Picks and Pans Review: Lawrence of Arabia

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

If there were any doubts that David Lean's 1962 masterpiece could still mesmerize, one need only watch this resurrected version with any sell-out audience that has flocked to its rerelease (see p. 36). As ticket holders settle in for the 216-minute epic, they act more like churchgoers than moviegoers, and indeed Lawrence remains the Hollywood equivalent of a religious miracle—a thing of wonderment that inspires devotion. Twenty minutes of edited-out footage have been restored, which should thrill the already converted. For a new generation, the film must be like the shock of the new: It's so old-fashioned in its craftsmanship, it looks absolutely original. Even 27 years after its first release, Lawrence of Arabia has no trouble stunning an audience when a traitor's face is revealed or a compass drops ominously into the desert sand. Like its quixotic hero, T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who galvanized the Arab factions that battled the Turks in World War I, the movie is compulsively contradictory; a heroic portrait of a soldier who doubted his heroics, a battle-scarred spectacle that condemns its magnificently choreographed battles. As Lawrence led the Arabs through the landscapes of the Middle East, Lean indulged his passion for panoramas, and in this version, cinematographer Freddie Young's compositions look more hauntingly elegant than ever. Lean illuminates such grand surroundings with remarkably small gestures, such as Lawrence using a sword handle as a mirror to adjust his new Arabian garb. Looking back at the capricious careers that followed, the performances, too, are astonishing. At 30, Peter O'Toole became a star as Lawrence, and he confidently displays the daring idiosyncrasies of a seasoned veteran. As his ambivalent Arab confidant, Omar Sharif shrewdly details the soul of desert royalty. The middle-brow melodramas that he subsequently made are easily forgiven. As the Arab elders, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness are captivating too. Despite the film's technical wizardry, the seven Academy Awards and the expansive budget, this time-honored epic is ultimately a testament to something elemental: the ability to make an audience gasp as a story is told. For that, let us offer a renewed prayer of thanks. (PG)

From Our Partners