing at the 70 mm festival, which lasts until 17th January, include ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965), ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) and ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (1956).