Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia

After yesterday’s digital projection morning, I went home, relaxed for a few hours, then went with my wife to the Castro to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. This wasn’t a new experience, but an old, beloved one.

Hollywood made a lot of long epic movies in the 50s and 60s. Many of them were shot in large formats, and initially presented in 70mm roadshow limited releases—shown in only a few big theaters worldwide, with high ticket prices, reserved seats, and intermissions. After they had played out that way, they’d  get a conventional 35mm release “at popular prices.”

Some of these movies were pretty good. A few were excellent. Some were unwatchable. But only one stands out among the greatest masterpieces of the cinema: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia—as perfect a blending of medium and story as you can find. Here the sweeping desert vistas, captured in Super Panavision 70, are inseparable from the story of a World War 1 British officer in love with a way of life that can never entirely be his.

As far as I know, the Castro is one of only two Bay Area theaters that still screens 70mm (the other being San Jose’s California). Even a mediocre movie can be improved by this format. But for Lawrence, it’s an essential part of a great movie-going experience.

Whoever projected Lawrence last night understood the roadshow experience. The house lights came down slowly throughout the overture, with the curtain opening just before the Columbia logo appeared onscreen. They repeated the trick with the music that ends the intermission.

My wife and I sat in the front row, dead center. Those seats allowed us to admire both the sweeping spectacle and the tiny details of a film shot in a large format for a giant screen. Lean shot one triumphal reunion in extreme longshot, with tiny characters at the bottom of the screen, dominated by the desert at the sky. That worked great for us.

The large scale of the film compliments the giant achievements, goals, and ego of the complex title character. As played by then-newcomer Peter O’Toole, T.E. Lawrence loves the desert and wants to be part of the Arabian world, but knows that he never can be. A brilliant tactician and charismatic leader of men. He hates war primarily because he feels guilty about loving it. He’s a megalomaniac who believes he can do anything, and who nurses a wide streak  of exhibitionist theatricality. He tells his followers, and himself, that he’s creating a free Arab nation, while knowing deep down that he’s working to expand the British empire.

The movie runs three hours and 47 minutes—not including the intermission. I wouldn’t cut a frame.

But I couldn’t help wondering: Would it look just as good, or even better, in 4K digital projection? Assuming, of course, an excellent digital transfer and a theater that knows what to do with it. I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to find out. Considering that Sony makes 4K projectors and owns Lawrence of Arabia, I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

You have one more chance to see it in 70mm in the foreseeable future. Lawrence screens tonight, at the Castro, at 7:00.

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