In our last installment, Lawrence's funeral scene was wrapping up and the pompous retired General Murray said of Lawrence: "Knew him? No, I never knew him. He had some minor function on my staff... in Cairo."
We might expect something a bit more elaborate to bring us back in time to Cairo. But Lean instead simply quick-cuts to Cairo. This film has often been criticized as "overblown," but it's an unfair characterization, especially in light of its use of simplicities as this. One moment, we're at Lawrence's funeral; the next moment, "zip!" we're back in Cairo, decades earlier, without much fuss.
Note the two bowls and two tubes of paint placed on the map, all at a dutch angle to the camera. Up to this point in Lawrence's life, his understanding and knowledge of Arabia has been confined to books and maps, a point that will be referenced later. Visually, all of this is alluded to in this one elegant bit of chiaroscuro.
As an audience, we have been conditioned to think of shots such as this in a narrative way; that is, we mentally combine this shot with the next of Lawrence, and assume that the "owner" of the hand tracing the lines across the Persian Gulf "belongs" to Lawrence. But, like the disembodied "eye" at the beginning of Blade Runner, this is not necessarily so. The shot becomes, instead, a metaphorical commentary on the entire film; if the hand is not Lawrence's then whose is it?
While it may be banal to put the answer into words (the hand of God, Fate, Destiny, etc.), it is interesting enough to note that the composition places the mystery to us visually.
The next shot is just as interesting...
Now we see the "owner" of the hand; T.E. Lawrence, placed in a dingy, bureaucratic basement, with spider cables and little card index filing cabinets everywhere. Two fans whir from the ceiling behind him. Lawrence "stirs the pot" absent-mindedly as he looks at his cartographic handiwork.
A grunting noise is heard, a shadow crosses over Lawrence, and he looks up.
Through bars, we see two camels walking past. Far in the background, the minaret of a mosque, perhaps?
With that, we are introduced not only to Lawrence, but to his current station in life; a bookish fellow looking up to and separated from the "adventure" he dearly craves.
The next shot is fairly lengthy and played in a deceptively conventional manner. It's staged more like a play, in which the actors move about in the frame through intricate blocking, while the camera is locked off.
We can imagine this long bit of dialogue shot being composed today with a plethora of different camera angles: mediums and closeups, a few dollies, zooms, and "shaking" thrown in for good measure. By today's standards, one would almost call this sequence "dull."
It points to something that has been lost in the years since Lawrence was made: the calm assertiveness to present a scene with subtlety. Today's audience, accustomed to a new shot every three seconds, would have difficulty keeping its ass still through something as calm and intricate as this scene.
LAWRENCE: Michael George Hartley. This is a nasty, dark little room.
HARTLEY: That's right.
LAWRENCE: We are not happy in it.
HARTLEY: I am. It's better than a nasty, dark little trench.
LAWRENCE: Then, you're a big noble fellow.
HARTLEY: That's right.
Throughout the film, symmetry is consistently broken and reformed. Note that we could have been presented to Hartley's presence earlier in a two shot; instead, we are presented first with Lawrence, as if he were alone in the room. But the film waits a few shots to have the symmetry of two people in the room completed.
There's something interesting going on in the background when our next character, William Potter is introduced. First we hear his steps, then we see his shadow. Sound, then shadow, then the introduction; it is something that occurs again and again in the film, as happened with the two camels behind bars just moments before.
Lawrence notes the new character without having to look up...
LAWRENCE: Ah! Here is William Potter with my newspaper.
POTTER: Here you are, Tosh!
LAWRENCE: Thanks. Would you care for one of Corporal Hartley's cigarettes?
Potter takes one of the cigarettes, then hovers over Lawrence's shoulder...
POTTER: Ta. Is it there?
LAWRENCE: Of course. Headlines, but I bet it isn't mentioned in The Times. "Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold", and I bet that no one in this whole headquarters even knows it happened, or cared if it did.
As Lawrence reaches out for a match, we hear footsteps and then another shadow coming from the back of the room...
LAWRENCE: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.
FLIMSEY: Sir. Mr Lawrence?
FLIMSEY: Flimsey, sir.
Rather than look back at Flimsey right away, Lawrence does a bit of "theatrics" by extinguishing the match with his bare fingers...
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
... creating, once again, a bit of smoke near the messenger "Flimsey."
HARTLEY: You'll do that once too often; it's only flesh and blood!
LAWRENCE: Michael George Hartley, you're a philosopher.
POTTER: And you're balmy!
Another fun bit of actor business: Lawrence plops one of the brushes into his mouth - specifically, a dark-colored one, as opposed to the light-colored one he was using to draw on the map earlier. We should note that he never smokes in the film.
Flimsey, rather than get caught up in it all, quickly turns away and leaves, only for a moment completing the symmetry of having four people in the room.
Lawrence reads the note, then quickly moves to gather the rest of his uniform so that he may leave.
Meanwhile, Potter tries to replicate Lawrence's "match" trick...
POTTER: Ow! It damn well hurts.
LAWRENCE: Certainly, it hurts!
POTTER: Well, what's the trick then?
LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
Note how, once Lawrence has made his way towards the back of the room, Potter moves to camera right to "fill" Lawrence's vacated space -- but is a tad smaller in the frame than Lawrence was earlier.
LAWRENCE: Oh, by the way. If Captain Gibbon should inquire for me, tell him I've gone for a chat with the General.
POTTER: He's balmy!
HARTLEY: He's all right.
Lawrence now leaves the scene as both Potter and Flimsey, and the two camels, appeared: with a trace of shadow and sound. And the symmetry of the room is now restored, with Potter and Hartley the sole remaining occupants.
Today's filmmakers should note that there's a great deal to learn about blocking of actors within this scene; though not as flashy as some of the blocking work of Orson Welles, it demonstrates a subtle mastery of the art that we should see more of today.
Next up: The Pool Table.
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