Sunday, March 11, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Lawrence of Arabia

I was reminded last week that very early on, when I started writing about movies, that I was going to stop doing obituaries; when I re-purposed a look at Pickup on South Street, I cut out an accompanying obituary I had written about Richard Widmark, who had recently passed. I don't like writing obituaries. They're depressing. Better to write about the performances of people as if they were alive—the performances certainly are, no matter how long ago the actor or artist had left the stage.

But, I will make an occasional exception—like this one for Peter O'Toole. I had had this scene ready to go for years, but hadn't found the "angle" to write about it yet. 

Until O'Toole had the temerity to deny us any further performances. Then, I made the exception...because he was so exceptional. It's not customary to applaud in a movie theater—there's no one there to receive it—unless, of course, you are so moved by it that you can't help yourself. This was my applause at his final bow.

The Story:  "I read the news today, ooooh boy."

Peter Seamus O'Toole died Saturday (December 14, 2013) at the age of 81 years of living life to the full and relishing a career as an actor, communicating that joy with every part. He was always an "active" actor, investing even moments of thought with a commitment of 110%, making you believe that the brain behind the haunted blue eyes was percolating at a boil, making each moment on stage or on film an event and a master-class in acting at its highest register. "Magnificent" was never too strong a word for a Peter O'Toole performance.  

And daring. I remember seeing him perform Henry Higgins in an HBO taping of "Pygmalion" and he had the audacity to perform some of it while chomping exquisitely through an apple. That's my favorite version of the character, revealing an ego so large and so confident in a class system (that he claimed to despise) that even acting like a slob did not diminish his own confidence in his standing or elocution. It takes a great deal of invention to come up with a way to convey those dichotomies in so simple an act.

There are going to be many, many tributes to the man over the next few days full of the actor's generosity and examples of how he lived his life with a great theatricality.

John Goodman had a good O'Toole story on "Inside the Actor's Studio."  The two were doing a movie together (King Ralph, written and directed by David S. Ward, after the novel by Emlyn Williams) and during a smoke-break, Goodman started looking around for something to put his ashes in. O'Toole responded with a flourish of arms (I suppose) and a loud, royal air (imitated by Goodman): "Boy, make the WORLD your ash-tray!"

Lovely. And he had the perfect answer to what he wanted on his tombstone.
"Many years ago I had a beloved leather jacket... and I never wanted to throw it away.  I sent it to the cleaners because it was covered in blood and Guinness and scotch and Corn Flakes, the usual.  It went off to the Sycamore Cleaners and it came back with a thing pinned on it: 'It distresses us to return work which is not perfect' - so I want that on my tombstone."

I've had this scene from Lawrence of Arabia planned for awhile, as it contains some fine writing and the single greatest movie edit in the medium's history. I had no idea what I was going to write about it, but it was sitting there on my hard-drive, waiting for meaning and relevance. And with the news of his passing, his career ended but ever-present to be enjoyed for ages to come, this is its time. That edit perfectly conveys the moment of loss (the blowing out of the match) at his passing, and the eternal legacy of his work (the light of a new day emerging, strong and powerful and in perpetuity.

Goodbye, Mr. O'Toole. "It won't really be...good-bye."

The Set-Up: The film is just beginning, but, at this point, T. E. Lawrence (O'Toole) has been summoned to the office of General Murray (Donald Wolfit) in Cairo, at the request of Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau.


CLOSE SHOT. GENERAL MURRAY is one of those regulation officers whose pride is to appear more regulation than anyone can be. His face is hard and shrewd, his expression exasperated. He is seated at his desk. On the wall behind him is an “Illustrated London News” type pen and ink sketch of heavy artillery on the Western front. On a ledge under the picture is a collection of empty shell cases of varying sizes. GENERAL MURRAY is addressing DRYDEN, a donnish man with a pale, lined, lively face, wearing civilian clothes, who at this moment has his back to us as he stands looking out of a window overlooking the gardens of the Headquarters.

MURRAY: I smell an intrigue! An intrigue between the Arab Bureau and a junior officer of my staff! A very junior officer, an insubordinate junior officer, an officer who, so far as I can gather, has proved markedly incompetent in a very junior post!

DRYDEN turns from the window, smiling a little at the reference to LAWRENCE’s incompetence, and offers a smiling explanation of it.

DRYDEN: He wants to go to Arabia, sir.

He strolls away from the window towards a chair in front of MURRAY’s desk, the CAMERA TRACKING BACKWARDS with him into a medium shot of the two of them. We now see that DRYDEN is carrying a copy of the Arabic newspaper.

MURRAY: I’m aware of that. He’s made application for a posting to Arabia once a month ever since he got here. Very well then, the Arab Bureau comes along and says, “We want an Intelligence man in Arabia. We want you to second us a man in Arabia. We think it should be Mr. Lawrence.”
MURRAY: It’s an intrigue, Dryden, and I don’t propose to let an over-weening, finicking, crass Lieutenant...
MURRAY: ...thumb his nose at his General Officer Commanding,...
MURRAY: ... and get away with it!
He loosens the collar of his shirt as DRYDEN smiles again, and sits in the chair.
DRYDEN:(calmly quizzical) It doesn’t sound as though he’d be any great loss, sir.
MURRAY: Now don’t try that, Dryden. There’s a principle involved.


DRYDEN:(suddenly quite sharp—but still calm) There is indeed. He’s no use here in Cairo and he might be in Arabia. He knows his stuff, sir.

28 CLOSE UP. MURRAY. He is a little put out by the moral tone of this, which though a shade spinsterish is not less authentic for that. He grumbles:
MURRAY: Knows the books you mean. (“books” is very contemptuous)
MURRAY: I’ve already sent out Colonel Brighton—who is a soldier—and if Brighton thinks we should send them some small arms then we will.
MURRAY: What mored’you want? 


DRYDEN: There would be no question of Lieutenant Lawrence 

giving military advice, sir— 
MURRAY: —My God I should hope not! 
DRYDEN: It’s just that the Arab Bureau wants its own man on the 
spot sir, to ... 
MURRAY:(suspicious) To what? 

DRYDEN: To make our own appraisal of the situation. 

DRYDEN spreads his hands deprecatingly as he says this, as 
one who makes an almost childishly 
small request. But his eyes are ready for conflict—he speaks for the Bureau—and MURRAY is 
uneasy. This is a conflict which has been brewing for some time. 


He looks away, fiddles with a ruler. Blurts out: 

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: They’re a nation of sheep stealers! 


He raises and lets fall the newspaper. 

DRYDEN: They did attack Medina. 
MURRAY:(off) And 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— 
(he broods) 

MURRAY: If you want my own opinion, this whole theatre of operations is a side-show. 

MURRAY: The real war’s being fought against the Germans not the Turks. Not here, but on the 
Western Front ... in the trenches! 
(his eyes glow and we see for a moment how he longs to be there, organising mass attacks 
through mud) 

MURRAY: And your “Bedouin Army” or whatever it calls itself—would be a side-show of a sideshow! 


He is smiling again. 

DRYDEN: Big things have small beginnings, sir. *


MURRAY darts a quick look at him and rises. 

MURRAY: And 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 this war’s over?

DRYDEN: The Bureau thinks the job of the moment is to win the war.
MURRAY: (flushing, walks back to his desk) Don’t tell me my duty, Mr. Dryden.


The door is opened by a STAFF MAJOR. Behind him we see LAWRENCE standing in the outer office. 
He moves forward as soon as he is announced.

MAJOR: Lawrence, sir.
MURRAY: (off) Send him in.

LAWRENCE brushes past the MAJOR and walks into the room.

LAWRENCE: (cheerfully) Good morning, sir.


MURRAY: Salute!


LAWRENCE comes to a halt near DRYDEN and salutes, very badly, his legs not quite together, 
and throws a side-long glance at DRYDEN expecting approbation, but DRYDEN shakes his head 
quickly, somewhat to LAWRENCE’s surprise.


MURRAY has been looking at LAWRENCE, ready to be enraged, but 
with something not unlike caution, 
but he intercepts the look at DRYDEN and explodes.

MURRAY: If you’re insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I’ll put you under arrest!
LAWRENCE: (apparently crestfallen) It’s my manner, sir.

MURRAY: (barks, suspicious) What?
LAWRENCE: My manner, sir. It looks insubordinate, but it isn’t really.

MURRAY is again baffled by his own lack of imagination and 
LAWRENCE’s apparent innocence. 
He moves uneasily.

MURRAY: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
LAWRENCE: (confidentially) I have the same trouble, sir.
MURRAY: (thumping the table) Shut up!
LAWRENCE: Yes sir.

MURRAY: The Arab Bureau seems to think you could be some use to them in Arabia. 
Why, I can’t imagine. You don’t seem able to perform your present duties properly.

LAWRENCE: (smiling, he quotes—not mockingly, but as dons do quote, en passant) “I cannot 
fiddle but I can make a great state from a little city.”
MURRAY: (suspicious, barks) What? 

LAWRENCE: (delicately helpful) Themistocles, sir. 

LAWRENCE: A Greek philosopher.

MURRAY: I know you’ve been well educated, Lawrence; it says so in your dossier.

He pushes back his chair, rises, and walks to a window.


LAWRENCE raises his eyebrows and smiles enquiringly at DRYDEN, but DRYDEN frowns and gestures
with his hand that he is to simmer down.


MURRAY standing looking out of the window. A swirl of dust blows by outside. MURRAY’s face 
is dark with all the extrovert’s loathing of the sensitive and introspective. He says, slowly 
and with great sincerity:

MURRAY: You’re the kind of creature I can’t stand, Lawrence ...
MURRAY: ...but I suppose I could be wrong. All right, Dryden.


MURRAY: (off) You can have him for six weeks.

LAWRENCE’s face lights up, but almost immediately he composes 

42 CLOSE SHOT. MURRAY has turned around eyeing LAWRENCE heavily.

MURRAY: Who knows! It might even make a man of him. (in answer to a knock at the door) 

MURRAY: Come in!


The door opens and the STAFF MAJOR enters excitedly with a sheaf of bills.

MURRAY: What is it, Hawthorn?
MAJOR: Navy signal, sir. The convoy’s coming in tomorrow night.
MURRAY: (real joy) Is that certain?
MAJOR: Yes sir ... there doesn’t seem to be any artillery.

MURRAY’s joy changes to anxiety. He snatches the paper.

MURRAY: There must be artillery!

DRYDEN and LAWRENCE have been forgotten.

DRYDEN: (firmly) It’s something of an expedition, sir. He has got to get to Yenbo, find 
transport, find the Arabs, and then get back. He can’t do that in six weeks.
MURRAY: Two months then.
DRYDEN: Three.

MURRAY: All right, three! Now let me do some work, Dryden. 

And immediately his attention is back on the papers.

DRYDEN: Thank you, sir.

DRYDEN leaves, beckoning to LAWRENCE to follow, but LAWRENCE remains. He addresses MURRAY’s bent 
head. He is sincere and correspondingly awkward.

LAWRENCE: I’d like to say, sir, that I am grateful for ....

MURRAY: Shut up and get out.


His expression is hurt, then viciously resentful; then is replaced by his habitual protective 

THE CAMERA PANS with him as he goes to the door and turns:



They both look up.


He performs a slow-motion parody of the regulation army saluteand goes.


Even before the door has closed MURRAY is searching rapidly through the Bills of Lading. 

He comes to the end and starts again, more and more frantically.Suddenly he cries out 
in real distress.

MURRAY: Oh, how can I fight a bloody war without bloody artillery?




runs up behind him.

LAWRENCE: Oh, Shabash, Dryden!

DRYDEN avoids him and continues walking.
DRDEN: (reproving) He’s not a bad chap, Lawrence.
LAWRENCE: No he’s not a bad chap, he’s a fool. 
(grins in anticipation) 

LAWRENCE: How did you do it?

DRYDEN again avoids him and goes on walking.

DRYDEN: You might better ask me why I bothered to. 

At this LAWRENCE falls into step beside him, and although 
his words are still flippant 
his face begins to assume its expression of stiff and bitter withdrawal.

LAWRENCE: Because I’m the man for the job.
DRYDEN: (looking straight ahead) I just wonder about that.
LAWRENCE: Of course I’m the man for the job. 

LAWRENCE: What is the job, by the way?

DRYDEN: (pausing beside a door) Find Prince Feisal.

DRYDEN opens the door and they enter.


49 MED. SHOT. This is a room at once similar to but utterly 
different from GENERAL MURRAY’S. 
It is elegantly furnished and carpeted, the room of a cultivated xenophile. There are pictures 
of ancient desert monuments and fragments of carving.

LAWRENCE: Good. And when I’ve found him?

DRYDEN: Find out what kind of man he is. Find out— 
(his gaze wanders some-what) 
DRYDEN: —what his intentions are. 

DRYDEN: I don’t mean his immediate intentions—that’s Colonel Brighton’s business, not yours. 

DRYDEN: I mean his intentions in Arabia altogether. 

LAWRENCE appreciates the significance of this. He walks away a 
little and comes to 
rest with his hand on a fragment of stone.

LAWRENCE: Oh that’s nice 

...DRYDEN agrees. LAWRENCE puts down the piece of stone.

LAWRENCE: Where are they now?

DRYDEN: Anywhere within 300 miles of Medina. 

DRYDEN: They’re Hashemite Bedouins, they can cross 60 miles of desert in a day. 

LAWRENCE throws back his head in silent rapture.

LAWRENCE: Oh, thanks Dryden. This is going to be fun:

DRYDEN: Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get ‘fun’ in the desert, Bedouins... and— 
(his gaze wanders round the photographs of silent sun-scorched figures and the fragments of 
DRYDEN: —gods. And you’re neither. 

DRYDEN: Take it from me, for ordinary men it’s a burning fiery furnace.

DRYDEN is irritably tapping a black Russian cigarette for 

LAWRENCE steps forward, takes a box of matches and lights it 
for him.

LAWRENCE: (very quietly) No, Dryden, it’s going to be fun.

The set intensity of his expression is in utter contradiction to his words.


He looks from the burning match in LAWRENCE’s fingers to LAWRENCE’s face.
DRYDEN: (rather sourly) It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.


He smiles and raises the flame to his lips. 

He blows it out in the normal manner.


A series of shots taken with an under-cranked camera so that the change from grey dawn to 
brilliant sunlight is speeded. The audience should be unaware of the trick process, but from the 
first appearance of the sun over the horizon and the casting of the first shadow there should be 
a constant sense of movement as the sun rises higher and higher and the shadows grow shorter 
and shorter. 
Prominent in the composition of almost every shot should be the footprints of two camels. We do 
not see the actual camels until the series of under-cranked shots are finished and we
53 CLOSE SHOT. THE SUN, now a searing white.

54 LONG SHOT. A brilliantly lit desert vista of sand and rock. 
The tiny figures of two MEN 
on camels appear over a distant 

Lawrence of Arabia 

Words by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

Pictures by Freddie Young and David Lean 

Lawrence of Arabia is available on Columbia Tri-Star Home Video.

The Honorary Oscar given to O'Toole

O'Toole and Vanessa Redgrave from Venus (2006)

* Dryden is quoting Sir Francis Drake: "Sic Parvis Magna" (Thus great things from small things)—the words appear on his coat of arms.  In Ridley Scott's Prometheus, the synthetic "David" (Michael Fassbender), a habitue of the David Lean film (he even arranges his hair like O'Toole's in the film), quotes the very same line.

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