'Arabia' returns, 40 years later

A young critic I know made waves a few years ago when he wrote that "Lawrence of Arabia" was one of his favorite movies, but he'd seen it only on television.

He had no interest in viewing it theatrically, he added, and couldn't imagine a panoramic 70mm image being more beautiful than the light-struck pictures on his TV screen. For him, commercial breaks were oases in the film's 216-minute running time.

I don't agree with my colleague, but I don't take umbrage at his remark the way some purists do. His love for "Lawrence" is rooted in his personal history with the film. His affection for its TV incarnation – interruptions, cropped frames, and all – is like the fondness some music aficionados have for the scratches and pops that punctuate the LPs they grew up with.

"Lawrence" returned to theaters for a 40th-anniversary run this week, allowing a new generation to choose sides in this debate. Whether or not you've seen the film on TV, I find it hard to imagine you won't respond to the expansive scale, luminous clarity, and sheer cinematic beauty it offers in its original form.

Don't look to it for history lessons, of course. Like virtually all Hollywood films, it takes plenty of poetic license – oversimplifying the Middle East campaigns of World War I, promulgating clichés about Arab life, placing hero T.E. Lawrence at events he likely had nothing to do with, and suggesting his homosexuality in the whispered terms required by censors in 1962.

As a shining example of a vanished breed of epic filmmaking, though, it can't be beat. The scene most admirers remember best – a near-dead Lawrence reemerging from the desert after risking his life to rescue a fallen comrade – is so long and minimal that no director in the age of Spielberg & Co. would dream of attempting it.

Ditto for the casting, with then-minor actor Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and white guys like Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn playing characters like Prince Feisal and Auda abu Tayi, complete with caftans and dark skins.

In short, they don't make 'em like this one anymore. Viewing it is like taking a time machine to a movie age that was more naive than our own in some ways, more sophisticated and ambitious in others.

I spoke with director David Lean about it in 1989, when he led a team restoring it to its original length and luster, and was struck by how passionate he was about every detail, down to the nuances of the Technicolor hues. You feel that passion in almost every frame.

• Rated PG; contains violence.

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