What do the films Lawrence of Arabia, All the President’s Men and Prometheus have in common? On the face of it, nothing. If you haven’t seen them, you’d certainly never figure it out. But in all of them, there is a relatively short scene involving the following punchline: “The trick is not minding.”
In Lawrence of Arabia, it is said by TE Lawrence, a real-life eccentric, war hero and author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and shows him as someone witty and intriguing but also desperate to inspire awe and respect in those around him.
Lawrence is with Hartley in a basement with a high window out to the street, waiting for Potter to bring him a newspaper.
Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, this is a nasty, dark, little room.
Hartley: That’s right.
Lawrence: We are not happy in it.
Hartley: I am. It’s better than a nasty, dark, little trench.
Lawrence: Then you’re a big noble fellow.
Hartley: That’s right.
Lawrence: Ah, here is William Potter with my newspaper.
Potter: Here you are, tosh.
Lawrence: Thanks. Would you care for one of Corporal Hartley’s cigarettes?
Potter helps himself to a cigarette.
Hartley: Is it there?
Lawrence: Of course. Headlines. But I’ll bet it isn’t mentioned in The Times. “Bedouin tribes attack Turkish stronghold.” And I’ll bet that no one in this whole headquarters even knows it happened. Or would care if it did. (To Potter) Allow me to ignite your cigarette.
Lawrence lights Potter’s cigarette with a match. A messenger comes in.
Messenger: Mr Lawrence?
Messenger: Flimsy, sir.
Lawrence: Thank you.
Lawrence extinguishes the match he used to light Potter’s cigarette between his bare fingers with a show of flair.
Hartley: You do that once too often. It’s only flesh and blood.
Lawrence: Michael George Hartley, you are a philosopher.
Potter: And you’re barmy.
Lawrence reads the note the messenger has brought and Potter decides to try Lawrence’s trick of extinguishing a match with his fingers.
Potter: Ooohh, it damn well hurts!
Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Potter: Well, what’s the trick then?
Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
The punchline appears again in All the President’s Men when Bob Woodward discusses Gordon Liddy, eventually discovered to be a key figure in the Watergate scandal. Woodward and Liddy are also real people and Liddy was renowned for telling this story himself. It seems to be used here as evidence of Liddy’s sociopathic personality.
Woodward has arranged to meet with Deep Throat, a high level but extremely confidential source, in a car park in the middle of the night.
Deep Throat: I saw the flag signal. What’s up?
Woodward: Nothing, that’s the problem. The story’s gone underground.
Deep Throat: You thought I’d help out on specifics? I’ll confirm what you get, try to keep you on the right track, but that’s all. Are you guys really working? How much?
Woodward: I don’t know, maybe sixteen, eighteen hours a day. We’ve got sources at Justice, the FBI, but it’s still drying up.
Deep Throat: Then there must be something, mustn’t there. Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.
Woodward: If you don’t like them, why won’t you be more concrete with me?
Deep Throat: Because the press stinks too. History on the run, that’s all you’re interested in. You come up with anything?
Woodward: John Mitchell resigned as head of CREEP to spend more time with his family. That doesn’t exactly have the ring of truth. Howard Hunt’s been found. There was talk that his lawyer had $25,000 in cash in a paper bag.
Deep Throat: Follow the money. Always follows the money.
Woodward: To where?
Deep Throat: Go on.
Woodward: This man, Gordon Liddy. He’s going to be tried along with Hunt and the five burglars. We know he knows a lot, we just don’t know what.
Deep Throat: You changed cabs? You’re sure no one followed you?
Woodward: I did everything you said but it all seemed…
Deep Throat: Melodramatic? Things are past that… Remember, these are men with switchblade mentalities who run the world as if it were Dodge City.
Woodward: What’s the whole thing about, do you know?
Deep Throat: What I know, you’ll have to find out on your own.
Woodward: Liddy, you think there’s a chance he’ll talk?
Deep Throat: Talk? Once, at a gathering, he put his hand over a candle. And he kept it there. He kept it right in the flame until his flesh was seared. A woman who was watching asked, “What’s the trick?” And he replied, “The trick is not minding.”
The reference also appears in Prometheus because one of the main characters is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia. David, a robot designed to look like a human, is caretaking on the Prometheus, a scientific exploratory vessel, while the rest of the crew are kept in stasis during the nearly two-and-a half year journey to the planet they are heading to. He has spent this time deconstructing a huge number of ancient languages to their roots to enable him to communicate with whoever or whatever the crew will find when they arrive at their destination.
In his spare time, he watches Lawrence of Arabia and particularly the famous scene described above while dyeing the roots of his hair to match the blond of the actor portraying Lawrence in the film. He styles his hair in exactly the same way. And he repeats the famous words – “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” – over and over, seeming to test them for different nuances.
In Prometheus, it is used to demonstrate David’s obsessive personality. It is also interesting in the context of the fact that he is a robot searching for his identity, particularly since all he seems to be doing is adopting someone else’s identity.
So… homage, parody or something else (plagiarism)? The basic test is that homage cites its source, parody mocks its source and plagiarism denies there ever was a source. Lawrence of Arabia and All the President’s Men are depictions of real people and there’s no telling where TE Lawrence and Gordon Liddy came across their party trick. Prometheus is clearly an homage and Ridley Scott, the director, has acknowledged as much, saying it was a personal tribute to one of his favourite films.
If you’re ever in a position to have an homage paid to or a parody made of your work, it probably means you’ve already achieved something great. (So the trick is not minding, although why would you?) But plagiarism? That’s something else again. And the trick is no mercy.