From Wikipedia, which isn't always the worst encyclopedia on the planet:
Sand tables have been used for military planning and wargaming for many years as a field expedient, small-scale map, for planning and training for military actions. However, this increasingly fell out of favour with improved maps, aerial and satellite photography, and later, with digital terrain simulations.
An abax was a table covered with sand commonly used by students, particularly in Greece, to perform studies such as writing, geometry, and calculations.
An abax was the predecessor to the abacus. Objects, such as stones, were added for counting and then columns for place valued arithmetic. The demarcation between an abax and an abacus seems to be poorly defined in history, moreover, modern definitions of the word "abacus" universally describe it as a frame with rods and beads and, in general, do not include the definition of "sand table".
The sand table may well have been the predecessor to some board games. ("The word abax, or abacus, is used both for the reckoning-board with its counters and the play-board with its pieces, ...")
Abax is from the old Greek for "Sand Table".
Now we get to the heart of Lawrence's launch into history. As with any "road" or "journey" film (and Lawrence Of Arabia certainly fits into this genre), there's usually a bit of conflict involved at the very beginning as to whether the journey will be taken at all. Is the hero worthy of embarkation?
Note all of the "stuff" in Murray's place; toy cannons, maps, statues, glorious paintings of artillery on the wall, statues everywhere, and globes dotting the background. And, of course, a relief map of the area. Set decoration is one of those key elements of character description that is often overlooked in novice filmmakers; in the hands of a seasoned hand, it can not only illustrate character, it can provide commentary on it.
And what does General Murrary's office say about him? That he is a "sand table" general. A man more interested in his honor and the crease of his uniform than in winning the war. A buffoon who must determine the fate of our protagonist.
The central question of the film becomes clear here: what, exactly, is Lawrence? Which is, after all, not only the primary question of the film -- but for Lawrence himself.
MURRAY: It's an intrigue, Dryden!
MURRAY: And I do not propose to let an over-wheeling, finicking, crass lieutenant thumb his nose at his general officer commanding and get away with it.
DRYDEN: He doesn't sound as though he'd be any great loss, sir.
Claude Rains was a perfect casting choice for the calculating, bureaucratic Dryden; he was one of those great actors who intellectually understood his lines so well that he could not only place emphasis on just the right word for the character to accomplish a goal, he could also provide the audience a wink and a nod without breaking the fourth wall.
He's most famous in pop-culture for his part in the film "Casablanca," and his line "I'm shocked! Shocked!"; but that film doesn't hold a candle to our current subject, and Raine's mastery of his craft had grown by leaps and bounds in this film. While Rains appeared in two other films since this, Lawrence was his last "great" film.
MURRAY: Now, don't try that, Dryden. There's a principle involved.
DRYDEN: There is, indeed.
Note how Dryden holds the Arabic newspaper, with the words effacing his own image. Dryden always has a bit of stageplay to do with his hands, whether it's a paper, a cane, his glasses, or simply his face. Dryden is fluent in body language, and he uses this skill as a martial artist.
Make no mistake; this sequence between Dryden and General Murray is a slow-motion battle between "old men" (as Prince Feisal notes towards the end of the film). Hence the set decoration becomes not just a commentary on General Murray's character, but a commentary on the "action" of this scene.
DRYDEN: He's of no use here in Cairo; he might be in Arabia. He knows his stuff, sir.
MURRAY: Knows his books, you mean. I've already sent out Colonel Brighton, who's a soldier, and if Brighton thinks we should send them some small arms, then we will.
MURRAY: What more do you want?
DRYDEN: There would be no question of Lieutenant Lawrence giving military advice, sir.
Which is, of course, patently silly and most likely a lie. Dryden probably knows that Lawrence won't be able to keep his mouth shut and will try to influence the Bedoin, and Prince Feisal, to fight back harder against the Turks.
Note how the cane visually "splits" Dryden in two. Here is a bifurcated man. Later in the film, Dryden becomes, in a sense, a satirical version of those ambassadors who negotiated secret treaties (such as the Treaty of London) that helped foment WWI and eventually sickened the public so much that it ended with the United States rejecting the Treaty of Versailles.
Even now Dryden is probably considering a secret treaty or alliance in regards to splitting the bounty of Arabia, and considers Lawrence the man to make it possible.
"It's an intrigue, Dryden!" indeed.
MURRAY: By God, I should hope not!
DRYDEN: It's just that the Arab Bureau would like its own man on the spot, sir, to uh...
MURRAY: To what?
DRYDEN: ...to make our own appraisal of the situation.
MURRAY: I may as well tell you it's my considered opinion, and that of my staff, that any time spent on the Bedouin will be time wasted.
MURRAY: (off-screen) They're a nation of sheep-stealers.
DRYDEN: They did attack Medina.
MURRAY: (off-screen) Well, the Turks made mincemeat of them.
DRYDEN: We don't know that, sir.
MURRAY: We know they didn't take it. A storm in a tea-cup, Dryden; a side-show.
MURRAY: (Off-screen) Do you want my own opinion? This whole theater of operations is a side-show.
It's a fun bit of dialogue, Murrary's use of the military term "theater of operations;" this conversation is a theater of operations.
MURRAY: The real war's being fought against the Germans, not the Turks, and not here but on the Western Front, in the trenches.
MURRAY: (Off-screen) Your Bedouin army, or whatever it calls itself, would be a side-show of a side-show.
DRYDEN: Big things have small beginnings, sir.
In the next shot, on the wall to screen left - is that a picture of Archduke Ferdinand? Small beginnings, indeed.
Murray, incensed by his losing this "side-show" argument with Dryden, stands up from his desk to make a bluster.
MURRAY: Does the Arab Bureau want a 'big thing' in Arabia?
MURRAY: If they rise against the Turks, does the Bureau think they're going to sit down quietly under us when they're asked until this war's over?
It's an interesting bit of body language. Murray is attempting to win the fight by physically overshadowing Dryden...
...but Dryden will have none of it, and, using his cane, stands up to the General, who still attempts to fight back with a jut of his chin.
DRYDEN: The Bureau thinks the job at the moment, sir... is to win the war.
MURRAY: Don't tell me my duties, Dryden!
And with that last bit of pathetic, Murray steps away from Dryden. He has lost the battle.
The choice of Rains was indeed inspired, especially in contrast to Murray, who is played by Donald Wolfit. While Wolfit is certainly a decent enough actor, he is not nearly as great as Rains. Notice how his hands seem to be aching for something to hold on to; he seems uncomfortable in his blocking. A good director can use that discomfort, as Lean does here.
Next up... Lawrence enters the room, and the real fun in the "Themistocles" scene begins.
contact ladd @ filmladd dot com