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An Epic Story in Itself

As 'Lawrence of Arabia' turns 40, even the new writing credit is worth a tale

September 22, 2002|JON BURLINGAME

A few weeks ago, "Lawrence of Arabia" was playing in a screening room on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Three men in shirt sleeves were watching closely and listening carefully for nearly four hours, checking details on a new 70-millimeter print of the Oscar-winning best picture of 1962.

"This is one of the crown jewels, if not the crown jewel, in Columbia's library," says Grover Crisp, vice president of asset management and film restoration at Sony Pictures, which owns Columbia, during a break. "So it's worth it to spend the money and make sure we get it right."

As the afternoon wore on, Crisp--along with technicians from Technicolor-owned CFI and theater-sound specialists DTS--discussed the minutiae of color contrast and density, and the specifics of the six-track sound mix. For Crisp, it was at least his eighth viewing of the film in six weeks.

To mark its 40th anniversary, Columbia is re-releasing "Lawrence of Arabia" beginning Wednesday at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. A critical and popular favorite, director David Lean's film is widely considered to be among the greatest screen epics ever made. A sharply etched character study of enigmatic British adventurer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and his role in uniting Arab tribesmen against the German-allied Turks during World War I, it was filmed on stunning desert locations in Jordan, Morocco and Spain by venerated cinematographer Freddie Young.

The American Film Institute's controversial top-100 list ranks the film at No. 5, and some will insist that it really belongs in the top three (along with "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca," above "The Godfather" and "Gone With the Wind"). The British Film Institute cited it as No. 3 in its own poll, behind "The Third Man" and Lean's "Brief Encounter."

"Lawrence" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1962, and won seven, including best picture and director, and statuettes for cinematography, music, editing, art direction and sound. It got a new lease on life with a widely praised 1989 restoration, in which Lean, who died in 1991, participated.

It is that "director's cut" that audiences will see this week, with two exceptions: The soundtrack has been digitally remastered, and writer Michael Wilson's name has been added to the credits. Few will object to the sonic improvement, although purists may be bothered by the alteration of the main-title sequence.

In 1995, the Writers Guild of America ruled that Wilson--blacklisted after his hostile-witness appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951--was entitled to share writing credit with Robert Bolt, who received sole screenplay credit initially. Wilson died in 1978, Bolt in 1995.

"Wilson created the basic structure for the film, but the dialogue was not good," says Robert A. Harris, who produced the restoration with the aid of Lean. After three Wilson drafts, Bolt was brought aboard to rewrite the script. He ultimately became Lean's regular collaborator.

Harris acknowledges Wilson's contribution to the script but is uncomfortable with the screen credit modification, because of Lean's long-held position that Bolt should have sole credit. "It was inappropriate to do it after both David Lean and Robert Bolt were gone," he contends. "It's like sneaking it in when your parents aren't watching." But, he adds, "it doesn't change the film. It doesn't hurt anyone."

Wilson was given belated writing credit, and a posthumous Oscar, for co-writing Lean's previous film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." It was also a Columbia film, and Crisp says that Wilson's name was added to those credits for a 1992 re-release.

The re-creation of the "Lawrence" titles was complicated. The credits appear on the right side of the screen, while on the left side O'Toole, as Lawrence, is shown preparing his motorcycle for what will turn out to be his last ride.

"We had the negative for the background shot, which is textless," Crisp explains. "We basically had to have this font style created by hand, because it didn't exist. We tried to match exactly the font, the placement, the size and everything else, and then built a new main-title negative." Pacific Title and Arts spent two months rebuilding the titles.

The running time is 217 minutes, unchanged from the 1989 restoration. The various lengths of "Lawrence," and who authorized the cuts, is a story all by itself: 222 minutes at the December 1962 London premiere; trimmed in late January 1963 to 202 minutes (by either Lean, or producer Sam Spiegel, or both, depending on who's telling the story); and further cut, to 187 minutes, for a 1970 re-release, making the film "virtually unintelligible," Harris says.

In the restoration, which Variety hailed as launching a new era in "movie archaeology," some scenes were added and others trimmed.

For members of Lean's cast and crew, "Lawrence" remains a landmark experience. French composer Maurice Jarre won his first Academy Award for the music of "Lawrence."

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