A black figure looming out of the desert haze stops both Lawrence and his guide in their path. Hardly a word is shared as they stare out into the distant white sands.
David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) follows an awkward Oxford intellectual and his transformation into an audacious military hero, who leads the Arabs revolt against the Turks during the First World War. With the talents of Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young, this stirring adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s life is captivating on numerous levels; from the sheer magnificence of the landscape and rousing soundtrack; the portrayal of a battle within a man’s psyche; and the glorification of a man who becomes almost worshipped by the men he commands.
This scene marks the beginning of the transformation of Lawrence’s character. Lawrence, who, on the virtues of his educational background rather than his personal and military suitability, has been given a mission to assess the status of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and his insurgency against the Turkish forces in Arabia. It is during his journey through the desert to initially rendezvous with the Prince that his progress is briefly halted and is marked by a meeting at the side of a well.
Lean portrays a sense of content and relaxation in Lawrence’s mood, as he settles down having replenished his thirst. However, it would seem that even in the middle of this vast forbidding environment, you are never alone. The peace is disrupted when an approaching black shape breaks the line of the horizon.
Close-up shots of Lawrence and his guide, Tafas, highlights their apprehension for the approaching figure and the camera captures the two men standing motionless, framing the distant stranger in the middle of the shot. The plodding feet of the camel imitates a rhythm of a beating heart adding to the feeling of an impending doom.
The audience soon witnesses the ruthless side of these desert people, and not to mention their particularly good shooting skills, as Tafas is hit from a distance before he himself can fire.
The events that emerge from this scene set a tone for the rest of Lawrence’s journey, as it is his first experience of the brutality of the Arab people and their warring nature. However, the depth of Lawrence’s character is also on show.
We see the humble, quiet Lawrence as he drinks from the well and whistles to himself whilst basking in the desert sun. His physical awkwardness is captured by the slight stumble as he moves near his protector and guide, under the distant eye of the approaching figure. His generosity and naivety is also subtly inserted here, as the pistol drawn by Tafas was a gift from Lawrence and is ultimately used as a tool that symbolises the violent nature of the Arab people, of which Lawrence will later come to invoke.
It is his strength of character, however, that is most notable in this scene. The death of his guide is shocking at first, yet he remains relatively calm and is boldly resolute in the face of a murderer. His intellect is also evident here but it is the brilliance and potential greatness of the man’s disposition that radiates beneath the deadly and unforgiving desert sun, as this significant moment of Lawrence’s life is dazzlingly encapsulated in an epic sequence in cinematography.