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.

Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

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.

But …

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)

(to Lawrence)

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.

DRIVER

Going home!

LAWRENCE

What?

DRIVER

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.

FADE OUT.

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?

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25 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on March 24, 2021 at 5:56 am

    This is another great ‘under-the-hood look’ at a Private Moment. Not only can we stand another, give us all you’ve got.

    I was talking the other day with one of the tribe here, about another scene from Lawrence of Arabia: where Lawrence and Daud, covered in a dusting of desert loess, come out of the wilderness and onto the eastern bank of the Suez. Again with the appearance of a motorcycle, a soldier on the far bank pulls to a stop and calls across the water: “Who ARE you??” While it might be an unlikely question for a soldier to be shouting at midday in this context, the camera turns to Lawrence’s face: another Private Moment, from which we’re meant to see the conflict he’s experiencing about his identity. “Yes… who AM I?”

    Clip: “Who ARE you??” — https://youtu.be/p9Uwau7rB8Q?t=42

    ***
    This scene from “Lawrence of Arabia” came to mind as I was re-reading Bagger Vance, and taking note of the number of times “Who are you?” is repeated in that novel:

    Vance asking Junuh “who are you” X3
    Hardy asking Vance “who are you” X3
    Michael asking Vance “who are you” X1

    Recognizing how this search for the authentic self is a powerful theme in all storytelling. Isn’t it the core of the Hero’s Journey?

    And noticing how the seeds of so many of the themes Steve develops are present in Bagger Vance — that very first novel. External battles are reflections of inner battles. That we repeat these dramas lifetime after lifetime. Even Ruth — our young hero in A Man at Arms — appears in name, as Hardy is describing coming home after World War II, traumatized from treating the burn victims from our bombing of Hiroshima and “seeing the wire photos of the bodies stacked outside Dachau and Buchenwald”:

    >> “I dwelt in a twilight state beside Jeannie with the act of suicide never more than a membrane away. I couldn’t work. Couldn’t resume my studies or start a practice. I couldn’t read, not even the finest modern authors. Only the ancients. The Iliad and Odyssey, Shakespeare’s sonnets and parts of the King James Bible. I read Ruth’s speech to Naomi over and over, weeping every time. The only physical activity I could bear was golf.”

    ***
    And a little bit of post-script weirdness… while writing this (about Lawrence and Daud coming up to the banks of the Suez), a news alert popped up on my phone:

    “Suez Canal traffic jam” — http://bit.ly/SuezNewsItem

    • Joe on March 24, 2021 at 6:02 am

      And another post-script example of “ring a bell and the windows start to vibrate,” while making the morning Sbucks run and listening to Sam Harris’s recent podcast conversation with James Fadiman. Fadiman recounts, in a discussion of stripping away layers in search of the true self:

      >> “Alan Watts had a wonderful comment as he would look in the mirror and say, ‘What percentage of me has ever heard of Alan Watts?’”

      I’m sure that conversation in the mirror must be the quintessence of a “private moment.” Right on theme this morning.

      • Yvonne on March 24, 2021 at 12:18 pm

        Steve, can a “private moment” be used with success for a villain? (If this was already discussed, I missed it… sorry if I’m repeating here)

        • Mike on March 24, 2021 at 1:04 pm

          Not Steve, and far from an accomplished author, but I can definitely see how a private moment could work for a villain.

          Immediately, I think of the moment on any character’s journey when he starts down the path of villainy.

          We are all the hero of our own arc, and I personally wonder if everyone must decide whether he will be a good person, or a great one – and that the best villains are great men who have fallen short; would-be heroes, save the whims of circumstance and perspective.

          *I use the male gender out of convention, but this could apply to any character.

    • Peter Brockwell on March 24, 2021 at 9:36 am

      What a beautiful and fascinating post by Steve. And a reliably awesome responding comment by Joe.

      Slight digression, but Joe reminded me of the repeating motif throughout Babylon 5 – the two polar questions asked both explicitly and tacitly of the characters: “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” Some get what they want, but lose their souls; and others became truly selfless, noble, individuals. Becoming and getting. Right brain and left brain. Love it.

      • Joe on March 24, 2021 at 9:58 am

        I’ll have to put Babylon 5 on my list, Peter (haven’t watched that one). I have watched Battlestar Galactica through twice, and appreciate the themes of characters trying to understand “who they are” in the genre of “space opera.” Those Cylon models who initially believe themselves to be fully human, and how they deal with the shock and emerging awareness that they are not only “synthetic life,” but the type of being with which all of the remainder of humanity is at war. And of course the idea of time being cyclical rather than linear, and the refrain of: “This has all happened before and will happen again.”

        So good that Portlandia spoofed its binge-ability:

        Portlandia: “One More Episode” — https://youtu.be/AyHXzYTuLi4

        • Brian Nelson on March 24, 2021 at 11:39 am

          Joe/Peter,
          Great stuff as usual. Ever since reading “A Man At Arms”, I have been rather obsessed with 1COR13, in fact I have committed it to memory and think about it throughout the day–especially when I have not been patient or kind, have been envious, easily angered, kept a record of wrongs, didn’t protect, didn’t trust, didn’t hope…

          Paul is prescribing a damn hard ideal to embrace.

          Something that I have been pondering. 1COR13:11-‘When I was a child, I spake as a child…When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

          This verse seems to come of of left field to me. What is Paul saying? Here is my current understanding:

          Paul understands the tragedy and injustice of the world and yet, he is making the argument that despite all the evidence, Love is the only mature response. In other words, love is courageous.

          Both TE Lawerence and Jim Gant demonstrated their universal love for others by risking the dictates of the status quo, and acting upon their own inner compass. So damn inspirational.

          Is Vance pointing out to Junea that he is infinite and therefore his only response should be love?
          bsn

  2. Morgenholz on March 24, 2021 at 7:18 am

    Hopefully, this nation is experiencing a private moment, whilst those are still allowed. Who are we?

    • Brian Nelson on March 24, 2021 at 11:44 am

      Morgenholz,
      Great question. After a 3 month ‘fast’ of all media, I have come to the conclusion that this question can only be answered in the singular, not plural. The moment I begin to get into the fray about our current events, I find myself behaving, acting, feeling–I cannot say thinking, because these are not my thoughts, they are thoughts of ideology, indoctrination, of tribal affiliation–in hyper-biased ways.

      My hope is that millions of Americans will also choose to cut off the media, and deeply consider ‘who am I?’ for themselves.
      bsn

  3. andrew lubin on March 24, 2021 at 7:36 am

    If a well-written literary private moment helps clarify or otherwise explain a real-life person from multiple decades ago, then I salute those with the ability to combine research with the literary ability to bring those characters to life!!

  4. Jessica Spring Brown on March 24, 2021 at 9:31 am

    Thank you for this wonderful series on Private Moments. I am looking at my current rewrite differently to see where I can craft a private moment that will elevate my script and my character’s journey.

  5. Brian Nelson on March 24, 2021 at 11:31 am

    I’ve returned to a ‘time restricted eating’ schedule to attack this COVID belly once and for all. This means I consume nothing but water until 10:30–which is about 4.5 hours walking around without coffee. Really shows how damn dependent I am on caffeine…

    It also has shown me that caffeine is truly a nootropic for me, as I now have a number of thoughts about Steve’s post.
    First, I HIGHLY encourage everyone who enjoys this blog to buy American Spartan:

    https://www.amazon.com/American-Spartan-Promise-Mission-Betrayal/dp/0062114999/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=american+spartan&qid=1616608581&sr=8-3

    I know Jim Gant will likely shudder with any praise, but he is truly the 21st Century “Lawerence of Afghanistan”.

    When I think about TE Lawerence, Jim Gant, George Patton (just completed Jeff Shaara’s WWII trilogy about European campaign: “The Rising Tide”, “The Steel Wave”, “No Less Than Victory”) I think about how these men saw and acted upon their own noble visions…only to be disregarded and betrayed by the status quo and ‘strategic government concerns’.

    Was Patton correct in that we should have beat Stalin to Berlin–and pushed those Commie bastards back to Russia? Maybe. Patton is not in the same league, but he did see threat when the rest of the Allies just wanted peace. Was it peace? Not sure if those behind the Iron Curtain would agree.

    Both American Spartan and Lawerence of Arabia are tragedies in my opinion. The betrayal of each of these men by their superiors reinforces my ‘less is more’ Libertarian suspicions as well as ‘Tower of Babel’ thoughts about not only our present day governments, but multi-national corporations which become governments in everything but name.

    Do I trust the ‘benevolent’ government or Lawerence/Gant? My money is on the individual. Do I trust Fauci or a ‘renegade’ MD who is prescribing Chloroquine for COVID?

    When we witness these incredible acts of courage and universal love for mankind, it fills my heart with hope. My question is how to set the conditions so these future iconoclasts find a home after the betrayal of their leaders and governments?

    I think Steve might have done the best thing possible by both befriending Jim and publishing “One Tribe At A Time”.

    When TE Lawerence was leaving theater with his driver, did he feel like an absolute failure? Did he feel powerless? Did he feel like Judas?

    We see (for those who’ve finished “A Man At Arms” the cost of universal love that Telamon pays. I will be interested in his next adventures for sure.

    After re-reading this–I now see that maybe I drank too much coffee!
    bsn

    • Mike on March 24, 2021 at 1:49 pm

      Brian,

      I generally don’t read books or watch movies about the recent conflicts, outside of a professional context, as those wars are still much too alive in my heart and such works tend to conjure…. unbalanced emotion.

      However, based on your recommendation, I’ve ordered American Spartan and will read it as soon as I finish A Man At Arms (cracking the spine during CQ, tonight).

      My own career can’t compare to that of either Gant or Lawrence, but their stories resonate with me. I’ve had my share of involvement with indigenous elements, and I know how it feels to be forced to abandon those you see as friends and good men.

      I was planning on retiring a couple years back and enlisting in the FFL; embracing once more the simple joy of just being a private soldier. A deployment battle roster then came down with my name on it, and I couldn’t say no. I had sworn an oath, and it was still binding. I can’t really say much about it but, as foreign policy again shifts focus, I see one more ally and friend being abandoned in the sand.

      I’m now too old for the Légion.

      As to your question, “how to set the conditions so these future iconoclasts find a home after the betrayal of their leaders and governments?” I don’t have a good answer, it’s like trying to teach SERE through a video game. I do, at least, see a possible azimuth through those political woods. I think it begins with how you define them, as iconoclasts….

      You can’t “find” a home for them; by nature, they won’t accept anything that simply falls into place. If you blaze a path and say, “follow me, this way” ….they might follow for a while, because they don’t yet have a better idea, but they’ll always looking for an opportune moment to break trail and find their own way.

      A better approach is to furnish a brush axe or machete, maybe some matches, a sharp knife and a good stone, and let them get lost. Even better, just a knife. And a wilderness worthy of their skills.

      • Brian Nelson on March 24, 2021 at 9:06 pm

        Mike,
        Enjoy “A Man At Arms”!

        The FFL–what an idea! That thought never crossed my mind. I was a reluctant Soldier, joining to get out of town and college money…re-enlisted to surf at Monterey and learn Russian–that was the order I had in mind–and then slowly, over a decade, the Army values became my own.

        I don’t know what I had in mind with setting the conditions, other than I imagine how lonely it must have felt for them. I’m sure that 100s of Jim’s comrades put their arms around him both literally and metaphorically–but as I was thinking about them I felt a profound sense of sadness and loneliness.

        I was passed over, which thrust retirement from someday to tomorrow. I was angry, feelings hurt. That might be 1/1000th of the degree of betrayal (how I felt) that Lawerence or Gant must have felt.

        What is scratching the back of my brain is that we all lose from this betrayal as well. They were ahead of their times shining a light to another possible future, one that the bureaucracy is too threatened, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed to consider.
        bsn

  6. Rex on March 24, 2021 at 6:02 pm

    In The Searchers, Ward Bond noticing John Wayne’s sister-in-law fondling Wayne’s coat. At this moment, he knows, and we know their relationship is much deeper than it first appeared. No dialogue.

  7. JL Allderdice on March 25, 2021 at 10:25 am

    I’m a fiction writer, not a script writer or a movie director. What would help me with this discussion of “private moments” would be some examples drawn from literature, not the movies. The movies are easy: silence is never silent; there’s the background noise, there’s the facial expression of the hero, there’s the lighting and the mood music. How do you put that stuff in a novel and not have it come across as cheesy or self-indulgent? Is there anyone you can think of who does it well, and can you send us there?
    Thansk!
    JA

  8. Mike on March 25, 2021 at 11:54 am

    Brian,

    I always thought the water in Monterey Bay was way too cold, even with a wetsuit. I regret never trying to surf while at the Presidio, but nothing shrinks a man’s courage like cold water (lotta sharks, too). I did watch the grey whale harvest from a kayak – which was probably much more ill-advised.

    The FFL will always be something of a “girl that got away” for me. Going into that most recent deployment, I knew I would be too old (administratively) to join after the tour. I was given the option to turn it down, but my contract and oath were still valid. At least in my eyes, “no” was not an option. Retirement holds a different flavor when it means ducking a fight. More bitter, knowing my potential replacement didn’t speak the language or understand the culture.

    Surprisingly, it turned out to be a very rewarding tour with a great degree of freedom and responsibility – beyond the normal scope of my pay grade, often working alone and nations-away from anyone else in my element. Even had it been ugly or dull, deploying was the only defensible choice.

    Yet, I’ll always regret not going into the Légion when I had the chance. I look young for my age; maybe I’ll still give it a shot.

    It saddens me to learn that you were passed over. We need more intelligent, self-reflective officers…. but sycophancy seems to be the dominant trait, lately.

    Betrayal truly does hurt us all. There are a few moments in history that hold special significance in my mind, and I hold days like 25 October and 15 March more sacred than most holidays (nothing trumps Hallowe’en). As the Ides of March are in our recent shadow, I raised a glass and (to their annoyance) made my friends recognize that the betrayal of Caesar ultimately led to the fall of the greatest Republic the world had then witnessed. Perhaps more poignant, we should remind ourselves that so many of his assassins died violently – often, by their own hand.

  9. Brian Nelson on March 26, 2021 at 9:46 pm

    Mike,
    Kind words, thanks. I had a lot of my own doing. Maybe telling O6s their ideas were dumb and antiquated didn’t help. While not a fatalist, I do believe things happen for a reason, and generally work out. Gimme a shout when you’re getting short. Just learned of another new opportunity to help transitioning Veterans. It will be helping turn them into entrepreneurs–and if you like this website, it might be right up your alley.
    bsn

  10. Larena Lake on March 27, 2021 at 10:32 am

    Private Moments: Lawrence of Arabia
    I usually read a novel before watching the movie based on it.
    In this case Private Moments brought back the memory of my 1st viewing. As I recall it was when I was 13 yrs old. It was an eye opening experience and each time I watch it I am brought to tears.
    I have always maintained that movies do not do justice to great novels/ books.

  11. Mi Amigo Marco on March 27, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    As Homer is in, I feel the mood to write about Persephone The Godess of Nature

    But first talk about Steves question, is it real history or is it the oral tradition of Helade? Literature is fun and all, but there are times when we need to go near reality
    how to know who is who and what is what?
    Once the genius poet and musician Raul Seixas, our Raulzito, went to give a concert
    He was not so young and quite drunk and drugs, amd the people didnt believe he was the real Raul
    they booed him and threw things on him, he left the show

    well, it doesnt make his lyrics less unique and his genius less adorable

    sometimes the audience doesnt believes , and deduces the opposite of reality

    I dont give much importance to these, and I actually do not own explanations to any of them,
    if I explain anything, its because I want

    Now…

    Poseidon and Persephone…

    I will talk to the Gods and come back to you later

    thank you

    • Mi Amigo Marco on March 27, 2021 at 8:57 pm

      by the way

      “Mi Amigo Marco” is a cartoon that was muy popular in Spain years ago

      check google or duckduckgo images , is so beautiful and surprising

      like mother nature

      • Mi Amigo Marco on March 27, 2021 at 11:32 pm

        and to Lawrences question
        one of Rauls few songs he sings in English

        yes…who am I?

        Since the beginning of time
        Man has search for the great answer
        It was given
        Today I give it once more

        Sometimes you ask me a question
        You ask why I talk so little
        I hardly ever speak of love
        Don’t side you and smiling so bittle

        You think of me all the time
        You eat me, spew me and leave me
        Come forth, see through your ears
        Cause today I’ll challenge your sight

        I am the star of the starlights
        I am the child of the moon
        Yes, I am your harred of love
        I am too late and too soon

        Yes, I am the fear of failure
        I am the power of will
        I am the bluff of the gambler
        I am. I move, I’m still

        Yes, I am your sacrifice
        The placard that spells “forbidden”
        Blood in the eyes of the vampire
        I am the curse unbidden

        Yes, I am the black and the indian
        I am the WASP and the jew
        I am the Bible and the I-Ching
        The red, the white and the blue

        Why do you ask me a question
        Asking is not going to show
        That I am all things in existence
        I am, I was, I go

        You have me with you forever
        Not knowing if it’s bad or good
        But know that I am in yourself
        Why don’t you just meet me in the woods

        For I am the eaves of the roof
        I am the fish and the fisher
        “A” is the first of my name
        Yes, I am the hope of the wisher

        Yes, I am the housewife and the whore
        Hunting the markets asleep
        I am shallow, wide and deep

        Yes, I am the law of the lema
        I am the fang of the shark
        I am the eyes of the blindman
        I am the light in the dark

        Oh, yes, I am bitter in your tongue
        Mother, father and the riddle
        I am the son yet the come
        Yes, I’m the beginning the end and the middle

  12. Mark on March 28, 2021 at 4:11 pm

    I would like to say that fiction is not reality, sometimes we mix up things and get confused and say things that are not sane and not reasonable. the reality is the normal life we all live, ond not the fiction books and other fiction we consume. I write all fiction and and fantasies, and nothing of it is real. I struggle with mental problems, and part of it is the delusions of reference. Is a struggle to avoid the delusions of reference. Sometimes some problems in daily life make me angry and the stress starts the mental problem. I am sorry if I made trouble. The best is to be back to reality and live a normal life. Work and enjoy, dont think much about things of the world, thinking much can make obsession and is not good for mental health. The problems of the world are a job for the real diplomats, I dont have the qualification to do this work, the real diplomats have the qualifications and they are who do this work.
    I think is not so good to read much fiction and is better to do normal daily things. A lot of coincidences happen all the time and its just coincidences, just that. Is better stay away from fantasies and dont let yourself go to wrong thinking. I wish good health and good mental health.

    Thank you

    Mark

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