I have been reading a biography of Lawrence of Arabia the past few days, Hero by Michael Korda, and it has directed my attention back to the magnificent film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I have always thought highly of the below scene:
Veteran British actors Donald Wolfit and Claude Rains were at the top of their games. Wolfit portrays General Archibald Murray as a military martinet. Claude Rains is the cynical, intelligent and slightly sinister British civil functionary, Mr. Dryden, a fictional amalgamation of several historical figures. Peter O’Toole, in his first major film role, gives the performance of his career as T.E. Lawrence, a mysterious messianic figure for the Arabs, driven more than half mad by what he experiences in the film. Throughout his career O’Toole would specialize in characters who were close to being crazy.
The interesting thing about the scene is that Murray, clearly meant to be an unsympathetic character, says nothing but the truth. The war against the Turks was a sideshow, and the revolt among some of the Bedouin against the Turks was a sideshow of a sideshow, with all of it having close to zero impact on the outcome of World War I, which was decided by the fighting in France.
The scene also demonstrates the ability of film to mangle history. Murray, rather than contemptuous of Lawrence, thought highly of him, and it was largely due to Lawrence’s reports that Murray supported the Arab Revolt. Murray also, rather than being a military buffoon, was instrumental in amassing the forces that his successor General Edmund Allenby utilized with such smashing success.
The scene, as does the entire film, rewards careful observation. I have always regarded the following back and forth as wryly personally meaningful to me:
Now, the Arab Bureau seem to think you
would be of some use to them in Arabia.
Why? I can’t imagine! You don’t seem able
to perform your present duties properly.
I cannot fiddle, but I can make a great
state from a little city.
Themistocles, sir. A Greek philosopher.
I know you’ve been well educated,
Lawrence. It says so in your dossier.
If any readers have not seen this film, they should remedy that lack as quickly as they can.