Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Legend of the Lost (1957)

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A desert is full of bones that were looking for treasure. Experienced desert guide Joe January (John Wayne) leaves a Timbuktu police cell and reluctantly joins a Saharan treasure hunting expedition led by Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi), a man obsessed with confirming his dead father’s claim to have found a lost city. Dita (Sophia Loren) a woman of dubious reputation, becomes infatuated with Paul. She invites herself along and turns up on a camel in the middle of a caravan of Touareg – it’s quite the entrance. During the  ordeal Joe and Dita become attracted to each other and tensions escalate. As they run out of water, they stumble upon the ancient city and a well. There, they find three human skeletons, a woman and two men:  Joe figures out that Paul’s father found his woman in the arms of his guide, killed them and then shot himself. The treasure is nowhere to be found. Paul’s faith in his father is shattered and he becomes drunk and maniacal. They find the treasure after Joe deciphers the clues left by Paul’s father in a Bible. They load the jewellery and artifacts and prepare to leave in the morning. Paul tries to seduce Dita but she rejects him and he gets into a fight with Joe. Paul sneaks off in the night taking all the animals, supplies, and treasure with him and leaving the others to die. Joe and Dita chase after him on foot and eventually catch up, finding him unconscious from dehydration. While Joe and Dita dig for desperately needed water, Paul regains consciousness and in his delirium thinks they are digging his grave. He buries the treasure and attacks Joe from behind with a knife. Dita is forced to shoot and kill Paul. When they spot a caravan, Joe and Dita are saved. I can cook! I can breathe! I can live! Loren declares happily to Wayne and it’s this kind of snappy dialogue that enlivens what should have been a rather more fun outing. Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell, with that cast it should have been a sizzler but they don’t entirely mesh. Henry Hathaway directed it for Wayne’s Batjac Productions and it was one of a half-dozen films they made together. It’s shot by Jack Cardiff and looks amazing – with wide shots of the Libyan desert anticipating the more luxuriant episodes of Lawrence of Arabia and the treasure hunt leading to the kind of thirsty delusion worthy of Greed. It’s wonderful to see the ruins of Leptis Magna, the 7th century Roman settlement. There’s a nice fight between the three points of this love triangle and guess who comes out on top? We must give thanks for Sophia Loren!

 

She (1965)

 

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This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.