Hollywood's Sheikh Elite Shows Up Toast the Restored Lawrence of Arabia

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

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

When it first opened in December 1962, not every critic was overwhelmed by director David Lean's 222-minute desert epic, Lawrence of Arabia. According to the New York Times, the $12 million tale of an enigmatic adventurer-played by newcomer Peter O'Toole—who led Arabs against Turks in World War I was "just a huge, thundering camel-opera." To make the film (which also starred Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif) more palatable to distributors, Columbia cut 20 minutes from the movie two weeks after it opened and another 10 minutes in 1963. Despite the clipping, the luxuriously photographed film won seven Academy Awards and became a celebrated, if abbreviated, classic. "The day before I saw it, I thought I wanted to be a surgeon," Steven Spielberg has said. "The day after, I knew I wanted to be a director."

Twenty-seven years later, Lawrence of Arabia is back on selected screens with 29 of its lost minutes painstakingly restored and substituted for other takes. To celebrate the rerelease, Columbia Pictures, which financed the $1 million restoration, threw a bash in Beverly Hills, raising $500,000 to benefit the American Film Institute. Among the 768 guests who gathered for veal chops and cheesecake at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel were Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Donna Mills, Shelley Long, Leonard Nimoy and Michael Douglas, as well as Lawrence alumni David Lean, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn and the film's restorers, Robert Harris and Jim Painten.

"It's amazing how well the film stands up after all these years," concluded Sharif, who last saw the movie in 1962. "It looks better than the first time around. We get old. It goes on forever." Donna Mills, escorted by David Niven Jr., had no point of comparison. "I wasn't going to admit this, but I've never seen it before," she said. Mills declared the film "magnificent" but admitted she was sometimes distracted: "All I could think when they were doing those sand scenes was, 'Where do you suppose they parked the stars' mobile trailers?' "

Anthony Quinn cited Lean as one of the two "outstanding" directors in his 200-plus picture career (the other was Fellini). "The man is absolutely magical," he said. Lean, now 80, demurred: "Seeing the film again, it didn't seem all that much to do with me. But I thought it was a damn good picture."

Truth be told, the new, expanded edition is very much a Lean picture. Robert Harris, 43, and his partner, Jim Painten, 46, spent 2½ years going through five tons of Lawrence outtakes. With the help of director Martin Scorsese and editor Anne Coates (who won an Oscar for her work on the original), they put together a version of the film that combines some of the excised footage with some never seen before. Lean then re-edited the picture to 216 minutes. This time around, the reviews are triumphant. Harris, for one, is happy to move on. "Occasionally I have trouble crossing the desert," he admits, referring to the movie. "That's good 30 or 40 times, but I've seen it 300 times."

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