The film, Queen of the Desert, begins with a distant image of a small group of travelers moving across a vast desert. Two sentences flash across the screen, setting the stage for what is to follow:
The onset of the First World War hastened the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East for five centuries. The colonial powers set their eyes on dividing the spoils.
The film then moves to a small room in which British army officers gather around a table with a minister from the War office, the future British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
The officers and Churchill are looking at a map of the colonial “spoils”. Churchill asks: “How do we delineate the borders?. . . Who knows best about the tribes? . . .Who knows best about the Bedouin tribes?”
The officers reluctantly agree among themselves, “That woman”.
After a delay of two years, the public finally has a limited DVD access to a motion picture that rescues Bell from the history books and should introduce her to a wider public.
The film is Queen of the Desert, based on the real-life story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)(Nicole Kidman), a humanitarian among those human colonialist scorpions who were roaming the deserts in search of prey and profits.
To the indigenous people of the region, Bell is better known, and far more appreciated, than T. E. Lawrence, portrayed by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.
The difference between the two? Bell was a woman and a natural diplomat, while Lawrence was a male warrior, glamorized through David Lean’s film.
Lean’s film rescued Lawrence from oblivion, which Queen of the Desert should have done for Gertrude Bell. It has failed to do so, not because of its lack of merit, but because the film industry determines what it thinks will sell.
Our popular understanding of history is shaped through popular culture, where films, television and now, social media, play definitive roles.
Military exploits have a greater popular appeal than diplomacy, while a film depicting Arab history as it really was, colonial exploitation of indigenous populations, goes against the popular narrative.
What was it that kept the film Queen of the Desert from the public for two years and then only grudgingly granted it very limited distribution? No one is saying. The fact remains, however, that Hollywood knew the story of Gertrude Bell violated a narrative written and protected by Zionism.
Levant history before 1947 was of little consequence, a period best left unexamined.
Queen of the Desert was initially screened in 2015 at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. It was nominated for the festival’s highest award, the Golden Bear. Directed by noted German director Werner Herzog and beautifully photographed on locations in Jordan and Morocco, the film was a natural for American “art house” screenings.
With Nicole Kidman (above) as the film’s star, and a script by Herzog, which examined the role Gertrude Bell played in modern history, film companies should have battled for U.S. distribution.
They did not. Films that violate the conventional historical narrative do not sell, or so it is assumed by the historically ignorant decision-makers of Hollywood.
The film focuses on a Middle East before Israel entered the historical stage. Could that reality play a role in Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace Queen of the Desert?
I am reminded of a West Wing episode in which President Bartlett was given an authentic map of the Levant from 1709, the region which Gertrude Bell came to love centuries later.
President Bartlett’s staff members all had the same reaction to Bartlett’s plan to frame and post the map in the White House:
“You can’t do that, some people will be offended because Israel is not on the map”. Puzzled, Bartlett said Israel did not exist when the map was made. “Doesn’t matter, some people will be offended”, was the insistent response. (click below to see a short clip).
The Desert Queen covers history in the World War I era. Israel did not exist then. Israel did not exist until the United Nations yielded to Zionist pressure and declared Israel a state in 1947.
That could explain why after its 2015 festival showing, Queen of the Desert dropped from sight. A Nicole Kidman film was shelved for two years.
When Queen of the Desert had its limited run earlier this year, it finally surfaced. There was still money to be made so the film now has DVD exposure. On October 3, Netflix and sites like Amazon, began renting or selling copies.
Gertrude Bell was there when the modern Middle East was formed. Because of her personal and caring knowledge of tribes and their leaders, she was used by the victorious nations after World War I to draw borders and choose leaders who became kings.
A sensitive film which examines the life of one of the most significant women of the 20th century, is ending its journey deep into the archives of film history, a journey noticed by only a few.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that this photograph is viewed as one of a future British Prime Minister, the real “Lawrence of Arabia”, and “that woman”.
The film industry missed its chance to give Queen of the Desert, the story of Gertrude Bell, the same prominence it gave Lawrence. Is there yet another perilous journey to be made that would jar Western culture and its leaders into the reality of the Levant?
The answer is yes, but not until Zionism loses its grip on its version of the region’s narrative. And not until humanitarians in the spirit of Gertrude Bell, reshape our understanding of history back to what really happened.