`Lawrence' in Fine Shape. Director David Lean and his refurbished film share an ovation

SIR DAVID LEAN sat savoring every restored moment of his legendary film, ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' along with the audience in the darkened Uptown Theater. Although a battery of reporters and TV cameras waited outside to interview him, he couldn't be budged. ``He loves surprise endings, and we can't get him out of there,'' said a publicist, who explained that Mr. Lean wanted to see the audience reaction. He's entitled. His celebrated 1962 film, which won seven Oscars, including one for him as director, is back again in lustrous shape, with 40 minutes that had been cut from the original now restored. Benefit screenings in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles to aid the American Film Institute's restoration program precede a national revival of the Columbia Pictures film that rivals ``Gone With the Wind'' as an all-time classic. T.E. Lawrence, the charismatic English officer who first united the Arab tribes in a war against the Turks and colonial oppression, rides again in ``Gone With the Sand.''

After the sort of roaring applause and shouts that usually follow a rock concert, Sir David and a cast of those in, or responsible for, the film restoration talked briefly to the audience. They included two of the film's actors, Omar Sharif and Jos'e Ferrer, but not its brilliant star, Peter O'Toole as Lawrence. Also on hand were director Martin Scorsese, director of photography Freddie Young, editor Anne Coates, restorer Robert Harris, and, of course, Lean himself. The director, silver-haired and elegant at 80, told the crowd:

``You know, when I started working in the movies, I worked with No"el Coward. And I remember him saying to me one day, `You know, my dear, when you reach my age, one feels grateful if one's friends last through lunch.'

``Well, you know, all of us here - we just loved making this movie. It was one of the great adventures, as you can imagine. We started in Jordan. We then stopped work, because we'd only got half a script. We went to Spain, and we spent two to three months, Robert [Bolt, screenwriter] and I, finishing, making the second half of the script. Then we went off; we shot in Spain, in the Alhambra. You see a lot of that - all those buildings. Hardly any of this was real sets; they were mostly real places. And then Sam Spiegel [producer] was absolutely certain he could find deserts in Spain. Well, he couldn't. And off we went, across the Mediterranean, to Morocco, where it was absolutely terrible; by 10 [a.m.] it was 130 degrees. Anyhow, we worked through that. And it's wonderful to be sitting here. But we also have been spared - all of us who had such a wonderful time making it. It's just great to sit here with you people, really feeling your appreciation.''

He thanked the audience and then was hustled away by publicists through an adoring, pawing crowd of fans shouting for autographs and attention. A tall man in a tweed coat loomed up in front of him to say, ``We thank you for everything you've done'' in solemn tones. ``I worked with you on `Ryan's Daughter,''' said a woman, grabbing his sleeve before he was whisked out a side door, then down an alley into a waiting black limo for a reception at the British Embassy. It was the director as superstar.

It wasn't always this way. Bosley Crowther, venerable film critic of the New York Times, wrote a lead in his 1962 review that began with praise and ended with a punch: ``Like the desert itself, in which most of the action in `Lawrence of Arabia' takes place, this much-heralded film about the famous British soldier-adventurer ... is vast, awe-inspiring, beautiful with ever-changing hues, exhausting, and barren of humanity.''

WHAT we are seeing now, 27 years later, is a magnificent film which has been saved from the disintegration of time and the meat cleaver of box-office profits. Almost immediately after the film opened, producer Sam Spiegel cut 20 minutes to shorten the length and increase the profits. When the film was reissued in 1970, an additional 20 minutes were chopped. For those who view film as an art, it's comparable to cropping out one-tenth of a Rembrandt. Film archivist Robert Harris, who crusadingly restored ``Lawrence,'' found the negative scratched, flaking, and bent like a football from warping. It had to be restored through ``rehumidifying.'' Part of the sound track was missing and had to be redubbed. The new Dolby sound emerged from a seventh-generation sound track, on which hisses and bumps had to be silenced. Harris, Lean, and film editor Anne Coates reassembled the film in 70-mm, as Lean had originally intended it, from footage salvaged in Europe and Hollywood.

This writer remembers seeing ``Lawrence'' in 1962 in a first-row seat in a jammed theater in which Peter O' Toole, as Lawrence, loomed like Mount Rushmore, and the camels' hooves were the size of manhole covers. The second time around, David Lean's ``Lawrence'' is even more breathtaking than in memory: searingly beautiful, fierce, and mysterious as its hero.

There is a surprise, too, in seeing scenes that were missing in 1962 - a lyric passage in which the camera pans past the face of a lovely Arab girl and into the tent where Bedouin chiefs meet. ``That's the only time you see women in the film,'' apart from a long shot of a wailing scene, says Harris. He's proud of that restored shot, as well as of the footage that shows why Lawrence went to Arabia, as a cartographer, and of a devastated Arab village which ``explains why Lawrence was so enraged and gets involved in slaughtering the Turks.''

As Mr. Scorsese, co-chairman of the AFI Preservation Fund '89, said, ``It's shocking to me that a film of this magnitude, a film that was so honored, so well known ... had been allowed to disintegrate in such a manner. It's a favorite of mine, I think one of the best films ever made, and the sense of restoring a picture of this magnitude for me was ... to try to help present to audiences of today the same feeling and the same wonder that we had back in 1962, when we saw it in its proper form. And I think today you can see that on this screen.''

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