As mentioned in the previous installment, this scene is the true beginning of Lawrence's adventure, his embarkation into this "journey" film. The central question: is our hero worthy to take the trip?
Today's cinema rarely depicts the protagonist changing during the story. Instead, we're given supermen, and our task as an audience is to watch them overcome obstacles with their superhuman abilities. They are unchanged before, during, and after the objective has been accomplished. Mind numbing drudgery.
By contrast, here we see our hero as a buffoon, a philosophical quoting bookworm, who must be ushered by the conniving Dryden through the intricacies of manipulating his commanding General. It isn't until later that we see the protagonist develop into something more. Even into something sinister.
What's especially interesting is that this scene also marks the creation of Peter O'Toole as a great actor and star. One might even say that this scene "created" him. It's not only his character that's given a start here; the actor portraying that character is also set upon a real-life career.
The scene makes the man.
Note the fantastic hat rack - a clawing, spidery bit of fingers, echoing the imagery from the opening sequence (the clawing shrubbery that captures Lawrence's goggles) as well as other bits of imagery throughout the film. The cane hanging from it is a very, very nice touch. Whose cane is it? Dryden has his own office (as we shall see momentarily). Is it General Murrary's?
SOLDIER: Lawrence, sir.
MURRAY: (offscreen) Send him in!
The camera dollies back a bit as Lawrence enters. Even at this early stage in his development, he has enough presence to push back the camera - even if it's a clownish presence.
It's also just a bit "swishy." Mad Magazine famously lampooned the film by having Lawrence sing "I Feel Pretty" whilst swishing through the desert in his white robes. Homosexuality is an odd, recurring, hidden motif throughout the film. Peter O'Toole's performance hints at this bit of oddness throughout. As we'll see later in the "homosexual rape scene" at the hands of the Turks, the idealized Arabia that is depicted in this film does, indeed, have a very dark side.
Note how Lawrence's clothes don't fit him. This is most definitely a motif throughout the film - clothing, and how they "make the man." Later, of course, we see him dressed in Arab garb, and transformed into an entirely different "creature" than we see standing here in disheveled form.
LAWRENCE: Good morning, sir.
MURRAY: If you're insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I shall put you under arrest.
LAWRENCE: It's my manner, sir.
Claude Rain's mannerisms are absolutely priceless in this sequence. His hand gestures and facial expressions are like those of a parent with an unruly child in a very public place.
MURRAY: Your what?
LAWRENCE: My manner, sir. It looks insubordinate, but it isn't really.
Note the cannon always pointed at Murrary's head when he's seated at the desk.
MURRAY: You know, I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered, or just half-witted.
LAWRENCE: I have the same problem, sir.
I credit O'Toole's delivery of this line in particular as having launched his stardom. If you've ever seen this film in front of an audience (and I highly recommend that you do, if you're lucky enough to catch it at a revival theater) you'll notice how they visibly change with their laughter to liking not just the character, but the actor portraying him.
MURRAY: (off-screen) Shut up!
LAWRENCE: Yes, sir.
MURRAY: (off-screen) Now, the Arab Bureau seem to think you would be of some use to them in Arabia.
MURRAY: Why, I can't imagine! You don't seem able to perform your present duties properly.
It's a bit of interesting camera work here. Note that the background is slightly out-of-focus, increasing Lawrence's bit of dreamy otherworldliness as he finds a quote to pump himself up. The spidery, fingery hat rack to his camera right, a lighting fixture echoing it to the left. And of course, a set of windows to either side that bear a resemblance to a cage.
LAWRENCE: I cannot fiddle, but I can make a great state from a little city.
MURRAY: (off-screen) What?
LAWRENCE: Themistocles, sir.
Despite the film's portrayal of General Murray as a pompous buffoon, there is something entirely megalomoniacal about Lawrence quoting Themistocles here.
Themistocles was extant during the wars with Persia and especially the battle of Thermopolye (revived recently into pop-culture memory by the film "300"). Themistocles was known for being arrogant and pompous. He was finally exiled over a bit of trouble with Sparta, and ended up fleeing to Asia Minor to serve the Persian king Artaxerxes I as a General. For the remainder of his life.
In a sense, Themistocles and our hero have much in common - not the least of which is an arrogant dismissal over the "trivia" of life - the "fiddling" of small things in favor of "great states." Throughout the film Lawrence is preoccupied with building an Arab state, and takes its formation (or lack thereof) quite personally. In the end, the Lawrence of our film was a man who achieved fame as a "great man" but failed utterly to achieve his stated goal.
LAWRENCE: (off-screen) A Greek philosopher.
Which is, of course, not entirely true.
MURRAY: I know you've been well educated, Lawrence. It says so in your dossier.
Lawrence looks to Dryden, and the look says, "Is this guy for real?" Dryden, of course, tries to get Lawrence to "tone it down." It's a great bit of acting on both their parts, and the sort of thing that good directors always try to get: glances that say more than can be said in dialogue.
MURRAY: (off-screen) You're the kind of creature I can't stand, Lawrence!
Here's another bit of visual imagery that plays out through the film; a person facing away from the camera, doing a bit of mysterious thinking. There doesn't seem to be any final reason for Murray's sudden switch - except for being annoyed. Whatever the true reason for changing his mind, he doesn't voice it, and we don't see his face to get any clue.
MURRAY: But I suppose I could be wrong. All right, Dryden!
Note now how the hatrack and the chandelier are to Lawrence's camera left. There's been a sea-change in his world, and the mise-en-scene reflects it.
MURRAY: (off-screen) You can have him for six weeks.
MURRAY: Who knows? Might even make a man of him.
MURRAY: Come in. Yes? What is it, Hallon?
HALLON: Navy signal, sir. the convoy will be in Port Said tomorrow night.
MURRAY: Is that certain?
HALLON: Yes, sir. There doesn't seem to be any artillery, sir.
MURRAY: But there must be artillery!
Artillery - or lack thereof - becomes a recurring motif in the plot of the film. In this particular case it's ironic that Murray himself can not get artillery. Everyone is looking for artillery in this movie, and no one seems to get any.
DRYDEN: Sir, this is something of an expedition. He has to get to Yenbo, find a guide, find the Arabs, and then get back. He can't do that in six weeks.
MURRAY: Two months, then.
MURRAY: All right. Three. Now, will you let me do some work, Mr Dryden?
DRYDEN: Thank you, sir.
LAWRENCE: I'd like to say, sir, that I am grateful for this...
MURRAY: Shut up and get out!
Notice the fan directly over Lawrence's head. It foreshadows the reaping the "whirlwind" line from later in the film.
The salute is a childish rebuke to the General. It's the sort of gesture that Lawrence will grow out of as he changes through the film.
MURRAY: How can I fight a bloody war without bloody artillery!
Note that there are no artillery pieces in this final shot of General Murray. LT. Hallon blocks the cannon pointing at Murray's head. It's a visual joke piled on top of a plot joke.
Now Lawrence can begin his journey - but not without some extra information he needs to get from Dryden, in the shaky hall scene.
Next up: The Shaky Hall
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