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50 years later, Sharif marvels that ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was made at all

By Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Here’s what Omar Sharif, then a young actor who had only worked in Egypt, thought when the offer of a co-starring role in “Lawrence of Arabia” came to him.

“I thought it was a bit of a stupid idea,” he says from Paris. “I mean, there were no girls. All of the actors, me included, were unknowns. There was little action. And a lot of desert. The public won’t pay to see that!”

He laughs at how wrong he was. Fifty years later, “Lawrence of Arabia” is revered as one of the greatest films ever made. Newly restored, it will be released on Blu-ray in November.

“It’s an extraordinary film. But when you are about to do it, you don’t see that. You don’t believe it will come out that way. You’re in the desert with unknown actors and David Lean. I had no idea of what I was doing. It was madness.”

The film launched the careers of co-stars Peter O’Toole, in the title role, and of Sharif, now 80. He plays Sherif Ali, the friend, fellow soldier and connection between the British officer Lawrence and the native Arabs he would stir to into revolt against the Turks, part of Britain’s World War I strategy to chase Turkey out of the war.

“David Lean hated actors. All of us. Well, not me. He took to me, a little bit. He was happy to have an Arab actor, from Egypt. He was kind to me and insisted I stay with him through the whole shoot, even when I wasn’t working. I was his Arab on the set, at his side, for the filming.”

Even when it was new, “Lawrence of Arabia” represented the sort of iconoclastic, uncompromising and detail-oriented movie making that Hollywood has never been known for. Director David Lean (“Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago”) decamped with cast and crew to the desert. And didn’t come back until he had a movie. Today, a James Cameron might try to manage that on sound stages with actors acting in front of green screens — the settings to be added later.

Michael Anderegg, author of the well-regarded biography “David Lean,” has used “Lawrence of Arabia” in college classes for years. “One question I ask the students is: Does it really matter that the sun that rises in the film is a ‘real’ sun as opposed to a CGI sun? The students, of course, don’t think it matters; I, of course, do.”

Sharif agrees. “It matters that when we see that distant speck on the horizon, that it’s an Arab on camel back, slowly making his way into the shot,” he says. “Producers today? They wouldn’t let even David Lean make a movie this way.”

Lean, Sharif says, was not just a great technician (he trained and worked as an editor). He cast his films with people he trusted to flesh out the characters and waited for them to surprise him.

“A very clever man,” Sharif says. “He said, ‘You know better than me how to play an Arab.’ And he left me alone.”

Sharif had worked in Egyptian films for over a decade before “Lawrence of Arabia” came along. He knows that the film changed his life forever. But he says that Lean was determined to make that prediction come true.

“He told me, after the film, ‘I don’t want you to ever play an Arab again. You are going to be a great star. Don’t let them put you in a corner.’ And the next film I did, he had me playing a Russian — ‘Doctor Zhivago.’ I think he did that just to make sure I didn’t play another Arab.”

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