From the moment the lights dim it is apparent that "Lawrence of Arabia" is not going to be like any other movie opening this week - or this year. Or perhaps this decade.

It begins with an overture before the curtains open, that familiar lush Maurice Jarre score. Then as the credits roll on the right of the huge 70mm screen we see a steep overhead shot of Peter O'Toole on the left, preparing to ride a motorcycle.Later in the film there is a mesmerizing scene of the hot desert with the distant figure of a man on a camel gradually revealed as Omar Sharif's character comes into view for the first time.

And later still various sequences that show large groups - literally hundreds of people - on enormous expanses of desert. And these are not static shots; each has dramatic intent and punch.

Now imagine those moments on television - even on a fairly large screen. The sides chopped off with the scene shifting from side to side to accommodate dialogue exchanges, or worse, with frequent commercial interruptions.

There's no way such a viewing can possibly capture the magnificence of David Lean's masterful direction as he tells a compelling story and creates unforgettable characters.

Seeing "Lawrence of Arabia" in its new and improved state, with crisp color enhancement for that gorgeous cinematography, a new stereo soundtrack and one of the finest examples ever of 70mm camera work to tell a story, is like seeing a brand-new film.

And that's one of the things that appealed to Robert A. Harris and his partner Jim Painten when they began a restoration project to "fix" the film. But they never expected it to become 1989's first surprise box office hit, which has happened in cities where "Lawrence" has already opened.

"Audiences today seem to have picked up on that feeling of great moviemaking, as opposed to the small filmmaking of today," Painten said from his Los Angeles office.

"We were totally overwhelmed by the response. We expected there would be a great response from the film-buff crowd and art-house crowd, as there has been with other (restoration projects - such as "Lost Horizon," "A Star Is Born," "Napoleon").

"But when the press began to pick up on `Lawrence,' they realized that, sure, it's a wonderful restoration and it looked better than ever and had Dolby Stereo sound, but it's also about something, someone. It's about a hero, and a true hero, a real-life, fabulous person.

"You can go and see `Gone With the Wind," and it's great, but it feels 1930-ish, it feels older. `Lawrence' could have been made and released today."

On the other hand, it would probably cost so much it could never be made the same way today. " `Lawrence' cost, as I understand it, and this was back in 1960, about $12 million. It was a couple of years in the making, an 18-month shoot in Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. And when they got out into the desert, it was absolutely fantastic. There were hundreds and hundreds of people out on this barren waste, and they had two mess halls, one with Arabic food and one with English food. It was big, and it took a long time."

As for the restoration, begun some 25 years after the film's first release, it was also a painstaking ordeal.

"Basically we're talking about getting in the neighborood of 16 to 17 minutes back in the running time. `Lawrence' was 222 minutes in its initial release in 1962. Then (producer) Sam Spiegel was approached by exhibitors who urged him to cut 20 minutes so they could add an extra show. So he did."

Ironically, Lean was unaware of Spiegel's editing orders, being deep in preparations for his next film, "Doctor Zhivago." It was eight years later before Lean realized how much of his film had been trimmed, and another 17 years before Harris and Painten approached him about attempting to find it and put it back.

Digging through Columbia Pictures' archives and gathering foreign-language prints from around the world, Painten said what they had thought would last six months turned into an 18-month project.

And, true to form, perfectionist Lean still couldn't resist tinkering with his film after the restoration was complete.

"When we were finished," Painten said, "we put about 19 minutes back in. But Lean, who is 80-going-on-50, retouched it some more. He made a few cuts and did some fine-tuning, about two minutes worth, and we ended up with about 17 minutes in the end.

"Most of the restored pieces are in the first half, and there are five or six complete pieces we simply put back in.

"First was a little scene after O'Toole dies on the motorcycle, the goggles swinging from a branch. And then it used to cut right to the outside of St. Paul's and pan down the steps, but now it first cuts to a bust of Lawrence inside the crypt, followed by a brief conversation between the vicar and Anthony Quayle.

"Next was the scene that comes after we first meet Lawrence in the map room. Before, it cut up to the general's office as he's talking to Claude Rains. But now we have the billiard table scene in the officer's club, which kind of sets up this wonderful relationship between buffoon Lawrence and the other guys, showing that they think of him as an odd character.

"Then there's a nice little scene when Lawrence has convinced Ali (Omar Sharif) to go to Aqaba. Feisel (Alec Guinness) comes out and says, `Where are you going?' and then asks, `In whose name do you really ride?' That whole scene went back in.

"Another piece in the first half comes after we meet (Anthony) Quinn, when he invites Lawrence and his men to go to his camp to eat. After that moment it cut directly into the interior of Quinn's tent at night. We added that whole, wonderful, whirling, swarming entrance into Quinn's camp.

"Then the last piece in the first half comes after they've taken Aqaba and Lawrence realizes he can't make contact with Cairo. He says he'll take the two boys with him and they begin their trek across the Sinai Desert, these huge anthill-looking things, and he asks them if they've ever slept in beds. It sets up the death of one of the boys, and later the line in the officer's club where Lawrence asks for a bed with sheets and then says it's for the boy.

"The last entire scene was the fireside chat between (Jack) Hawkins and Quayle.

"The rest of it was little things that had been trimmed in various other scenes."

The most serious problem was that despite their ultimately finding all the footage needed to do the job, soundtracks could not be located and no shooting scripts were available. So lip-readers were brought in to reconstruct dialogue exchanges.

"In some cases we had to revoice the dialogue with Alec Guinness and Peter O'Toole in London - Lean did that himself - and Anthony Quinn in New York. And I tracked down Arthur Kennedy in Georgia and had him redo some stuff." (Actor Charles Gray dubbed the voice of the late Jack Hawkins.) Then they had to be mechanically altered slightly to match the rest of the film, since the actors' voices had deepened with age.

Currently Painten and Harris are working on a 35mm reduction negative for a post-70mm release of "Lawrence" later in the year, and eventually the restored version of the film will be released on video and laser disc in the letterbox format.