Best Picture #35: Lawrence of Arabia

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Just as a photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel could never capture the absolute wonder of the experience of visiting the Vatican and being taken by the beauty of it, watching David Lean’s epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, anywhere but a cinema can only provide a glimpse into the true magnificence of the film. Like the photograph of the ceiling, the film viewed on a television can allow for an appreciation of the art, a chance to study the components that make it a notable work, but the scale, which truly sets both apart from other works made up of similar parts, cannot be comprehended when viewed in any way other than the one initially intended by the artist.

Though every film is ideally seen in a theater, Lawrence of Arabia is so visually rich on a unique level that it absolutely demands the largest screen possible and I truly believe it to be the film that most benefits from the largest screen. This isn’t to say that the other aspects of the film that can be appreciated in any form aren’t reasons for the film’s status as an all time great. In fact, this time, following my previous two viewings being in cinemas, I had to watch it on a television and I still found it to be one of the most magnificent films I have ever seen. But I hope cinemas will reopen one day and, when they do, they will certainly show this film again, so I’ve decided to take this opportunity to once again discuss the film in its grandest state and in the form it was meant to be seen. Even without the cinema though, it is pure cinematic magnificence. The score is among my personal favorites with its sweeping sounds evoking the mystique of the desert like no other. The central performance is compelling in a way few others have ever been, melding Lawrence’s taste for the theatrical and self-aggrandizing behaviour with a reserved quirkiness that often makes the character seem disrespectful and leads to the more humorous situations in the film. The editing is sublime, especially with a cut from a match to the desert so flawlessly executed that it brings tears to my eyes every time. The plot is an endlessly fascinating portrayal of the Great War, colonialism, and how the Middle East of today was shaped through lies and disregard for the humanity of the people who lived there, seizing onto old resentments and causing them to become more intense. 

However, none of those factors are nearly so important as the stunning cinematography and that, while able to be seen and appreciated on the scale we can all have at home, is what gets the greatest enhancement on the silver screen. Like no other, Lawrence of Arabia captures the scope of the desert. The experience of seeing a far off shape emerge from dot to person, in one case bringing death and, in another, life, is impossible to witness without seeing it projected on the big screen. In other instances of a caravan of camels crossing a wide landscape or a fly buzzing around a well or hundreds of men riding into battle, there are details that are invisible when the film is confined to a television that are the most important to conveying the sense of place and inserting the viewer directly into the narrative. I’ve visited the deserts of the Middle East in person before but I have never felt more like I was in them than I have while watching Lawrence of Arabia.

The Real Best Picture:

Lawrence of Arabia

Best Picture Winners

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