Lawrence of Arabia: How Small Moments Help Magnify An Epic
I must admit that my feelings toward Sir David Lean’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), cannot be described as a steady, unabated wave of adulation; instead, I’d call it an admiration that has ebbed and flowed over the years.
The first time I saw the film, as an impressionable tyke in the early 1960s, was on the big screen. Even now, I remember how overwhelmed I was by the breathtaking scale of the movie. In the scene where a guide is taking Lawrence across the desert for the first time, he (the guide) sees something in the distance. He points. Lawrence looks. The camera cuts to and pans across the enormous vista. I remember frantically searching the landscape, and I recall my frustration over not being able to see what the guide was pointing out. From that moment I was hooked. I could not look away because I was afraid I might miss something. Lean had succeeded in pulling me into his epic tale and I stayed with it to the very end.
Later, during my restless, know-it-all, adolescent years, I thought the film was too long, and whenever I tried to watch it on television I rarely made it to the end (of course, reducing those magnificent, widescreen vistas to panned and scanned images on minuscule monitors may have influenced my response, as well). Then, a few years ago (and by “few” I mean ten or fifteen) I began to notice little things, significant moments that, in my opinion, contribute to making Lawrence of Arabia the monumental work that I now believe it is.
It’s important to remember that before Lawrence and Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean’s first massive cinematic undertaking), the director was making small, intimate movies about individuals and relationships (Brief Encounter, Hobson’s Choice). And he never lost sight of that. What he learned during the making of those small films carried over into his epics; that is, he used the smaller moments to shed light on--and magnify--his subject matter. In Lawrence, two such moments stand out for me, and in both instances, a lighted match is involved.
The first is an example of brilliant writing that reveals a hell of a lot in a very short span. It’s early in the story. Lawrence is stuck in this drab office (as a map maker, I believe) when he is told to report to his superior officer. Before he heads out, he takes a lit match and slowly extinguishes the flame with his bare fingers. One of his fellow clerks then tries to copy Lawrence, and the hapless pencil pusher singes his fingers and yelps in pain. He calls to Lawrence, who is already heading for the door, and asks how he did it. “What’s the trick?” To which Lawrence answers, “The trick...is not minding that it hurts.”
In that brief exchange we’ve just been told: 1) why the British will never understand the Arabs or the Arab way of life; and 2) why the British Empire will never be able to conquer the Middle East. Throughout the film we hear the Brits bitching about the desert and the heat and the dust, and the “savage” code the Arabs seem to live by. And they cannot understand how anyone could, or would want to, live like this. In other words, the British are asking the same question the befuddled clerk had asked: What’s the trick?
The second instance is a stunning example of what can be accomplished through the language of cinema. It takes place shortly after the scene I just mentioned. Lawrence has been told he is to be dispatched to the field (the field, in this case, being the desert). He is very excited about the prospect, and the Claude Rains character can’t understand why anyone in his right mind would look forward to such an assignment. But Lawrence keeps insisting it will be fun, at which point he has another lighted match in his hand. He stares at the flame until it is about to reach his fingers--and he blows it out. And the film immediately cuts to a wide shot of a hot, orange, scorching desert (by the way, I put this cut right up there with Stanley Kubrick’s daring splice from prehistoric femur to futuristic space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
In that moment we’ve just witnessed the hubris of a man whose massive ego has convinced him he’ll be able to conquer the desert and lead the Arabs just as easily as it was for him to blow out that match. That stunning juxtaposition of shots (feeble match > sweltering desert) makes it clear he is in for a rude awakening.
I can be a slow learner at times, so I am not surprised it took me this long to appreciate all that Lawrence of Arabia has to offer (which is not to suggest I’ve uncovered all its gems; I’m sure there’s more to discover). I’m just glad I finally began to catch on before the gray cells start to fizzle out.