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Despite its restoration, Lawrence of Arabia still flawed

Tearsheets: Allied

Suggested headline:

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Directed by David Lean.

Screenplay by Robert Bolt.

Starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guiness,

Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quinn.

Opens today at the Charles Theater.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

THE RECONSTRUCTION AND restoration of Lawrence of Arabia -- arguably one of the most famous epics in Western film history -- will allow a new generation of filmgoers to view the film's virtually nonexistent content in spectacular Super Panavision 70 and 6-track magnetic sound.

Parts of the film do manage to create a lasting impression -- the sweeping shots of the desert and the battle scenes, for example -- but these scenes do so largely because the film has been conceived and constructed on a massive scale. The excellent cinematography by F. A. Young is instrumental in giving the film its epic appeal. Young effortlessly thrusts viewers into the thick of horse chases and battle scenes, and he knows how to manipulate the large image to maximize impact. His talent meshes well with Lean's ability to organize and direct huge crowds of people, and the majestic desert theme composed by Maurice Jarre helps enhance the desert scenes even further. Unfortunately, the rest of Jarre's score is not nearly so successful, primarily because of its occasionally distracting and annoying qualities.

Equally annoying is David Lean's ineffective directorial style. During a sequence in which Lawrence and his men cross the desert to attack the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba, the film tries to emphasize that Lawrence is willing to take risks in the desert that even the Arabs would not dare. But the most treacherous part of the crossing ends as abruptly as it began, and nowhere does Lean's direction convey any sense of how Lawrence acted differently from others who had tried and presumably failed to cross the desert. Consequently, Lean fails to induce his viewers to participate in Lawrence's battle against the elements.

The film's emptiness becomes especially clear after the intermission, when the film finally begins to fill the void left by the first half's heroic veneer. Even so, it still tends to observe Lawrence's contradictions from a safe distance rather than close the psychological distance to probe deeply. One need only consider how diminished Lean's film would seem on television or video to realize just how little this film has to offer other than its grand epic imagery.

In terms of that imagery, it must be recognized that the film's marvelous technical accomplishments, both in its original creation and its current restoration, constitute a potent argument for replacing the current 35mm standard with a 65mm negative. With the impending arrival of High Definition Television (HDTV), it is increasingly important to modernize the picture resolution and sound capabilities in order to draw viewers out of their homes. Seeing Lawrence of Arabia in all its original grandeur may be the vehicle needed to remind the industry and viewers alike of the appeal that these 70mm prints can have.

Columbia Pictures' newspaper advertising touts the restored version as a "Director's cut," referring to the fact that Sir David Lean personally directed the re-recording of some missing dialogue and also approved the final edited version. This is as it should be. But again, the reality is that virtually every studio pays lip service to adhering to the director's vision while routinely denying final cut to less visible and influential directors.

Certainly Dawn Steel, president of Columbia, should be praised for approving and consummating the project. She and Columbia gave Robert Harris and Jim Painten, who were involved in Kevin Brownlow's monumental reconstruction of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), a mandate to reconstruct Lean's film to its original state. This mandate, and the restorers' personal convictions, prevented the hideous results that followed Turner Entertainment's decision to tinker with the color scheme of the recent re-release of Gone With the Wind (The few color defects that remain in Lawrence of Arabia stem from deterioration in the original negative that could not be corrected).

Nevertheless, the politics behind Steel's decision reveal the same bottom-line mentality that has crippled Hollywood's creativity for decades. In terms of reversing that legacy, Steel and her fellow studio heads have, like David Lean in his film, just barely begun to scratch the surface.