The Greatest Cut in Film History: Watch the “Match Cut” Immortalized by Lawrence of Arabia

“I’ve noticed that when peo­ple remem­ber Lawrence of Ara­bia, they don’t talk about the details of the plot,” writes Roger Ebert in his “Great Movies” col­umn on the 1962 David Lean epic. “They get a cer­tain look in their eye, as if they are remem­ber­ing the whole expe­ri­ence, and have nev­er quite been able to put it into words.” Redun­dant though it may sound to speak of a “film of images,” Lawrence of Ara­bia may well mer­it that descrip­tion more than any oth­er motion pic­ture. Its vast images of an even vaster desert, as well as of the tit­u­lar larg­er-than-life Eng­lish­man who turns that desert into the stage of his very exis­tence, were shot on 70-mil­lime­ter film, twice the size of the movies most of us grew up with. To expe­ri­ence them any­where but in a the­ater would be an act of cin­e­mat­ic sac­ri­lege.

The small screen ren­ders illeg­i­ble many of Lawrence of Ara­bia’s most’s mem­o­rable shots: Omar Sharif rid­ing up in the dis­tance through the shim­mer­ing heat, for exam­ple. Oth­ers are such tech­ni­cal and aes­thet­ic achieve­ments that their appre­ci­a­tion demands full-size view­ing: take the assem­bly of two images that comes out of a search for “great­est cut in film his­to­ry.”

It invari­ably comes out along­side the bone and the satel­lite from Stan­ley Kubrick­’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Lawrence of Ara­bia’s famous cut more than makes up in sheer sub­lim­i­ty what it lacks in com­par­a­tive his­tor­i­cal sweep. It occurs ear­ly in the film, just after the young British army lieu­tenant Lawrence has received word of his impend­ing trans­fer from Cairo to the Arab Bureau. He lights a cig­ar for Mr. Dry­den, the diplo­mat who arranged the trans­fer, blows it out, and sud­den­ly the sun ris­es over the Ara­bi­an desert.

“If you don’t get this cut, if you think it’s cheesy or showy or over the top, and if some­thing inside you doesn’t flare up and burn at the spec­ta­cle that Lean has con­jured, then you might as well give up the movies,” writes The New York­er’s Antho­ny Lane in his remem­brance of the direc­tor. But Lean did­n’t con­jure it alone: the work of the cut was done by edi­tor Anne V. Coates, who died just last year. “The script had actu­al­ly called for a dis­solve, in which one scene slow­ly fades into anoth­er,” the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Travis M. Andrews writes in a piece on her edit­ing career in gen­er­al and this edit in par­tic­u­lar. “Today, that can be done quick­ly with edit­ing soft­ware. At the time, though, film­mak­ers and edi­tors had to cre­ate the effect by hand, order­ing extra neg­a­tives of the film, which was then often dou­ble exposed and over­laid with each oth­er.”

“We marked a dis­solve, but when we watched the footage in the the­ater, we saw it as a direct cut,” Coates told Justin Chang in Film­Craft: Edit­ing. “David and I both thought, ‘Wow, that’s real­ly inter­est­ing.’ So we decid­ed to nib­ble at it, tak­ing a few frames off here and there.” Ulti­mate­ly, Coates only had to remove two frames to sat­is­fy the per­fec­tion­ist direc­tor. “If I had been work­ing dig­i­tal­ly, I would nev­er have seen those two shots cut togeth­er like that,” she added, throw­ing light on the hid­den advan­tages of old­er edit­ing tech­nol­o­gy, not in terms of price or speed but how it made its users think and see. (Famed edi­tor Wal­ter Murch has writ­ten along the same lines about the ideas gen­er­at­ed by hav­ing to man­u­al­ly roll through many shots to find the right one among them, rather than dig­i­tal­ly jump­ing straight to it.)

Coates had also “con­vinced her boss to check out a cou­ple of these new-fan­gled nou­velle vague films, ‘Chabrol and that sort of thing,’ ” writes The Guardian’s Andrew Collins. “Rather than be affront­ed by their sub­ver­sive jump cuts, Lean was enam­ored, and embraced the French style.” And so it’s in part thanks to the rule-break­ing of the nou­velle vague — which, with Jean-Luc Godard­’s Breath­less released less than two years before, was cer­tain­ly nou­velle — and in part to the lim­i­ta­tions of the edit­ing process in the ear­ly 1960s that we owe this unim­prov­able exam­ple of what, in tech­ni­cal lan­guage, is known as a “match cut” — or more specif­i­cal­ly a “graph­ic match,” in which a con­nec­tion between the visu­al ele­ments of two shots masks the dis­con­ti­nu­ity between them. So is 2001’s sin­gle-frame jump over mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion, of course. But Lawrence of Ara­bia’s immor­tal match cut is the only one that uses an actu­al match.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 100 Most Mem­o­rable Shots in Cin­e­ma Over the Past 100 Years

A Mes­mer­iz­ing Super­cut of the First and Final Frames of 55 Movies, Played Side by Side

The Alche­my of Film Edit­ing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Han­nah and Her Sis­ters, The Empire Strikes Back & Oth­er Films

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Lawrence of Ara­bia Remem­bered with Rare Footage

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Amala says:

    But it’s actu­al­ly not a match cut. The frame before it only con­nects to the next one because of the sug­ges­tion of the heat of the sun in the match with the ris­ing sun in the next scene. It is, as the direc­tor stat­ed, a hard cut.

  • Costa Kamarados says:

    My favourite cut is in the first High­lander film.

    We go from zoom­ing in on a fish tank in an apart­ment. As the cam­era ris­es past the water lev­el we find our­selves in a lake some­where.

    It is utter­ly seam­less. Well done Rus­sell Mulc­ahy.

    Sure High­lander isn’t as good as Lawrence but still…

  • Julio says:

    Kubrick­’s cut was the bet­ter of the two.

  • Ikraam saab says:

    His­to­ry mill jaye ge

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