Plot Points: The Moon and Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia is presented without comment. Screenwriter Robert Bolt and director David Lean are content to leave the man (played by Peter O’Toole) a mystery, to leave his legacy uninflated. “The revolt in the desert played a decisive part in the Middle Eastern campaign,” says Lord Allenby (Jack Hawkins) in a tone that Bolt’s parenthetical instructions call “deliberately formal.” Decisive perhaps, but that theater of World War I had been “a storm in a teacup… a sideshow of a sideshow” in the words of Lawrence’s commanding officer. As for the man at the center of that tiny storm, it is clear from the beginning that nobody really knew him. Lawrence of Arabia tells a set of stories about the man without pretending to know what, if anything, they mean or why they happened.
In this agnostic approach to a biopic, symbolism would be an intolerable imposition. To symbolize is to editorialize, so it is largely eschewed. The desert, for example, cannot be said to represent the vast, unwritten spaces of Lawrence’s soul, because it is too busy being a literal desert and a character in its own right. It is the Anvil of the Sun, the impassable Nefud. Lawrence likes it because it is “clean,” and because it is the opposite of “fat” England where he does not fit in. Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) appraises Lawrence as one of “these desert-loving English” who “have a great hunger for desolate places.” In Lawrence, the desert is just the desert, and that is more than enough to deal with.
There is, however, one recurring symbol in Lawrence, subtle enough to go unnoticed. It must come from Lean, or perhaps from cinematographer Freddie Young, because it seldom figures in Bolt’s screenplay despite his frequent use of camera directions (which Lean often ignored.) The symbol is the moon, and it seems to symbolize Lawrence and the changes he attends.
The moon is an unusual choice of symbols for a couple of reasons. First, the celestial orb most associated with the desert, and the one Bolt routinely speaks of, is the sun. Secondly, Lean and Young made movies during the era of day-for-night shooting in which exterior nighttime scenes were filmed during the day through blue color filters vaguely suggestive of twilight. Shots of the moon presented an editing and continuity challenge; the sky around the moon would look black or navy, being a true night sky, but the sky behind the characters would be an artificially-dimmed daytime sky with white clouds. Audience members inclined to notice details like actors casting strong shadows at “night” would understand that this was how movies were made, that the alternative was to use harsh, non-diegetic floodlights, but a cutaway from a real night sky to a darkened day sky would still be jarring.
Lean’s solutions to the problem are manifold. At times, he uses the moon in the same way that he and Bolt use the sun: as a transition. To go from actors to moon isn’t so jarring if it comes at the end of a scene, because a darker sky implies a lapse of time, and the next shot will be daytime instead of day-for-night. Lean uses this method at the beginning of the film when Lawrence and his guide rest on the way to Faisal’s camp. Later the moon appears simultaneously with the actors but far in the background, seen through the flap of Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn)’s tent or above the walls of Deraa where artificial lighting is present. Finally, in a shot that avoids the sky altogether, there is the moon reflected in a pool in Damascus. It is only in this instance that a character, Auda, really notices it.
Yet it is the shape of the moon and the timing of its appearances, rather than the way it is shot, that suggest its meaning. When Lawrence and his guide enter the desert, the half-moon is pale. Lawrence is still dressed in the attire of a British officer, drinks from a military-issue tin cup, swallows Bedouin food with a grimace, and rides a camel poorly. He is not yet Lawrence of Arabia. But the phase of his life when he was just Lieutenant Lawrence, bastard son of an Anglo-Irish baronet, is over.
We see the moon again after Lawrence has undergone several changes. He has exceeded his orders by recommending that Prince Faisal go on the offensive against the Turks. Moreover, he has decided to lead the attack on the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba, and has spent around three weeks crossing the desert for the surprise overland assault. He is a new man, and his influence is rising. Now Lawrence and his ally Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) meet with the rival warlord Auda. A waxing crescent moon hangs between them in the sky outside Auda’s tent. The crescent is associated with Islam and with many of the tribes of the pre-Islamic Near East, and by 1962 when the movie premiered it had acquired connotations of Arab and Islamic unity. Lawrence works to bring unity and independence to Arabia, and this meeting under a crescent moon on the eve of Aqaba is the beginning.
The moon is full when Lawrence is captured and subjected to torture and sexual abuse in Deraa. It is a shattering experience for him, but it is a moment of clarity, of disillusionment. He had thought he could “walk on water” and had claimed to be “invisible” among the Arabs, but the Turkish commander (Jose Ferrer) who abused him saw a fair, white, tangible body. In the next scene, after Lawrence is released, Ali reminds to sleep and eat because “you have a body, like other men.” Lawrence then swings toward the materialistic and the deterministic, saying that the color of his skin must determine what he wants, how he lives, and who he lives among. The full moon, white and clarifying, has brought Lawrence full circle.
The reflected moon in Damascus at the end of the film seems full, too, but now it is seen indirectly. The future of the Arab Council is uncertain. The British and the French have agreed to divide the former Ottoman Empire among themselves. Lawrence is leaving for a quiet, and ultimately short, life in England. Auda looks down at the tiled pool, sees the rippling moon, then looks up toward the camera and the sky. Had he known Lawrence? Was Lawrence really knowable? Will modern Arabia reflect Lawrence’s efforts? Here Lean calls attention to the moon without showing it. At the end of this nearly 4-hour film, Lean has shown Lawrence without explaining him.
In a movie in which no line of dialogue is without consequence, and in which every shot is calculated to fill a 70-mm film cell, the moon provides a minor but not a thoughtless motif. Watch for it on your next visit to Lawrence’s Arabia.
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