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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

This focus on Lawrence as a media creation sheds new light on his character. "A Dangerous Man," said Puttnam's line producer, Colin Vaines, offers "a more sympathetic, 1990s view of Lawrence." Vaines has a theory "that every generation finds its own Lawrence--he's a blank canvas that everyone can project an image onto."

According to Vaines' theory, Lawrence was perceived as an adventurer-hero in the 1920s and 1930s, which was how Lowell Thomas presented him. In the 1940s, rumors began to circulate that he had Fascist sympathies, and might even have become a figurehead for a British Fascist party before his death in 1935. His legend was soundly debunked in the 1950s by Richard Aldington, who found him an unsympathetic imperialist.

Lean's film stressed the romance of Lawrence's exploits. Journalist Philip Knightley probed his sexual proclivities in the 1960s and dwelt on Lawrence's masochistic preferences. The following decade saw a book called "A Prince of Our Disorder" by John E. Mack--a psychological profile of Lawrence that concluded he was tormented by an identity crisis fueled by the knowledge of his illegitimate birth.

"A Dangerous Man" has been developed over three years, and at one stage was to be an Anglo-French production filmed in Paris. "The minute the Gulf War broke out," says Vaines, "we said this is the time to do it. The war gave our story extra relevance."

In fact, Puttnam had been toying with a story about Lawrence for several years. His interest in the subject goes back at least as far as 1971, when he co-produced a BBC documentary about the Paris peace talks called "Peacemaking 1919."

During his tenure as studio head at Columbia, he talked with U.S. TV networks about the notion of a large-scale miniseries of Lawrence to be produced by Goldcrest, the British film company. Journalist and historian Clive Irving submitted a treatment for the project. But then Goldcrest collapsed, and when Puttnam left Columbia to return to Britain, he, Irving and Tim Rose Price resurrected the idea with a much sharper focus--Lawrence at the peace talks.

"This was the event at which powerful men sat down and reinvented the map of the world," Puttnam said. "The subject always haunted me."

The two actors playing Lawrence and Feisal are completely unknown to American audiences. In the case of at least one--Ralph Fiennes, who portrays Lawrence--that state of affairs will soon no longer be true. One week after completing "A Dangerous Man," Fiennes started work as Heathcliff in Paramount Pictures' remake of the classic Emily Bronte novel "Wuthering Heights."

At 28, Ralph Fiennes (his name is pronounced Rayf Fines) is widely tipped as the next big British film star. "The coming man," Puttnam calls him. For the last three years he has been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and this last season has received rave notices for his work in Troilus, Edmund in "King Lear" and Berowne in "Love's Labours Lost."

It is already widely predicted here that he will become a household name when "Wuthering Heights" is released. Said Puttnam: "Through my relationship with Warner Bros., I send them material on people I think they should watch out for and work with. I have done this four times in the last 10 years--with Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes. And in each case I have felt an equal confidence that they would emerge as a major figure."

During a break in filming, Fiennes--who has brown hair that flops boyishly over his forehead, aristocratic English good looks and, like his Lawrence precursor, Peter O'Toole, startlingly blue eyes--shuffles his feet when stardom is mentioned.

"Hmmm," he said. "It (the hype) doesn't seem real. What seems real is the work I'm doing on the floor of this studio or on stage at night, or when I'm at home having a bath. God forbid any of us starts to believe our publicity. If you go on, thinking, 'Oh, I'm very promising,' you're not really doing your job. It's satisfying to know people want you and are interested in you, but I think one's got to keep a balance about everything."

For all his modesty, Fiennes was first choice as Lawrence, and the producers of "A Dangerous Man" juggled the schedule of filming to accommodate him. Much of the film was shot at a studio belonging to Sands Films in Rotherhithe, deep in London's East End. The studio is only minutes away from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican theater, where Fiennes was driven at high speed as soon as his filming day was complete--in time to make up and go on stage as Troilus or Edmund. "A few red lights have been crossed," he said.

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