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The thin gold duke: Peter O'Toole, pre-alcohol and 'Zulu Dawn'.

'Lawrence of Arabia' returns to the big screen in all its glory

By Zack Stentz

Critics have always been suckers for epics. Witness the inexplicable respect given to Legends of the Fall or the unprecedented number of Oscar nominations bestowed upon the barely watchable Braveheart. A low-budget independent film with dialogue as shoddy and history as sloppy as Mad Max's directorial opus would be laughed right out of the art house. But throw in exotic locations, period decor, a bloated running time, and, most important, numerous crane shots of thousands of extras, and suddenly the critics start dusting off comparisons to De Mille and, of course, to David Lean.

All the more reason to head to the theater and see the restored version of Lean's own 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. Ranked with most critics alongside Dr. Zhivago and Bridge on the River Kwai as the best of David Lean's films, in my mind Lawrence surpasses even the other two. Stripped of the William Holden war-movie heroics that muddled the narrative in Bridge on the River Kwai and the knee-jerk anti-Communism that besmirched Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia instead keeps its attention focused on the titular character of soldier/explorer T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and his efforts to rally Arab forces against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Painstakingly restored in 1989 (the restoration process took 19 months, one month longer than the film's original production), the finished product is the 223-minute film that Lean intended, not the chopped 187-minute version known to most audiences.

In one of the finest performances of his career, O'Toole (heartbreakingly beautiful and incongruously fragile-looking, like a young, sun-kissed David Bowie) masterfully depicts Lawrence's struggles with the imperial mandate given to him by London, the rising tide of Arab nationalism he helps unleash, and his own growing messiah complex. Amid the film's sweep of conferences, ambushes, and forced marches through the desert, a tantalizingly complex and not altogether likeable portrait of Lawrence emerges.

More sympathetic is Lawrence's take on its many Arab characters. This might seem like a minor point, but when set beside the vicious anti-Arab racism that has characterized Hollywood fare from Exodus on up through True Lies, a film that features intelligent, dignified Arab characters and treats with respect their national aspirations seems downright radical. (Turks, on the other hand, fare less well in Lawrence. They can add this to Midnight Express and From Russia with Love on the list of celluloid slurs committed against their fine nation.) The Kingdom of Jordan, where Lawrence was filmed, cooperated in the film's making because King Hussein's Hashemite ancestors were flatteringly portrayed. But then, who wouldn't want to see one's grandpa played by Omar Sharif?

But politics and culture aside, it is Lean's images that remain burned into the mind's eye long after one leaves the theater. And those images are indelible precisely because they're done not to show off the mega-budget or the cinematographer's prowess, but to illuminate the deeper meanings of the film.

A panoramic shot of a lone human figure squashed in the corner of a vast sea of sand and sunlight doesn't just look cool, it perfectly illustrates the futility of human struggle and achievement in such a hostile environment. It's a cinematic version of Shelley's "Ozymandias," and proves that Lean knew well what Mel Gibson and his ilk have yet to learn: that it's a lot easier to fill the big screen with magnificent images than to have those images actually mean something. Other directors have dutifully aped Lean's visual style, but they've left his heart and his brain back on the desert sands.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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