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Camels and sand never looked better

In an article last March, I made the following comment: 'Want to know the best description of movies and what they do?... Look at the moment from 'Lawrence of Arabia' in which a close-up of a match being blown out becomes an explosive desert sunrise almost too vast for the screen to contain, all in the space of a cut.'

How kind of Cinema 21 to bear me out with a new print of 'Lawrence' taken from the 1989 restored version.

Here's a summer blockbuster that diminishes this summer's sequel-prone Hollywood piffle the way David Lean's amazing desert vistas dwarf their human occupants.

But of course, the key to the greatness of 'Lawrence' lies in the way even the most sweeping of its panoramas is defined by a human presence.

Like John Ford before him, Lean never let a film's physical dimensions overwhelm its characters (and, when you think about it, Ford's 1956 desert saga 'The Searchers,' with its twisted hero, rode point for Lean's 1962 epic). As Martin Scorsese says, 'They both had the courage to create monumental images to support heroes full of human flaws.'

In T.E. Lawrence, who left the Cairo, Egypt, office of British Intelligence to spearhead an Arab revolt against Turkish occupation in World War I, Lean and writer Robert Bolt found a remarkably flawed hero. And they used him to establish what has become the cinematic gold standard for historical epics.

It's the story of a man who goes to the desert in search of himself and can't live with what he finds.

In a structural design that remains ingeniously gripping, 'Lawrence' is for its first half a vivid, heroic epic. Then it becomes what is essentially an anti-epic, as everything Lawrence has created Ñ including his own identity Ñ comes to ruin.

His conflicted nature is captured eloquently in the midfilm scene where he emerges exhausted from the Sinai desert and is spotted by a British soldier across the Suez Canal. When the soldier calls out, 'Who are you' Lawrence's only reply is silence and an empty gaze.

And this is how the star-making performance of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence is crucial. He captures the man's troubling complexities with such magnetism that the viewer is spellbound by a characterization that is unexpectedly risky in its ambivalence. The effect is heroic even when the character isn't.

Yet he isn't alone. In addition to a memorable gallery of supporting performances from sterling veterans, there's Omar Sharif as Ali, the Arab who comes to know Lawrence sometimes better than Lawrence does Ñ and who gets perhaps the best entrance in movie history.

That intro, where Ali rides out of a mirage, is just one of countless indelible images provided by cinematographer F.A. Young, whose landscapes are as rich in character as the film's people. And as defined by that one astounding cut from editor Anne V. Coates, this is a film in long shot and close-up at once. If you haven't seen it on the big screen, you haven't seen it. And you must see it.

Lean's costume designer, Phyllis Dalton, said of the director's approach, 'David would spend a great deal of time getting it perfect Ñ and then getting it more perfect.'

You don't get it much more perfect than this.