Hello Cinephiles! My favorite scene in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia—like most people—is Omar Sharif’s introduction at the well. It had been several years since I had seen the film and the main thing I remembered about it was Omar slowly coming out of the mirage. It wasn’t until viewing the film again recently that I realized just how important that scene is to the overall story. So let’s take a look at the creative decisions that went it to making the scene such a wonderful piece of cinema history and how the scene helps shape the characters of Lawrence and Ali. Some spoilers ahead— this is Making Film…
The opening shot from inside the well helps to change the location. The blackness that fills the screen contrasts the wide brightly lit shots of mostly pale landscapes, making this shot somewhat of a bookmark for the film. It tells us that it is a deliberate start to what will be an important sequence.
Lean had said to Director of Photography Freddie Young, “I don’t know how in bloody hell we’ll do it, but I want a mirage…Everyone had said that a mirage wouldn’t photograph—it was an illusion of the eye. But one day while on a mudflat I took out my Hasselblad and there it was, a mirage on the horizon” (Silverman 133).
They picked the location and did tests to see if they could get a mirage. Production designer John Box thought that the there wasn’t enough emotion in the landscape, so he painted white lines toward the mirage about two feet wide to act as camel tracks and to draw the audience’s attention up to where Ali was coming from (Making).
John Box: “Not long before the cameras turned, I just had this desire to get a white line painted out, based on the fact that camel tracks are only that wide, they were all over the desert because a camel’s feet just go one in front of the other. So why not a white camel track going out towards that thing. In other words, it’s bringing that man to this place and this place is Lawrence and Lawrence’s life is going to be different after meeting this man.”
We can see the light line of a path in the desert—this was all just spray paint. This also helped actor Omar Sharif know where he should be to keep in frame although Freddie Young didn’t like the look of it and [quote] “started kicking it away with his heel” (Silverman 136).
As you’ll notice, the lead up to Sharif Ali’s entrance is fairly dull—the majestic montage music has stopped, Lawrence and his guide drink some water, Lawrence strolls around, rests on a mound of sand, blows the sand from his compass, whistles— this was actually because of some advice given to Lean by fellow director William Wyler. In an interview, Lean spoke about Wyler’s advice:
David Lean: “Willy once said to me, he said, ‘if you’re going to shock an audience, get them almost to the point of boredom before doing so.”
Lean also said, “I remember asking [William] once, after Hitchcock’s Psycho had just come out, if he’d seen it yet. He had. I asked him how the shower scene was, and he said it was very good. ‘But,’ he said, ‘the three minutes before it, when nothing happens, they’re brilliant’” (Silverman 136). We can see this concept to an extreme degree in the fantastic opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
I think one of the most brilliant aspects of this sequence is the sound of the water bag splashing in the well that startles Lawrence.
Instead of Lawrence starting to see something in the distance, he notices the concern of his companion before seeing the figure coming toward them. This arouses an extra bit of suspense in the appearance of a stranger and lets Lawrence know that it isn’t just him who is seeing it.
You can see Ali first becomes visible when he rides out of a sandstorm in the distance. This was done by the crew driving their trucks around in circles before the shot (Making). It is likely that Ali’s costume was black in the film simply because of this shot— he needed to have enough contrast to be visible at such a long distance away. They shot this on a 450mm lens and had a lot of trouble framing Ali because the camera’s viewfinder didn’t show the exact image the camera saw. John Box also went out and, by hand, scattered [quote] “tiny black pebbles across the sand, in the shape of a wide ‘V’ that narrowed as it closed in on the feet of Lawrence” (Silverman 136). Despite all of this, the shot of Ali’s long approach was done in one take.
Freddie Young said, “We put Omar [Sharif], oh, I don’t know, about a quarter of a mile away, and David told him just to come riding toward the camera. We shot a thousand feet of him coming closer and closer. It was fantastic watching him coming toward us, sort of this swirling wave. It looked like a sea on the desert” (Silverman 136). However, Sharif said, “It seems to me it was something more like two or three miles… It wasn’t terribly early in the morning. I think, nine or ten A.M. David needed a really high sun to capture what he wanted” (Silverman 136).
David Lean: “In fact, I lost my nerve. I had Omar coming out of the mirage at double the length and it was better and I lost my nerve and cut it quite a bit. I wish I hadn’t.”
Lean never shot coverage—every shot was deliberately composed to fit into a specific sequence. Young said: “He directed and photographed a scene so that it could be used in only one way. And, because of all his preparation, he very often had to shoot it no more than twice or three times. No alternative, you see. He was very economical” (Silverman 140). There was no way for the money people to turn his scene into something different than what he envisioned.
And it was also very helpful and cost-effective that his preparation allowed him to get away without needing many takes, because they literally had to sweep down the desert after every shot to get rid of the camel tracks from the previous take.
We get wide shots showing the vastness of the desert and the distance of the figure. The subjects are arranged in a triangular fashion to lead our eye toward the figure, but you’ll notice that Lawrence is positioned further up than his companion at the well. This gives a bit of depth to the image that has been flattened out by the telephoto lens. The camera cuts back and forth between Lawrence, his companion, and the figure in the distance. Each reaction shot bridges the closer and closer shots of the figure. It’s possible that one of these shots was made using an 800mm lens. There was an interview where Young said that he was meeting with the president of Panavision and saw an 800mm lens on a bench and it seems he just happened to bring it along to the desert— apparently no one had been using it (Silverman 136).
Just before the action, Lean uses a wide shot with a strong balance and the camera pushes in for the first time, simulating our focus being intensified, and when the action finally happens, it’s the long duration of the shots that preceded the action that makes the quicker cutting of the action more impactful. The same can be said for the closeness of shots. The closest shot in the sequence is the one where the man is shot. I also really like that they didn’t add a shot of Ali shooting the gun—we don’t see if he is particularly quick with a gun, but we understand the danger and it’s the danger that carries the next part of the scene.
We see Lawrence in a dangerous situation. We might expect, with the gun landing at his feet, that there might be a deadly confrontation between Lawrence and Ali, but our expectations are subverted when we see that Ali likes the English and that Lawrence, who has just seen his companion murdered, still refuses to give the killer any respect. Character is revealed in the kind of person Ali is—a man with no remorse for shooting someone of a different tribe, a man with dignity who likes the English and has the patience to help a man who is insulting him. Lawrence, shows no fear in the face of danger and has no problems pushing the limits of a killer.
Omar Sharif was concerned about messing up the part where he pulls the water bag out of the well as he had never done it before. He ended up going to the location the night before they were to shoot the scene to practice getting a feel for an action that his character would have done many times before. In his tests, he found that his rifle slung over his shoulder kept slipping when he reached down to pull the rope. To combat this, he had the gun strap sewn onto his costume. You can see in the film, the gun wants to fall, but it’s attached (Making).
The exposition of the scene makes us aware of the infighting between tribes, it sets up the danger of the desert, and it introduces the kind of person Ali is and complicates his relationship with Lawrence going forward. Now, the scene is great on its own, but it’s how the scene extends in both directions of the film’s timeline that makes it brilliant. First, it pays off a setup with the gun that Lawrence gives to the man and simultaneously it creates a new setup with the gun. It is possible that being given the gun is what caused his death– I wonder what Ali would have done if the man hadn’t pointed the gun at him. The scene where Lawrence gives the man the gun also endears the man to the audience. Lawrence gives the man the gun for his help, but it’s also because he sees himself as a peaceful man. Ali the killer, takes the gun, and Lawrence takes the gun back when he becomes a killer.
He tosses the gun away and it is picked up by a tribesman.
The gun (or one just like it) shows up again inexplicably here and later, here.
Another thing the scene sets up is Lawrence’s turn toward violence. He is disgusted by Ali who has killed without remorse and won’t acknowledge the man he just shot as a human being.
Lawrence: “He was my friend.”
Lawrence: “Yes, that.”
He will eventually prove to Ali how much he values human life when he risks his own life to save Gasim. Yet, after having to execute Gasim to prevent further bloodshed, he admits…
Lawrence: “I enjoyed it.”
and it is Lawrence who eventually participates in a massacre of the Turks at the behest of Ali.
Another important prop it sets up is Lawrence’s compass. His compass is a representation of him as an Englishman who is in an unfamiliar place. He likes the idea of the desert, but he is an outsider.
Lawrence: “I will find it with this.”
He spends the film attempting to become an Arab and slowly he begins to shed the things that make him English.
Lawrence: “I’ll cross it if you will.”
Ali: “You? It takes more than a compass Englishman.”
He is given robes to wear, but it isn’t until he is traveling back to the English base in Cairo that he accidentally loses his compass. Almost immediately after he notices that he has lost it, he realizes that he is familiar enough with the desert to get to where he is going on his own.
Lawrence: “No matter.”
“If we ride west we must strike the canal.”
What follows is him arriving at the English base, once his home and now something entirely foreign to him.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
Thanks for watching! I also love the David Lean style transition at the end of the scene, such an interesting little detail that I feel like I had never noticed until re-watching the scene over and over for this video. A special thanks to my patrons over on Patreon. With your help, we just passed another milestone! And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now, because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you! Thanks again for watching!