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‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 08, 1989

A thousand camels bray in Dolby and the Arabian night dries up under a new Kodak sun. Out of a 70-mm desert rides "Lawrence of Arabia," a thundering restoration of the 27-year-old legend. As long as ever and never better -- technology serves this epic well.

With help from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert A. Harris has carefully restored British director David Lean's Oscar-winner to mint condition. The film had been severely cut and allowed to deteriorate, but today it is as mighty as when it premiered in 1962.

"Lawrence's" beauty and place of honor in the epic hall of fame are without question, as is its status as perhaps the most manly movie ever made. Lean portrays a weirdly lopsided, oddly womanless cosmos. The only females in the film are skewered corpses, except for a glimpse of a harem that Harris has proudly added. He calls "Lawrence" a "boy's movie." Others call it homoerotic, and Lean has agreed.

In the land the sea left behind, Arabs sway along with the wind in their burnooses. Lawrence, looking positively bridal in his filmy white robes, smiles philosophically from atop his camel. "Hut-hut," he says to the beast, beginning yet another of the movie's many hot, draggy camel rides. It's rather like wandering the desert with the children of Israel. There's a sameness to the grandeur that so intoxicated Lean, Harris and the hero.

The film's genius is its marriage of intimate portrait and big-screen epic. T.E. Lawrence, a repressed 29-year-old British mapmaker, becomes a desert Napoleon, worshiped as a self-proclaimed demigod. His story is an atavistic "Revenge of the Nerds," every angry adolescent's dream come true. It is also the tragedy of a troubled scholar whose repressed violence spills out in the seminal sword-rattling of the battle scenes.

Peter O'Toole, hair an Arthurian gold, eyes an impossible azure, plays Lawrence as a ferocious priss. It's a striking debut, a poem of lurid charms. This mercurial character is now established in a never-before-seen (but not that great) scene in the officers' club in which he disrupts two colleagues' snooker game.

Although other scenes have been trimmed, the notorious whipping scene -- thought daring back when -- has been strengthened. In the original, Lawrence was briefly whipped by Turks before a panting bey (Jose Ferrer). Now he is tortured and, the film suggests, also raped, which better accounts for his transformation from pacifistic to bloodthirsty. A man who loved playing soldier but couldn't abide blood, he suddenly shocks his men by ordering them to massacre a column of retreating Turks.

Lawrence seems driven here by the denial of what he most enjoys. He is an ascetic who refuses water and a masochist who enjoys putting out matches with his fingers, qualities seen as heroic by the Arabs. The brilliant strategist unites the various tribes and leads them in a successful uprising against the Turks in 1916.

It's easy to forget the comedy -- especially Lawrence's sarcasm and the Cheshire charms of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). In answering a newsman's question, the prince gathers his dignity round him like his robes. "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me it is merely good manners. You may judge which is more reliable," he says.

His performance is pure desert fox, but we can't help noticing his green eyes. He looks no more like an Arab than he did like an Indian guru in Lean's "A Passage to India." The performances are all thoroughly ingratiating, with Omar Sharif especially affecting as the sheik who befriends Lawrence. And Anthony Quinn's blustering rebel chieftain lends a hardscrabble strength to the pageantry.

Lean has been generally faithful to Lawrence's story, but the hero remains an enigma. The director has been criticized for burying Lawrence in the sands of a "camel opera" when he has in fact mirrored the protagonist's awe of Arabia. What Lean leaves us with is a mirage.

Lesser mysteries, such as Lawrence's propensity for switching his watch from wrist to wrist, have been solved. Harris found that the second reel of film had been spliced in reverse. And by 1971, 32 minutes of the film had been cut. Gone were character, continuity and coherence, which Harris and Anne Coates, who won an Oscar for editing the original, restored using bits and pieces gleaned from 450 rusted old film cans. The actors rerecorded the lost parts of the soundtrack, Harris added incidental rustlings and Goldwyn reequalized the lot. "It should sound like mush," says Harris of the gloriously corny track featuring the booming score of Maurice Jarre' -- "Star Wars" by way of "Moon River."

"Audiences have only just caught up with the picture," says Jim Painten, who produced the restoration with Harris. "It's the most literate film ever made," say the partners, citing Robert Bolt's droll screenplay, a simple narrative that serves as psychobiography, military history, diplomatic primer and critique of British colonialism. "Now it's even more literate." They also call it a faster film, but it still tends to slow down in the second half.

Harris and Painten consider it one of the best films ever made, and rightly insist that it is timeless. "It's not like a nice job on an old movie," they say. The only thing that really dates it is the awful makeup, orangey pancake for Lawrence, a gray-green nose for Quinn and cordovan shoe polish for Guinness. Despite this and a few too many treks through the dunes, "Lawrence" is spectacular, a dinosaur dug up from old Hollywood.

"Lawrence of Arabia," rated PG, has a running time of 218 minutes.

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