A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 21, 2011

Two Words You Didn't Expect to See Together: Angelina Jolie and Gertrude Bell

I came across this over the weekend and originally planned to use it as something light to start the week with on Monday morning, until the bloodshed in Egypt made that singularly inappropriate. To lighten all the gloom, however:

When I first saw the headline, "Angelina Jolie Attached to Middle East Biopic GERTRUDE BELL; Ridley Scott May Direct", I thought, oh, surely not. On careful reading I read it as maybe Jolie just wanted to direct a movie about Gertrude Bell; but on more careful reading, I find that no, indeed, my first reading was accurate, she wants to play Gertrude Bell herself. (Also here.) All the articles seem to refer to Bell as "the female Lawrence of Arabia," which may be how they sold the script. I'm not sure if that's more unfair to Lawrence or to Bell, who were both rather amazing figures of the British imperial era. Bell, of course, was the figure in the British Arab Bureau during World War I who helped midwife the birth of Iraq as a British mandate and then managed to, um, arrange the "election" of Feisal ibn al-Hussein of Mecca as King of Iraq, since the French had kicked him out as King of Syria and his brother ‘Abdullah had already become Emir (and later King) of Transjordan. Bell deserves a great movie of her own; I hope it is as widely seen and as brilliantly done as the 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, but sticks closer to the actual facts. Will it?

Well, Peter O'Toole was nearly a foot taller than the real T.E. Lawrence, but otherwise there was some physical resemblance. Perhaps this is what led to the idea of casting Angelina as Gertrude: the fact that they look so much alike? Yeah, that must have been it:
Angelina Jolie
Gertrude Bell
My first thought was that if she is in fact planning to play Gertrude Bell, this would rank right up there with John Wayne being cast as Genghiz Khan, in 1956'  The Conqueror, a movie so famously bad it isn't available on DVD even today, and is famous only for so many of its actors dying from cancer (including the Duke), since it was filmed at a Utah site downwind from the Nevada nuclear tests, then still frequent and above ground. Even Howard Hughes, who made it, supposedly hated it.
Genghiz Khan
(No Doubt Exactly
What He Looked Like)

John Wayne as Genghiz Khan

My biggest fear: Wait, says Hollywood. She was "The Female Lawrence of Arabia?" as our own publicity says? "She knew Lawrence of Arabia? She worked with him? If we've got Angelina on board,why not go for the whole "Brangelina" enchilada and sign Brad Pitt to play T. E. Lawrence?  But then there should be some romantic interaction and maybe a sex scene ..." (No. NO ONE would buy into that.)

Gertrude Bell deserves a major movie. She's a bit too much of an Empire-builder and manipulator for modern times perhaps, but she did things no other woman did in her era, or could have done. She invented Iraq. Created its Government, and chose its King. Imperialism at its height, but she accomplished at least as much as Lawrence, but lacked his skills at writing and networking.

I can tell you that I will be closely following the production of any movie about Gertrude Bell, and look forward to reviewing it here. Angelina Jolie can act, and might do a great job,but there will have to be a lot of deglamorizing by the makeup department.

And she certainly deserves better than this, which if released today would probably start a war with Mongolia:


Don said...

Wow - I'm excited, but share your concerns. Keep us updated!

Aryehl said...

Look up - if u haven't already -Liora Lukitz's "A Quest in the Middle East - Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq."- published by I.B. Tauris in 2006. Most interesting and could help with the movie, if and when.
Aryeh Levin

dianabuja said...

Great, Mike, and I'll share on my page! Diana.