PLAYING WITH FIRE

The scene opens at the Arab bureau in Cairo where a Mr Dryden enlists Lawrence to rally arab support in the allies’ war against the Turks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE0DBpw09SU

Their exchange takes places in a cool white interior which, though it is filled with archaeological artefacts, feels barren and empty, and might almost be a room at the British Museum.

There is a wonderful contrast between the paunchy but dapper figure of Dryden and the gangly figure of Lawrence in his ill-fitting uniform, but both men, in their very different ways, are oddly effeminate. Dryden’s manner is headmasterly, and their discussion begins with the loud clacking of his cane on the table top, while a watchful and expectant Lawrence lingers in the background with affected nonchalance, his leg cocked in a distinctly ladylike fashion, then gives a gleeful little side-turn, much like a dance step, which, although Dryden cannot see it, is decidedly coquettish. The scene was surely meant to portend Lawrence’s flogging at the hands of the Turkish bey, and there are clear erotic undertones, particularly in O’Toole’s pale forearm rearing up before a mincing and visibly delighted Mr Dryden.1

But, dodgy Freudian interpretations aside, the exchange that follows is remarkable for its ambiguities. The phrase “it’s going to be fun,” for example, is repeated twice, but the pitch and tone are entirely different the second time round. The first time it sounds almost flippant, as though Lawrence’s mission were merely a lark, and little more than a punt down the river.

Not so after after Dryden’s words of warning. Lawrence’s wilfulness is all there in “No Dryden,” the three syllables spoken softly, but none the less firmly for that. He will not stand corrected, and he knows in his gut that Dryden knows nothing. There is in fact a complete role reversal between the younger man and his elder, between the master and his minion. Lawrence knows – as Dryden doesn’t yet – that he is no ‘ordinary’ man, but a man of destiny whose hour has come. He is aware of the dangers that await him and seems almost to foresee the havoc his actions will bring. There is a tremor of fear in the voice, and fear again in the way he tenses and audibly draws breath after “No Dryden,…,” then stresses the going-to structure – “it’s going to be fun,” – which binds the present to an imminent future, and sets the wheels of fate in motion.

All of the character’s recklessness and irresponsibility are contained in the word “fun” and in the following scene with the match. It is a curious moment, not least for the way O’Toole rolls back his sleeve. I have not seen this gesture in any other context, and can only assume it is used in card tricks or poker games to show that the player or magician has nothing to conceal; but, whatever the case may be, it is hard to see a reason for it here, although it does underline a boyish immaturity in the character of Lawrence. There is a war on, after all, and he is a British army officer addressing a superior, not a prankish schoolboy attempting to wow a classmate during the break.

In this scene and elsewhere the Lawrence character exhibits many of the traits of the trickster archetype, a playful and devious character found in many folk traditions around the world. He certainly showed an impatience with authority and when all the odds were stacked against him relied on trickery and deceit – not to mention barefaced lies – to achieve his goals.2 The trickster, moreover, is sometimes a god, or a priest, and the scene feels like a ritual enactment.

Lawrence, however, is playing with fire, and the brassy cap of hair suggests quite literally the brazenness of his personality, the hubris that will bring about his nemesis or that of his arab companions.

Nor do the ambiguities stop there, and in a few brief moments of screen time O’Toole’s face appears both old and young, erotic and hieratic. As he raises the dancing match flame, overlooked by a Sphinx-like cat in the background, his expression is baleful and dead-eyed like a prophet’s, and the flesh looks hard and cold as if it were made out of stone; but then his lips dimple at the edges and spread into smile which, like a hindu deitiy’s, could be compassionate or cruel, but which rapidly thickens and warms, and as the blood floods back to his cheeks, his gaze brightens with erotic mischief. When he blows out the match he might, for all the world, be a rubicund Eros blowing a kiss to his lover.

But the stunning match cut that occurs at this juncture (a technical term in cinema, not a reference to Lawrence’s prank) instantly wipes out such a notion, suggesting that it’s no mere flame that Lawrence blows out, but the Sun itself, and one thinks instead of J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the first detonation of a nuclear bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb13ynu3Iac. This, after all, might just as well be the desert of Nevada as the Arabian desert, and what else, metaphorically speaking, is Dryden’s “burning fiery furnace” but a nuclear holocaust? Robert Bolt, one of the two authors who wrote the screenplay, did a term in prison for protesting against nuclear proliferation, and considering that the film was released in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, how could a contemporary film goer not feel at some deep, sub-conscious level the terror – and paradoxical thrill – of nuclear anihilation?

The movie, having said that, is never nihilistic, but offers instead an antidote, in glorious technicolor, to the drabness of the Cold War era, and the anguish it instilled. The old world, true enough, is utterly consumed – by Lawrence-as-Destroyer-God, if you will – but in the breathtaking and flame-coloured void that is left in its wake, the Universe is re-born and another cycle begins.3

In the ravishing shot that follows, the desert sands, pristine and new, seem to flush like a virgin bride stripped bare, or to flow like a nuptial veil. But the emotion translated here in the language of film and in Maurice Jarre’s rousing music, is not romantic desire so much as the yearning for adventure, and what better than this gorgeous panorama to evoke the promise of experience, a sense of boundless possibility, of horizons new and worlds unfolding? I know of few moments in cinema that celebrate with greater power the splendour of life, and as the cymbals crash, the strings surge and swell, the harp notes purl and flow, the drums beat and the trumpets blare, it is as though Nature herself were flooding back to replenish the void.

1) Lawrence’s masochism is apparent, of course, not just in his sexual proclivities, but in the lust for punishment he displayed throughout the arab campaign, and which even his bedouin companions found disturbing, innured though they were to the harshness of life in the desert.

2) He was also nothing if not a boundary crosser, as evinced by his homosexual leanings, and by his going native among the bedouin tribes of the desert. By turns a scholar, a British soldier, an arab chieftain, a diplomat, and a literary artist, he was something of a shapeshifter too.

3) The low monochordal sound which follows the blowing out of the match is none other than Om or Aum, which according to the hindu scriptures is the vibration produced by the Cosmos when it first came into being. This Om sound, incidentally, might well be what Stephen Hawking calls “cosmic background noise,” namely sound waves which continue to radiate through the Universe in the wake of the Big Bang.