Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite film of all time, and I’ve probably spent more time writing about it than is healthy. The movie is renowned for its amazing photography, cast-of-thousand battles and Maurice Jarre’s sweeping score. But I enjoy the movie as much for its quiet moments, however otherworldly beautiful David Lean’s desert landscapes are. This is the rare epic where the dialogue and layered characterizations hold as much appeal as the spectacle.
One key scene, occurring just before the intermission, is T.E. Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole) meeting with General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), the newly-arrived British commander in Cairo. Lawrence has led forces of the Arab Revolt in an expedition to seize the port city of Aqaba from Turkey, crossing the Sinai Desert with his two young servants (one of whom dies along the way). Lawrence, still wearing desert garb, is rudely thrust back into the “civilized” world of British colonial society, mocked by racist colleagues until Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) takes him to meet Allenby.
This is a pivotal moment in the story: Lawrence carried out his mission against orders (Brighton wasn’t even aware it had occurred), and from our experience with Lawrence’s earlier commander, General Murray (Donald Wolfit), it seems just as likely that he’ll be scolded as rewarded. But where Murray was a mutton-headed martinet, Allenby is an entirely different breed of general who immediately recognizes Lawrence’s worth while gauging his character. Thus the scene plays as combination of job interview and psychological battle, with Allenby holding a clear advantage.
The scene begins with a medium shot of Lawrence in his robes, crumpled uneasily in a chair as Allenby recites items from Lawrence’s CV. Naturally, the first words are “Undisciplined…Unpunctual…Untidy” before moving onto his skills and education (which Murray dismissed outright). The camera slowly pans towards Allenby, sitting behind a desk. He brands Lawrence “an interesting man” then demands that he account for his unauhtorized mission.
At this point, Lean pulls back to a static long shot (pictured above) which is maintained for most of the scene: Lawrence and Allenby staring across a table, general and subordinate accounting for himself. In the background sit Brighton and Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), Lawrence’s handler at the Arab Bureau, who watch in tense silence. Behind them is a map of the Arabian Peninsula. Allenby’s office is huge, imposing, empty: where Murray had affectations of British military might (portraits of the Western Front and so forth), Allenby makes it sparse and economical, a place to do business rather than to assert one’s worthiness.
All of which seems a typical mission briefing that you’d expect from a military movie, as Lawrence persuades Allenby that it’s worth supporting the Arabs. But Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt feel that it’s more important to probe Lawrence’s personality after his traumatic experience in the desert; he’s shaken not only by his servant Daud’s death, but also by his execution of Gassim earlier. In a long and wrenching monologue, Lawrence admits that he enjoyed killing the Arab, setting in motion a character arc that results in his massacring surrendering Turks at Tafas.
Lean’s direction in this scene, compared to the flamboyance of the desert vistas and battles, is sparse and direct but effective. When Lawrence gives his speech about killing, the camera slowly zooms in on him, with Peter O’Toole playing the scene with all manner of hesitant stammers and tics. Allenby shifts in his seat, as if he understands what Lawrence is about to tell him and trying to change the subject (“Let it be a warning”). Allenby looks shocked and downcast after hearing Lawrence’s confession, but dismisses it as “rubbish and nerves” and immediately moves on.
What’s most interesting here is how Allenby handles Lawrence. Murray viewed Lawrence as “the kind of creature I can’t stand,” ignored his talents and intellect and trapped him in a desk job he wasn’t fit for. Allenby, within a few minutes of arriving, has already assessed Lawrence, identifying his strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He appeases his vanity by soliciting comments from Brighton (military), Dryden (political) and an unseen “Mr. Perkins” (the common Tommy), promotes him to Major on the spot, dismisses his neuroses and affects a chummy attitude joking about Lawrence’s head wear.
Lawrence’s reaction to this is multifaceted. While he’s happy to showcase his strategic knowledge, he’s also riddled with guilt, exhaustion and despair. Despair over the bloodshed caused by his actions, a fear that if he returns to the front it will happen again. But Allenby trumps all these concerns by flattering him, inviting him for a drink to the bar in a long scene where flabbergasted soldiers salute Allenby (and Lawrence) as Kenneth Alford’s “Voice of the Guns” plays on the soundtrack. He relishes their attention and newfound respect, and soon enthusiastically outlines a new campaign plan for Allenby’s benefit.
The scene sets in motion the inevitable betrayals: Lawrence suspects British intentions towards the Arabs, which Allenby and Dryden try to deflect (“Difficult question, sir!”). Lawrence outlines his military needs, including artillery which flabbergasts Brighton and Dryden. Allenby departs before Lawrence can press the issue, leaving him in the hands of an admiring mob of British officers. Then of course, Allenby, Dryden and Brighton discuss Lawrence’s request, admitting that it’s out of the question (“Give them artillery and you’ve made them independent”). Allenby shows how fully he grasps the situation with his final line: “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil – he’s riding the whirlwind.”
It’sworthwhile to compare this scene to its inspiration in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Much of the scene plays out similarly to Lean and Bolt’s dramatization, with Lawrence meeting Allenby in his Arab robes, but Lawrence treats it with remarkable lack of gravity. He describes it as a “comic interview” where he manages to impress Allenby with his strategic arguments, with the General saying little until offering that “I will do what I can.” Lawrence comes to see Allenby as a father figure later on (another contrast to the film, where the two men warily circle each other without developing trust or affection) but it’s not really evident in their first encounter.
While Allenby’s arrival marks a crucial moment in WWI, the Arab Revolt and Lawrence’s career, he doesn’t dwell on it, and certainly doesn’t make it a moment of high drama; he devotes all of three paragraphs to their meeting. Lean and Bolt grant it about 15 minutes of screen time, use it to develop the characters and provide a crucial hinge in the film’s dramatic structure.