David Lean created, arguably, three of the top 10 all-time greatest pieces of epic cinema… a style of cinema that isn’t even doable in the modern age (but that’s another post, perhaps a video post). His multiple Oscar-winning film LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the granddaddy masterpiece of his canon and any epic film. It’s filled with vivid, stunning, and potent imagery, complex and archetypical characters, a dynamic script, and inspiring music. One of my favorite shots from the film (or rather a sequence of shots) is the introduction of Sherif Ali (portrayed with aplomb by the fantastic Omar Sharif). The true power of a shot isn’t necessarily its individual composition, but in how that composition integrates into the sequence, and the film as a whole.
What’s fascinating about the shot (see below) – it’s apparently Lawrence’s POV – is how they achieved it. From miles, literally, miles out, Sheriff Ali traverses the desert in all black on a camel back. Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young, B.S.C. commissioned Panavision to construct a special, one-of-a-kind 482mm lens (one that fit on the 65mm cameras to boot) to achieve this ethereal shot. And it was only used for that one moment in the entire film!
As Lawrence bares witness to Ali’s approach, we get the sense that Ali is floating over the hot, baking sands. This adds to his mystique and it’s an incredible visual method to introduce a character. Before Lawrence (and the audience) actually meet Sheriff Ali, he’s already achieved this otherworldly status in our minds. He seemingly defies gravity during his approach, instilling a sense of wonder in Lawrence and fear in Lawrence’s guide. The extreme compression that the ultra-telephoto lens provides is something the human can never hope to see, so that too adds to the halcyon nature of this shot.
We love it when a character makes a spectacular entrance, with an emphasis on visual spectacle, that fully harnesses Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” assertions. Take for instance, Darth Vader’s entrance out of the smoke on the crippled rebel cruiser in STAR WARS (1977) or Indiana Jones emerging from the shadows at the river bank after dealing with a turncoat in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1982) or Angela Vickers (embodied gloriously by Liz Taylor) catching the trick billiards shot as she passes by out in the hall in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), each of these introductions breathes life into the character from the circumstances within the script. There’s plot-turning action going on in addition to the intro, which is some of the best kind of screenwriting because you don’t forget the character, the scene, or the movie.