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MOVIES : Lawrence of Arabia, the One-Horse Sequel

October 27, 1991|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a free-lance writer based in London. and

LONDON — David Lean never would have done it this way.

His 1962 Oscar-winning film, "Lawrence of Arabia," was a movie epic on an enormous scale--a wide-screen extravaganza with spectacular desert vistas and breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. Its lyrical, sweeping soundtrack engulfed the moviegoing audiences of the day; its sheer volume almost loosened the fillings in their teeth. For "Lawrence of Arabia," crammed as it was with Big Moments, no expense was spared.

Now another aspect of the life of T. E. Lawrence is being filmed--and things could not be more different. In a riding school situated at a barracks belonging to the British army's Royal Artillery, a scene is being shot in which two actors playing Lawrence and Feisal (who became King of Iraq after World War I) confront each other on horseback for a prickly exchange of words.

For such a crucial scene, Lean (who died earlier this year) might have gone to great trouble, time and expense. But for this production, only one horse will appear on screen at a time during this exchange and the two actors, both in flowing robes, take turns dismounting and climbing on the shoulders of hefty crewmen who then bob up and down, so that the camera sees a conversation on horseback.

One imagines that Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness were not filmed this way for Lean's epic. But then the people behind this new venture are quick to emphasize that they are not aiming to emulate Lean and no comparisons should be made.

"A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia" is not even destined for movie theaters. It's a TV project, produced by former Columbia head David Puttnam's British-based Enigma Films, together with WNET, the New York public-television station. It is likely to be seen in the United States as part of PBS' "Great Performances" series next year.

It may seem odd that it has taken 30 years for another project on T. E. Lawrence to surface. Lawrence, the British soldier and author, became an internationally renowned figure during World War I through his exploits in Arabia, which he recorded in "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom." Sent to Egypt by the British as head of military intelligence, Lawrence helped organize the Arab revolt against Turkey, became a passionate devotee of the Arab cause, and headed a number of daring guerrilla raids that led to the Turks' defeat.

Puttnam theorizes that Lean's film, with its Oscar-nominated script by Robert Bolt, has cast a long shadow and deterred other filmmakers from tackling Lawrence as a subject. "But we don't feel that way," he said. "Lean dealt with a heroic sliver of Lawrence's life. Our film picks up around where his film left off."

"A Dangerous Man" concentrates on the Paris peace conference of 1919, at which Lawrence, fresh from his heroic deeds in the Arabian desert, came with Feisal to plead the case for Arab independence. Instead, they found themselves outmaneuvered by the British and French governments who were determined to carve up the Middle East to their own advantage.

Because of the subject matter, much of "A Dangerous Man" consists of interior shots--another reason why comparisons with Lean's film are invalid. There was one notable exception--a scene of Lawrence astride a camel in the desert was needed for newsreel footage that a theater audience is seen watching in the opening moments of "A Dangerous Man." The film's budget precluded traveling anywhere exotic, so a pair of camels was rented from an English circus and the scene was shot at a sand pit near the M25 freeway that circles London.

The Lean film ends with Lawrence, through his heroic deeds, becoming one of the most famous people in the world. "A Dangerous Man" explores his attitude toward his celebrity.

Said Puttnam: "Lawrence was the first manipulated or manufactured public figure. He was a creation of the British government as a celebrity--and part of him loved his fame and part of him hated it.

"He was the precursor of a very contemporary character--a media creation. I know people who have this flirtatious, dangerous relationship with the media. I feel I do myself. I need them to write about my work and, if possible, to praise it--and on the other hand I'm resentful when my private life is invaded."

Lawrence's ambivalent attitude to his fame is noted in the opening scene of Tim Rose Price's script, when, dressed anonymously in a shabby raincoat, he sneaks into the back of the Royal Albert Hall to see American journalist Lowell Thomas' film "With Lawrence in Arabia," which praised his desert exploits and made him a media darling.

"He used to mock and laugh at what Thomas was doing, but there are reports that night after night he would sneak in and watch the film," Puttnam said.

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