- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

The initial wave of programming at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre failed to take optimum advantage of a commercially potent repertory. The emphasis was on inaugural events rather than familiar, quality titles. Starting Monday, that esoteric approach changes dramatically, when a seven-week programming cycle begins with the David Lean epics of the 1960s, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago,” followed by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” starting Friday, July 11.

In a season dominated by science-fiction comic book spectacles whose drawing power drops precipitously after the opening weekend (“X2: X-Men United” and “Matrix Reloaded,” for example), reviving such proven movie spectacles serves, intentionally or not, as a kind of mischievous counterprogramming. Presented in good pictorial condition, these classic epics put their contemporary counterparts in the shade, reminding us that visual spectacle and storytelling mastery are not mutually exclusive.

The Silver’s large auditorium, with its 70mm projection capacity, will house the “Lawrence” revival, which runs for three weeks, screening every day through Thursday, July 10. This is the longest booking since the restored edition of the movie played the Uptown for several months in the winter and spring of 1989. The parallel engagement of “Dr. Zhivago” will last for two weeks. The elegant Lean adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” which seemed a marvelous comeback project in 1984 but then turned out to be his final movie, comes on board during the final week of the “Lawrence” run.

The opportunity to see “Lawrence of Arabia” again in a 70mm print may beg the question, Why not “Zhivago”? Many people may remember seeing it in 70mm during early roadshow engagements in the winter of 1965-66. They were looking at a blowup from the 35mm negative. There can be satisfactory blowups, but the pictorial quality will not rival anything shot with exceptional skill in 70mm and then projected in that dimension.

The prestige impact of “Lawrence,” photographed four years earlier in the camera system called Super Panavision 70, certainly put the thought of a 70mm reprise in the minds of “Zhivago” collaborators. Mr. Lean, who died in 1991, explained the inconsistency to biographer Kevin Brownlow: “We did not shoot ‘Zhivago’ in 70mm because of the usual screaming about expense. Everybody said it would cost a fortune …They also said, ‘Nobody will notice the difference if you shoot on 35mm and blow it up.’”

That assumption may be correct, but Mr. Brownlow remains amazed that David Lean accepted it. He was famous for taking considerable pains to achieve magnificent imagery. “Lawrence” is the unsurpassed example. The fascination he felt when scouting locations in Jordan early in 1960 became an international revelation when the movie was released two years later. Mr. Brownlow quotes from letters that anticipate the movie’s visual impact.

“The desert is wonderful,” Mr. Lean wrote. “It gave me a bit of a shock, as it wasn’t at all what I expected from my boyhood diet of ‘The Sheik,’ ‘The Garden of Allah’ and ‘Beau Geste.’ Perhaps the reason is that all these entertainments have dealt with North Africa…Am I mad? Can I make audiences share my thrill?”

Here is his evocation of a mirage, the starting point for Omar Sharif’s famous entrance from vanishing point to foreground as Sherif Ali: “The mirage on the flats is very strong, and it is impossible to tell the nature of distant objects. Jeeps look like elongated ten-ton trucks even when they are quite near. Men look as if they are on stilts and walking in water. You certainly can’t tell a camel from a goat or a horse…All the Lawrence blob stuff is true, and I found myself thinking of introducing Ali this way. There could be a certain amount of tension about such an appearance, because you really don’t know what’s coming toward you.”

Originally recruited for a minor role, Mr. Sharif inherited the pivotal role of Ali, the young Bedouin chief who provides an uncomplicated emotional contrast to Peter O’Toole’s devious and conflicted T.E. Lawrence, after a number of European candidates fell by the wayside. Horst Buchholz and Alain Delon had other commitments. The role was actually cast with a veteran French actor, the saturnine Maurice Ronet, who was eased out once the cast and crew were on location and his lack of Arab authenticity became inescapable. Wishing to cancel the contract gracefully, the producers paid him about three times Mr. Sharif’s salary.

Mr. Sharif was in good company. Marlon Brando was the first big name suggested for Lawrence, and Albert Finney had been extensively tested, in costume, before Peter O’Toole got the role. Julie Christie ended up playing Lara in “Dr. Zhivago” when Sophia Loren and Jane Fonda, among others, were rejected.

Although “Lawrence” and “Zhivago” were destined to become back-to-back classics for Mr. Sharif, he was also a belated choice as Boris Pasternak’s alter ego, poet and physician Yuri Zhivago. The names of Paul Newman, Max von Sydow, Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole were tossed around before Mr. Lean’s consort, Barbara Cole, also the continuity girl on his movies at that time, exclaimed “What about Omar? Not all Russians are blond.” Some adjustments were made to satisfy an exotic sense of the Russian. “We pulled his eyes back with tape,” Mr. Lean revealed, “to take the orbs out of it, though Omar still has those large orbs…And we straightened his hair. Sort of made it look like mine.”

Shooting “Lawrence of Arabia” in 70mm came at the suggestion of the late Mike Frankovich, who was supervising Columbia’s international productions from a base in London. The Super Panavision process had enjoyed an impressive showcase in “Ben-Hur,” and there was evidently no hesitation about exploiting it. Of course, “Lawrence of Arabia” was originally budgeted at about $3 million and ended up costing $13 million after extended location shooting in Jordan, Spain and Morocco. There was a feeling that David Lean never wanted to leave the Jordan locations, which dominate the first half of the movie. He keenly resented producer Sam Spiegel’s insistence that the company pick up and move to Spain after a mere four months in the desert.

The failure to follow up with 70mm on “Dr. Zhivago” is curious. A few years later David Lean was shooting his famously wrongheaded tear-jerker “Ryan’s Daughter” in Super Panavision 70 for the same company that released “Zhivago,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Never has a smaller lovelorn tale been so overmatched by scenic grandiosity. For all its melodramatic shortcomings, “Zhivago” was obviously the project that justified an expansive and dazzling pictorial framework.

A curious revelation of the Brownlow book is that David Lean toyed with the idea of photographing “Zhivago” in black-and-white. He mused as follows to the late cinematographer Freddie Young, the director of photography on “Lawrence,” “Zhivago” and “Ryan”: “I had a mad daydream the other day about the old colored bases [i.e., tints] of our youth. I remember how wonderful snow looks in lavender and thought about how spring might look in sepia. I fear color may pretty [‘Zhivago] up and make it earthbound. Black and white is already one stage removed from reality. I think it might give a force which color might dissipate.”

They had enough problems simulating snow during “Zhivago,” ostensibly set in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution but photographed in Spain and Finland. Neither country generated much in the way of authentic snowfall while the company patiently waited. Eddie Fowler, the cagey property master, resorted to massive spreadings of crushed marble to fake snowbound settings. Whenever characters appear to be treading on frozen ground, you can be fairly certain that the footing is marble dust.

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