In my previous installments on Lawrence of Arabia, I discussed the film's fairy-tale idealization of Mohammedanism and made a visual analysis of the opening sequence of Lawrence's death.
Here I delve into the funeral sequence, which sets up the narrative to jump back to before Lawrence became the mythical "El Awrence." There is much to learn here for the filmmaker.
We begin with a statue of Lawrence at his funeral. This serves not just as a mythical introduction, but a cinematic nod to what the entire film really is - not a historical document, but a bit of trickery; not the truth, but an idealization. Of course two British flags flank him on either side. There are also shades here of Rene Magritte's painting "The Treachery of Images" (which I discuss in relation to Citizen Kane here). The words "T.E. Lawrence 1888-1935" serve the same function as the statue itself. Which, I suppose, is why the statue doesn't necessarily have to be a smooth "realistic" portrayal as is so often the case with these funerary statues.
Filmmakers take note: the shot is a "dolly-out" (with a bit of jib-arm action to catch the words below his bronzed face). And not just because dolly shots "looks cool," but because it has meaning. We are drawing away from Lawrence's image as he enters history. Only an idiot would have dollied in at this point.
We are then treated to some fun bit of dialogue between Colonel Brighton (who served as something of a foil to Lawrence throughout the film, then ended up sympathizing with him in the end) and a rather silly British Vicar:
BRIGHTON: He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.
VICAR: Did you know him well?
BRIGHTON: I knew him.
VICAR: Well, nil nais ibonam, but did he really deserve a place in here?
Today we can easily imagine a mediocrity splitting this shot up into ten or twenty "shakeycam" shots. Must keep the audience from wiggling in their seat during a dialogue sequence, after all! But in an earlier time, it was perfectly acceptable to concentrate on the dialogue and have a simple shot once in a while.
I should say deceptively simple, of course. Note the figures out of focus in the background, walking screen right to left, and the two honor-guard soldiers with guns flanking either side of the image. This is a dark shot.
Of course it would be Brighton who starts the theme of "extraordinary" for the film -- the very man who nagged Lawrence throughout the film for being an upstart.
Nil nais ibonam, indeed; this entire film "speaks ill of the dead" and it knows it.
And now we see what "place" the Vicar was referring to: St. Paul's Cathedral. Lean gives us a "pan down" shot of the exterior of the Cathedral. Now there's all sorts of ways to do this, but note that we get to see the missing "clock" on the left which mars the symmetry of the shot. This becomes a visual theme throughout the film, of symmetry slightly married by a missing "thing." It also ties into the theme of broken time (which is so humorously touched on when Anthony Quinn's Auda Abu Tayi is outraged by a broken clock towards the middle of the film).
Note also that the camera is a bit off-axis from the front door, marring the symmetry and forcing the lines of the steps, etc., to be a bit diagonal. You may think that maybe there was no other way to get the shot. Perhaps they couldn't maneuver the crane in for a closer on-axis shot, or they were restricted to a single window across the street. I don't think so.
Now we get our introduction to General Allenby. Coming down the steps from screen right, he is greeted by a reporter coming up from screen left. As I mentioned in the previous installment, there's something going on in this film with different levels of elevation. It's a hierarchical statement of sorts; Allenby goes down the steps and disappears to the world of history (but not before effacing the reporter, who gives him a nasty look as he does so).
REPORTER: Lord Allenby, could you give me a few words about Colonel Lawrence?
ALLENBY: What, more words? The revolt in the desert played a decisive part in the Middle-Eastern Campaign.
REPORTER: Yes, sir. But about Colonel Lawrence himself?
ALLENBY: No, I didn't know him well, you know.
A very curious exchange. Allenby knew Lawrence perhaps better than anyone else in the film - or at the very least knew how to manipulate him. As the American reporter Bentley claims later in the film, "Watch out for that Allenby. He's a slim customer."
Speaking of Bentley:
REPORTER: Mr Bentley. You must know as much about Colonel Lawrence as anybody does.
BENTLEY: Yes. It was my privilege to know him, and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior.
REPORTER: Thank you.
BENTLEY: He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.
MEDICAL OFFICER: You, sir. Who are you?
BENTLEY: My name is Jackson Bentley.
MEDICAL OFFICER: Well, whoever you are, I overheard your last remark and I take the gravest possible exception. He was a very great man.
BENTLEY: Did you know him?
MEDICAL OFFICER: No, sir. I can't claim to have known him. I once had the honor to shake his hand in Damascus.
At first glance this just looks like a bit of silliness. But it's important to note (and many online transcripts of "Lawrence Of Arabia" seem to miss this point) that this Medical Officer appears three times in the film. His first appearance is here. His second is towards the end of the film, in Damascus, when he slaps Lawrence in his outrage over the disgusting treatment of the Turkish wounded in Damascus. The third is when he shakes Lawrence's hand, unaware that he slapped Lawrence earlier. Lawrence almost recognizes him at that time, but lets it pass.
The "Medical Officer" part is crucial to understanding the film. He is a willing dupe and participant in the British Empire -- one who calls Arabs "wogs" but is disgusted to see foreign combatants treated inhumanely, one who will defend the honor of a man he unwittingly slapped as a "wog." At first, he comes across as a stuffy British stereotype; by the end of the film, his role is far, far deeper.
MURRAY: Knew him? No, I never knew him. He had some minor function on my staff in Cairo.
Of course Murray knew him. This is the mediocre attempting to inflate one's own self by deflating another. Murray was, in fact, removed from his post as General in Cairo in favor of Allenby. But only after sending Lawrence off to the desert to be rid of him.
Next installment: Cairo.
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