This 90 minute film, tells the amazing and dramatic story of Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926) who worked tirelessly to get the British Empire to do the right thing in the Middle East during and following World War I. The two features are the incredible story of her life and the vivid historical photographs. I highly recommend it. The narrator takes you on a journey through Gertrude’s life where she expounds on the critically and globally important issues of the day Whilst painting beautiful word pictures of the magic of the orient and life as it was during the decline of the Ottoman Empire and later in sharp contrast the stark reality of World War I. The film goes on describe the creation of new countries and rulers in the post-war period set against the hard commercialism of the British and American scramble for possession of oil rights.
Gertrude was a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) but far more influential. Sadly she has been almost completely written out of history. In large part, this film tells her story by the narrator reading from Gertrude’s letters set against a backcloth of original photographic and film footage from the period. Just seeing these Edwardian and wartime images and films is an historic feast in itself. If you want to see what Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and the amazing ruins at places like Babylon & Palmyra were like just watch this film. The real Orient Express is also depicted with scenes at Istanbul and Baghdad. Despite the black-and-white imagery the desert scenes are stunning! There is also amazing footage from scenes in London and Paris. It’s an historians delight!
I was particularly struck by her very clear understanding of the circumstances and future challenges of the period. Much of what she says still rings true today! Here are a few quotes from her letters:
Talking about what would eventually become Iraq she said, “The first thing we should do in this country is to understand what is going on at the bottom of the Shia mind.”
As Britain began to occupy the new country of Iraq she said “The real difficulty under which we labour is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do with this country. We rushed into this business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”
During World War I she said, “Can you persuade people to take your side when you are not sure if you will be there to take theirs?”
The film is currently available via BBC iPlayer, (also available to buy through other sources)
Also see: Gertrude Bell – Wikipedia