On Sunday, the League convened for an all-too-rare – although much more frequent in Seattle than most other burgs – screening of the wide-screen amazement device entitled Lawrence of Arabia.

I’ve seen this film three times now in 70mm at the Cinerama, and each time, my head spins for days afterward, usually on new topics. For example, since the last time I had seen this, I participated in a couple of film shoots, and it clearly altered the way I was looking at the film. The clearest example of this was in my electric awareness of the frequent use of one-take shots in the film, shots set up by the film crew with the clear knowledge that the first-take of a shot in a setup would in some way always be visually superior to any subsequent takes.

The best examples of these are in some early shots of the journey to Feisal’s camp, in which Lawrence and his guide traverse sand which has clearly not been previously marked by earlier takes, and in a shot depicting a lost Hadith raider, stumbling across an ‘impassable’ desert just before dawn. As the camera catches the actor, the actual sun appears, camera left but very much in the center of attention, a burning sliver above the horizon. What a shot! It defies the imagination to consider the difficulties the setup poses, and yet it’s clear that the result is wholly worthwhile.

Seeing this again, now nearly five years into the Iraq war, shifted meanings within the film one more time. Now I knew several of the physical sites mentioned in the film as places referenced at one time or another in reportage of America’s campaigns in the desert, not least of which is the name of the film provide for Sherif Ali and Prince Feisal’s tribe, the Hadith. It rings with the sound of a town in Iraq: Haditha.

Watching the film directly after an afternoon spent in the company of Roman sculpture was interesting, too. Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq were all under Roman dominion after Pompey’s campaigns, so these places have an arguably closer tie to the culture of Rome and Greece than we do here in the New World. In the film, the characteristically arabesque decorative surfaces and architectural details owe much to the late-period art of the Roman empire.

It should be noted, though, that the film’s interiors were all shot in Spain; while it had been hoped that Jordan and in particular Petra might be used as location scenes, illness disrupted the plans. I’m guessing that informed the choice of the stone city as a location in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

As the League was in attendance, after-film imbibery led to a number of questions and I chased a few down.

Picking up a few threads:

The wikipedia article includes some interesting notes on casting – Marlon Brando was considered for Lawrence, and Laurence Olivier was originally set for Feisal.

Also, I had said that the film was shot in Tunisia (as was some of Star Wars). I was incorrect. The film was set to shoot in Jordan but mostly was shot in Spain and Morocco.

As Lawrence arrives at Feisal’s camp, it is under bombardment by a pair of Turkish biplanes. Much to my frustration, I was unable to ID either the planes actually used by the filmmakers or the model of airplane they had been dressed to resemble.

The planes were DeHavilland 82 Tiger Moths, a 2-seat british trainer of the 1930s, dressed as Rumpler CIVs, sez here.

Finally, for years I have associated the journalist character in the film with Lowell Thomas, correctly (note lower left pic in first section of the page linked to). Here is a link to the Google books result for Lowell’s “With Lawrence in Arabia,” oddly treated as an under-copyright work although it was published in 1924.

For years beyond my certain knowledge of Lawrence, I have associated Lowell Thomas with a Saturday afternoon matinee show shown on WGN Channel 9 Chicago throughout my childhood. I had thought he hosted the show into his dotage. I was entirely mistaken. The actual host of Family Classics was a longtime WGN employee named Frazier Thomas. I still think it’s possible that Family Classics showed Lawrence in a bowdlerized form; the show did introduce me to more than one of the great masterworks of midcentury Technicolor spectacle.