The Great Outdoors

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The vivid impressions of the big movie screen can magnify the impact of many things, including landscapes where the stirring emotions of human drama are played out. That was particularly true in recent Detroit Movie Palace showings of two famous outdoor adventures: The Searchers at the Michigan Theater on August 4, 2009, and Lawrence of Arabia at the Redford Theatre on August 9. 2009.

Only on the big screen could you fully appreciate the camerawork and direction of these two movies, along with the acting, screenwriting, and music that gave depth and context to the powerfully emotional images.

The vast distances of Monument Valley and Arabia became movie characters that you came to admire, fear, and respect. Out there, it took a different kind of person to survive and thrive. Out there, away from the rules and regulations of more populated areas, intercultural conflicts gave way to violent clashes that left the participants both wiser and sadder.

And just out of curiosity, I Googled “influence of The Searchers on Lawrence of Arabia,” and came up with these interesting results.

The Searchers

The Searchers was part of the annual Summer Classic Film Series of the Michigan Theater. The series began in June with The Seven Year Itch and finishes September 6 and 8 with Citizen Kane and September 7 with Psycho, the yearly Labor Day back-to-school special for returning University of Michigan students.

Before The Searchers began, people filed into the air-conditioned Michigan, getting relief from the heat and humidity, in their shorts and t-shirts and other summer clothing. I always treasure the air of anticipation before a Michigan film, especially if the excited, friendly voices of the arriving audience play a counterpoint with the bouncy melodies of the organ. The organ overture was played by Andrew (Father Andy) Rogers, who has also played at the Redford Theatre.

A theater presentation of The Searchers stirs you physically and emotionally in a way that television can’t touch. It’s vastly different from the commercial-sliced AMC showings that use the full TV screen and lose the artistry of the wide screen photography. There was a compelling feeling as John Wayne and others rode across the landscape amidst the wind-swept sculptures of Monument Valley, in rich Technicolor tones, prodded along by the subtle energy of Max Steiner’s understated film score.

Wayne’s presence stood out with all of his star power, and his skillful delivery of both humorous and serious one-liners were important anchors of the movie. Two images of Wayne particularly impressed me, with equal credit going to director John Ford.

The zoom in on Wayne’s unshaven face as he stared at a young woman whom he’d hoped would be his niece. And his poignant tribute to Harry Carey Sr. in the last camera shot of the movie.

People chuckled at Wayne’s different uses of “That’ll be the day,” the same way that Redford audiences found humor in Scarlett O’Hara’s constant references to “tomorrow” when Gone with the Wind was shown at the Redford in May 2007.

I gained a new appreciation for the performance (and beauty) of Vera Miles, whose frustrated love for Jeffrey Hunter added extra tension to the film. The VistaVision widescreen format was used particularly well in a scene where she leaned on the fence, facing the camera, as Hunter rode away to catch up with John Wayne.

Lawrence of Arabia

The Redford treated their audience to a 70-mm road show print of Lawrence of Arabia, with an overture, intermission music, and music after the credits. Before the movie, there was a humorous presentation about the difference between film reels for 16-mm, 35-mm, and 70-mm film. Elizabeth Seward showed each reel, and faked an overloaded feeling when she showed the reel for the 70-mm film.

The 70-mm detail of David Lean’s direction was so rich that you felt like you were on the set of the film. During desert scenes, you felt like you could see every grain of sand. Every emotion in Peter O’Toole’s face was visible, giving us more insight into his complex portrayal of T. E. Lawrence.

The detail had a depth and vibrancy that didn’t feel overproduced, like I find with much of the computer-generated special effects of current movies. The people in the middle background of the movie were very vivid, and their reactions to the characters at the front of the shot added dimensions to the drama.

You could intensely feel the environment of the film, both physcially and politically. I felt a strong rush of emotion ripple through my skin during the scene when Lawrence rescues the man from the desert. During the intermission and after the movie, you could hear enthusiastic, almost ecstatic, comments about the movie and 70-mm print throughout the theater, especially in conversations between the staff and visitors.

A very large Sunday afternoon crowd cheered energetically after the film introduction, when the stage curtains closed for the intermission, and at the end of the film. Organist Emily Seward closed the intermission with the haunting, dramatic theme of the movie. The music, with its simple basic theme that was played in variations, was courtesy of Maurice Jarre, who died earlier this year.

The hot 94-degree day was the perfect day to see this desert epic. When patrons left the theater about 6 p.m. after this unique Sunday Redford event, the oppressive heat helped bring back memories of the film. It was a long afternoon that I’m sure will have a high spot in the Redford memories of many of the visitors.

The weekend also brought the debut of the September-December 2009 printed Redford schedule, which uses vibrant colors that include reproductions of posters for many of the films that will be shown (including The Wizard of Oz and My Fair Lady). After the magnificent experience of Lawrence of Arabia, I wondered if I would feel a slight letdown during future visits to the Redford. But the new Redford schedule (which also includes loads of Halloween and Christmas entertainment) gives me plenty to look forward to.

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Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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