“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.
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.