In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every artist was first an amateur.” It is indeed an undeniable truth that all masters at one point start as apprentices. However, the name Steven Spielberg is now so synonymous with cinema that it seems incredulous that he could ever fanboy over another filmmaker, it would be like John Logie Baird eulogising Home & Away, but when he gets talking about David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia, you can’t stop him from gushing like a guizer in heat.
In the glorious march of Spielberg’s career, he went from hero-worshipping Lean, to sitting alongside him during a screening of the restored cut of Lawrence of Arabia that he had helped put together.
Looking back at the start of that romance, Spielberg recalls watching the film the “first weekend it came out in Phoenix, Arizona.” It was a complex love at first sight, “I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of the experience,” Spielberg explains, “So I wasn’t able to digest it in one sitting. I actually walked out of the theatre stunned and speechless.”
David Lean’s masterpiece was released in 1962, it won seven Oscars and clearly captivated a 16-year-old Spielberg. “At the time I didn’t quite understand the impact that it had on me,” Spielberg continues. The filmmaking star went out and bought the Maurice Jarre soundtrack which he says he listened to constantly and he would fixate on the accompanying booklet that explained certain aspects of the filming. “I wanted to know how that film was made.”
“How do you get those moments,” is a quote that proved pivotal in cinematic history. The young desert-living Spielberg was suddenly thrust into the spotlight of fate and his future was made clear, all thanks to the cinematic magic of David Lean’s seminal picture.
Years later, Spielberg would follow his idol’s epic-making footsteps and, eventually, he got to meet his hero. “When I first met David Lean, it was like meeting my guru,” recalled the director. And his influence continued therein when they met — Lean imparted tips and tricks to further Spielberg’s triumphant career.
One of the key influences of Lean’s work was the tireless nature of filmmaking; something accentuated when it is done through the necessary lens of sincerity. Shots on Lawrence of Arabia may have taken days to capture, but the movie itself stands as testimony to the worth of the effort involved. Spielberg has always carried this ethos into his own work. He describes via the figurative analogy of either using CGI or a National Geographic expert photographer to capture a far-flung natural phenomenon: “Use CGI they’ll never tell the difference,” he declares in the guise of a producer, before providing the dismissive reality, “Well, people can tell the difference.”
This fidelity to natural wonderment and the art of cinema’s inherent organic magic has imbued the filmographies of both Lean and Spielberg with the unplaceable gold dust that makes so many of their movies glow.
When dissecting particular moments that make Lawrence of Arabia glow, Spielberg considers “the mirage sequence as still the greatest miracle [he’s] seen on film.” But the ultimate superlative that he bestows on it is as follows, “What makes that film unlikely any film that can be made again is that it was done naturally; with the elements of light and sound and maybe the greatest screenplay ever written for the motion picture medium […] It was a miracle.”