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Lights, Camera, Action!

November 28, 2014

I’m talking films today HARNers, so pull up a director’s chair and join me for the greatest screen entertainment of all time! No, I tell a lie, that’s Gone With The Wind.

gone_with_windI’m talking archaeology films, and not Indiana Jones (although if there were to be another Indiana Jones installment then obviously I would suspend all my critical facilities and go and watch it). No, I’m talking proper archaeology in the movies. Late last year I noted that Werner Herzog was going to be writing and directing Queen of the Desert – a film based on the life of Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson and James Franco. Filming began earlier this year and presumably it will be released some time next year.There’s already a fan site here.

Now, I can see Gertrude Bell’s life working as a Hollywood film, it has all the necessary ingredients – a strong narrative of a wealthy woman determined to ignore the constraints of the rest of her sex (but not to work towards dismantling those constraints for other women) and achieve an education. Frustrated by the limitations of Victorian and Edwardian Britain she sought refuge in mountaineering and the Orient. Bell travelled through the Ottoman Empire spending time with the  Bedouin learning their language and becoming an expert on the architecture and archaeology of Syria and Mesopotamia. When the First World War began she worked initially for the Red Cross and then for British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau and assisted in the creation of the modern state of Iraq. Throw in an unconsumated but passionate affair with the married Lieutenant Colonel Doughty Wylie, his heroic death at Gallipoli in 1915 and Bell’s probable suicide in 1926 and you have all the ingredients of a blockbuster. Certainly several biographers have thought so in the last 20 years, Georgina Howell; Janet Wallach; HVF Winstone and Fergus Mason have all added their thoughts to Elizabeth Burgoyne’s two-volume Bell family authorised biography. I would say none of the first three are worth reading and I have my doubts about Fergus Mason’s book, Burgoyne’s book is useful but still tedious, but then I’m a feminist and a socialist and I don’t do sentimentality.

Werner Herzog has to do a better job at portraying Gertrude Bell than these biographers, and since he has a reputation for integrity there’s a chance he’ll produce a rounded picture of Gertrude Bell rather than a Hollywoodisation of her life. As an archaeologist I do wonder if her standing building surveys, work with Ramsay in Syria and the Baghdad Museum will be mentioned. I suspect that even with Herzog in charge there’ll be more emphasis on her love life than she would have approved and obviously the creation of Iraq will feature heavily, but how critical will it be of Britain’s meddling?

Interestingly, Gertrude Bell is also the subject of another film Letters from Baghdad. This documentary, funded by kickstarter donations, sounds far more interesting – even if they have used one of my all time most loathed expressions in calling Gertrude Bell ‘a woman ahead of her time’. They have some very impressive partners and intend to include GB’s own photographs along with contemporary film footage:

‘Once the digitization of the archival footage has been completed for Letters from Baghdad, it will be available for other filmmakers, historians and the public. It is in the spirit of cross cultural collaboration, support of the international film community, and socially responsible film-making that we are passionate about this aspect of making Letters from BaghdadThis is our contribution to the ongoing preservation of archival footage throughout the world.’

Two very different films about the same woman, it will be interesting to compare them and see what, if anything, they have to say about archaeology.

A film that, presumably, will have much to say about digging is The Dig – yup, supposedly they’re making it into a film with Cate Blanchett as Mrs Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo. There’s no release date – or indeed any information – yet so there’s a chance I may have managed to read the book before the film comes out. It’s a fairly remote chance given the way I appear unable to read more than one page before abandoning it in favour of something (anything) else. For all I know it’s an accurate portrayal of archaeology in the 1930s and deals faithfully with the excavations. Has anybody out there read it? I think my main problem is that I can’t believe John Preston didn’t know his aunt (Peggy Guido) had been involved. How did he not know this? I only met her twice and both times we talked about Sutton Hoo, admittedly my reason for approaching her was to talk about her archaeology work but even so, how could he not know? In a piece for The Telegraph he said he hadn’t known his aunt well, but once he started researching he discovered ‘what turned out to be a remarkable story of intrigue, ambition, heartache and, of course, buried treasure’. Again, the tale of the Sutton Hoo excavations has the makings of a blockbuster but a film about archaeology, not treasure, a film about the difficulties of becoming an archaeologist in the first half of the twentieth century, a film about how gender, race and class affected access to archaeology – wouldn’t that be interesting?

I shall continue to mull and mutter to myself, if you have anything to add about archaeology and films do leave me a comment.

Have a great weekend


PS. Ear worm while writing this post Act Naturally sung by The Beatles rather than Buck Owens.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Sheppard permalink
    November 29, 2014 1:38 am

    As usual, I agree with you! On, like, everything. Even preferring Ringo to Buck Owens. So maybe I should not be allowed to leave comments…? But, anyway, I’m really looking forward to these films! A friend of mine suggested that someone should do a REAL film about this kind of work–strap a GoPro to your head and go to the archives… 🙂


  1. Book Review – The Dig, John Preston | HARN Weblog

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