It seemed a mad gamble: a $12 million epic about an eccentric English adventurer on the fringe of World War I, set in the sere deserts of the Middle East. It was hell to shoot: 18 months in the singeing sun of Jordan, Morocco and Spain. It had an obscure actor in the title role and no speaking parts for women. When it opened in New York City during the 1962 newspaper strike, one of the film's few reviewers, Andrew Sarris, called it "dull, overlong and coldly impersonal . . . hatefully calculating and condescending."
How sweet the balm of history. Like its half-mad hero, Lawrence of Arabia defied the odds and won -- seven Oscars, to be exact. And like T.E. Lawrence, the Oxford-bred English lieutenant who led a Bedouin revolt against the colonial Turks, David Lean's film has grown in legend. Critics revere it as the cinema's greatest epic, and a young generation of filmmakers fondly cite its achievement and impact. "To me it is one of the most beautiful films ever made," says Martin Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of Christ was a Lawrence on the cheap. "The day before I saw it," says Steven Spielberg, who was 15 at the time, "I thought I wanted to be a surgeon. The day after, I knew I wanted to be a director. Whenever I want to see what great films used to be like, I watch Lawrence."
Now moviegoers can see Lawrence in its pristine splendor. One more movie hero, film archivist Robert A. Harris, spent years sifting through 3 1/2 tons of film to reconstruct Lean's film, which, like the stone monuments of the Sahara, had been eroded by time. On this gorgeous Lawrence, with its sparkling 65-mm prints and crisp Dolby sound, Harris was the producer and the chief surgeon. Next week the film has gala premieres before opening in New York City, Washington and Los Angeles.
Robert Bolt's eloquent, epigrammatic script traces Lawrence's career from mapmaking in the British army's Cairo headquarters to masterminding Arab nationalism. In Peter O'Toole's pensive, swashbuckling incarnation, Lawrence makes for a curious messiah. With his skin like a mandarin orange dipped in sand, his voice intimate and cryptic, his haunted eyes staring from inside his burnoose, O'Toole creates a towering, tragic, high-camp sheik of Araby.
In 1962 Lawrence was the ultimate epic -- cinema at the apex of its ambition and intelligence. Lavish in visual beauty, the film also boasts economy of style: it knows how much can be shown in a shot, how much can be said in a few words. But the picture was a harbinger too. If Lawrence was the last colonial God-man, he was also the movie epic's first moody hero, father to countless sacred screen madmen. And in the picture's political wrangling and massacre scenes, we see hints of American history in the late '60s and American movies today: a preview of Viet Nam and a prequel to Platoon.