John Baumgartner

Shot4Shot Lawrence of Arabia


Of course not all incredibly effective shots are oners. This one is the culmination of a series of shots masterfully edited. And you can’t talk about masterful editing without talking about David Lean. He began his career as an editor (at one point was the highest paid editor in England), eventually transitioning to directing with the help of Noel Coward.

Many years later he’d complete his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, and today’s post is a static shot within my favorite sequence of the film. Many consider perhaps the finest cut in movie history to come from this movie – the famous edit from Lawrence blowing out the match to the shot of the desert sun rising – a transition as amazingly effective for its startling visuals as it is for its subtextual richness. (All that stuff about not minding it hurts.)

But I tells ya, I love this one just as much, this conspiracy between Lean, his composer Maurice Jarre, writer Robert Bolt, and his editor Anne V. Coates (boy, what was it like to be David Lean’s editor? Obviously they worked it out.)

David Lean’s slow build

In this sequence, one of the teenage orphans, Daud, waits patiently for Lawrence to return from “the devil’s anvil,” where he dared to rescue Gasim. Lean plays the suspense, because death is all but assured for Lawrence but nonetheless Daud (and the audience) waits patiently, with touching loyalty. This slow build reminds me of Lean’s quote about boring the audience before thrilling them (see this post).

Then, on the horizon of the great Nefud desert the faintest speck appears, and Lean, Jarre and Coates slowly build the sequence from restrained hope to unabashed euphoria – climaxing with the cut to my favorite shot: a SUPER WIDE of the two camel riders meeting. Brings a tear to my eye every time I experience this sequence. What high emotion they capture in this one shot.

Check out the sequence here in this youtubes.  The shot is at 1:43 – but to get its impact you have to watch the whole sequence from the top.

P.S. I always get a kick out of Spielberg’s reference to Lawrence in Raiders (one of many, I’m sure). After Salah helps Indy descend into the map room, he’s caught by the Nazis in the exact same framing in the below Lawrence (:27) youtube – even when Farraj falls, Spielberg has Salah do that, too.

Here’s the shot from Raiders, that’s a Pan Left, just like Lean does. I grabbed the second frame just as Salah is about to fall:


  • May 10, 2011

    I never drew the parallel with that Raiders shot, John! You are obsessed! I commend you while shrinking from your genius.

  • May 14, 2011
    J. Carlos

    David Lean builds anticipation and excitment with the music during the scenes that drag on.When are you gonna do T2? I know, once I give it back, right?

  • June 5, 2011

    Frank’s favorite movie. Hardly a week goes by when one or the other of us doesn’t mention it. It never gets old.


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