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‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 03, 1989

It loped magnificently ahead of the other epics, this "Lawrence of Arabia," carrying desert myth and a desert fox called Peter O'Toole on its hump. Fellow Oscar contenders in 1963 never stood a chance.

That was then. But the good news is, starting Wednesday, it's also now. Thanks to an archival coalition of restorer Robert A. Harris, Columbia Pictures, director David Lean and others, this camel is padding the sands again. And, with its aging trappings remounted, rerecorded, redubbed and in some cases recut (by Lean), producer Sam Spiegel's Hollywood retelling of T. E. Lawrence's selectively heroic autobiography "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is as romantic, beautiful and blue-eyed as ever.

At close to four hours, it's also as long as ever -- though still shy of its original 227 minutes. You may need to pack a canteen for the more long-winded second half of "Lawrence." But this trip into T.E.'s enigmatic, sexually ambivalent soul via the Nafud Desert, Aqaba, Cairo, Damascus and Medina (as filmed in Morocco, Spain and Jordan) is so lush with great moments that you'll forgive (first-time) screenwriter Robert Bolt's occasional patches of desert.

You also forgive Anthony Quinn's fake nose, Alec Guinness' mascara and those actors who seem to be sons of the Thames rather than Turkey. You forgive Lean (an ironically named man) for taking his sweet time (he also dawdled through "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Ryan's Daughter" and "A Passage to India"). You overlook some of O'Toole's nervous twitchings -- acting that would look heavy-handed from a passing helicopter.

Like "Gone With the Wind" or "Ben Hur," "Lawrence" is too emotionally overpowering for critical reservations. You're captivated from the start: O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence, soon-to-be British leader of the Arab rout of the Turks in World War I, lets a match burn down to his fingers, to the gaping awe of a fellow worker. "The trick, William Potter," he says, "is not minding that it hurts." Later, when he blows out another match, "Lawrence" editor Anne V. Coates cuts for the first time to the desert landscape, the rising sun a growing sliver of light (this and other magnificent cinematography courtesy of Freddy A. Young). And as camels traverse the dunes, Maurice Jarre's memorable score (performed by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra) crashes over you . . .

The ensemble around O'Toole is unparalleled. Guinness' doe-eyed Prince Faisal reminds Lawrence "there's nothing in the desert"; Quinn's Auda Abu Tayi tells him, "Thy mother mated with a scorpion"; and Omar Sharif's Ali Ibn El Kharish insists "The Nafud cannot be crossed." The list continues, with the late Jack Hawkins' barkingly benevolent General Allenby, the late Claude Rains' subtle-gestured Mr. Dryden, Jose Ferrer's malevolent Turkish Bey and Sir Anthony Quayle's anxious Colonel Brighton.

To watch them come back from the past (and the dead) is to feel your own youth return. For God's sake, forsake that ugly VCR for one night at the real movies.

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