Lawrence of Arabia’s Private Moment
Can you stand one more post about Private Moments?
This one may be the greatest of all, at least in cinema. It comes from David Lean’s classic, Lawrence of Arabia. This moment is the final scene, immediately before the closing credits, and it’s the payoff of the whole movie.
First, a little setup to establish the moment in context.
Lawrence of Arabia begins with T.E. Lawrence’s death. The sequence plays under the Opening Titles. We see a youngish man, clearly Lawrence, mounting a powerful motorcycle and starting off into the English countryside. Lawrence accelerates. Faster. Faster. Till he’s traveling so fast—and on a dangerous, twisting, narrow lane—that we start to think, “Is this guy trying to kill himself?”
Sure enough, Lawrence loses control. The bike crashes. He is killed.
Now the story begins, told in flashback. Here’s the short version:
Lawrence, as a young army lieutenant in the Egyptian/Arabian theater during WWI, becomes involved with a rising of Arab Bedouin tribes. He literally takes over, becomes the charismatic commander of what will come to be known as the Arab Revolt. Lawrence falls in love with the Bedouin and they fall in love with him. Together, armed only with rifles and operating only as camel-mounted mobile forces, they achieve incredible victories against the Turks, capped off by the capture of Damascus, ahead even of Gen. Allenby’s mechanized, modern Allied army.
Throughout this extraordinary adventure, Lawrence’s aim has been to “win freedom” for the Arabs. His dream is to bring into being an independent Arabian state. But the Brits and the French have other plans. The secret Sikes-Picot Agreement divides the post-war Middle East between the European victors, England and France, for their own selfish purposes (read: oil). The Arabs are cut out.
Worse for Lawrence’s inner anguish, he himself has been a party to this betrayal … if not consciously and deliberately, then passively and with private awareness.
BRITISH DIPLOMAT DRYDEN (CLAUDE RAINS)
If I’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And the man who tell lies, like me, merely conceals the truth. But the man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.
In other words, the movie ends with Lawrence riven with guilt and anguish, considering himself a traitor to the people and the cause he has loved with all his heart.
Now to the Private Moment:
The campaign in the desert is over. The Bedouin fighters, outfoxed by their European allies, withdraw to their tribal fastnesses. Lawrence himself, now a colonel, is ordered home.
In this final scene, he is being driven in an open-top military Rolls-Royce to the port (Haifa? Port Said?) from which he will take ship to England. The Rolls speeds along a desert track. The driver is a sergeant of some kind. Lawrence sits beside him in the front seat.
The driver sounds his klaxon horn as the Rolls overtakes a group of camel-mounted Bedouin. These veer off the road at the vehicle’s speeding approach. Lawrence rises in his seat in alarm and concern for the Arab warriors. His glance tracks them as they skitter off the track. What had been, only days earlier, a brilliant and victorious force of desert raiders now seems like a gaggle of impoverished and forlorn nomads.
Lawrence resumes his seat, silent, in obvious distress and consternation. His sergeant driver, oblivious to Lawrence’s chagrin, attempts to make cheerful small talk.
Home, sir! Going home!
Lawrence’s expression and posture portray deepening despondency.
The sound of a fast-moving engine strikes Lawrence’s hearing. He turns in his seat as, from the road behind the Rolls, a dispatch courier appears, moving fast.
The courier booms past the Rolls and accelerates swiftly out of sight.
Lawrence’s gaze follows the rider intently.
The rider is mounted on a motorcycle.
END OF MOVIE.
In the audience in this instant, we can’t help but flash back to the film’s opening sequence. Did Lawrence take his own life in that motorcycle crash? Was this private moment in the desert the genesis of that impulse?
Let’s return to our original definition:
A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.
This moment in the final scene of Lawrence of Arabia qualifies on all counts. More importantly, it’s not a minor or peripheral moment. It’s the personal and moral climax of Lawrence’s entire interior journey. And it works like gangbusters.
All this is achieved despite (actually because of) no dialogue, no action, and with only the most nuanced of facial expression, posture, and body language. The effect is achieved entirely by the emotional content of the scene and by its chronological and sequential placement within the narrative, i.e. as the bookend payoff to its corollary scene at the start of the film.
SIDE NOTE: this private moment may or may not be true to the historical Lawrence. In fact, the moment is a creation of screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson and director David Lean, drawing from history and from source material (Seven Pillars of Wisdom and other writings) of T.E. Lawrence himself.
Historical pieces are tricky. Whose truth are we receiving? History’s (whatever that may be)? Or the artists depicting and re-creating (see Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens) history?