I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I heard Anthony Sattin talk about this amazing book at a literary festival and was struck by the importance of his central idea: what sort of life formed the man who became the legend? This book concentrates on the life of T. E. Lawrence as a young man from university to the start of the war that forged his reputation.
Lawrence is a fascinating figure but is known chiefly for his role with the Arab revolt during the First World War and his advocacy of Arab causes at the post- war peace conference. He identified closely with the Arab people and the author addresses the question of why by looking at his earlier life.
History is full of examples of men and women from the West who were entranced by the East or by the cultural differences to be found there. What intrigued Anthony Sattin was what experiences led to Lawrence earning the sobriquet Lawrence of Arabia’. He set out to find out. The book shows that his life could have taken a different course but that, once he discovered a different way of life, he was not going to take another direction.
The war changed the nature of his engagement with the Middle East and led to his fame which might otherwise have been found in academia.
The author is careful not to get tied up in too much speculation; he is clear to define the extent of what we actually know. This is helpful as so much has been written about aspects of his life that cannot be proved. This includes his relationship with a young Arab boy. He developed a strong attachment to this young man over several years but the true nature of this is unknown,.
The most intriguing piece of information was that T.E. Lawrence wrote a book before leaving for the war in 1914. He called it ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. He destroyed the manuscript before leaving England. What was it about? That would be a book worth reading.
‘Young Lawrence: A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This memoir by Antonia Fraser has a specific theme and one that works well for both form and content. It relates her development as an historian but shows how her early life and her education influenced her. Having parents who were impressive in their own fields provided an impetus for her to plough her own furrow, yet her mother was a renowned historian herself and her father was a politician and academic. One of her brothers also wrote history books.
There is no doubt that she was well-connected; her first job working with George Wiedenfield of the publishing house helped her as she became a writer but this book shows that it is the passion, commitment and determination that get books written. I was reminded of the autobiography of Sir Richard Attenborough when he talked about the years of hard work pursuing his dream of making a film about Gandhi. For Antonia Fraser, the passion was Mary, Queen of Scots. She realised her dream and wrote a best seller and a well-regarded history book. Her work includes fiction but it is her historical work that built her reputation.
This book does not give equal attention to her brothers and sisters but her parents feature largely, mostly because they were powerful influences on her. Oxford features too, not just as a University but as her home city. In many ways it is fitting that this city was her home since it is a city steeped in history.
I love the films that take true events which are little known and turn them into stories which illustrate a larger theme. ‘Chariots of Fire’ is one such film. I saw it while a student in Oxford and, partly because of that time and place, it has fixed itself in my memory.
The tale of two runners who come from very different backgrounds to compete for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics is a compelling one, especially as it is the story of two outsiders who enter the heart of the British establishment. Eric Liddell is the Scottish son of missionaries who believes running is one way he can show his love of God. Harold Abrahams is an outsider because of his Jewish religion.
Both men are selected for the team, alongside members of the aristocracy and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. The team is the cream of the establishment’s sporting class and the film shows the difference between those born to rule and those who earn their place through effort and talent.
When Liddell and Abrahams run in the same race, Liddell wins causing much anguish to Abrahams. He takes on a coach, a move that offends some as beneath the dignity of a sporting gentleman. The true drama takes place in Paris, though, when the Olympics are staged. When Liddell learns that his race is to be held on a Sunday, he withdraws on faith grounds. Despite strong pressure from the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, he refuses to race and it looks as if he will forego the opportunity to win a medal. The day is saved, though, by Lord Lindsay who offers to stand aside so that Liddell can race on a Thursday in what would have been his heat.
It is well documented that both Liddell and Abrahams won gold medals but the manner of their winning makes a great film. Ian Charleston played Eric Liddell and Ben Cross played Harold Abrahams in a film written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.
‘Chariots of Fire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1566488a) Chariots Of Fire, Nigel Havers, Daniel Gerroll, Ian Charleson, Nick Farrell, Ben Cross Film and Television
This is another film that I was too young to see when it was first released but, thanks to the cinemas of Oxford showing classic films very late at night, I saw it as a student in the early 80s.
The British director John Schlesinger did not even attend the Oscar ceremony the year it won because he was convinced that no X rated film would take the top award. He also won the award for Best Director. He was in London at the time filming ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’, another film that is firmly in my hinterland.
‘Midnight Cowboy’ from 1969 is the story of two outsiders who gravitate towards each other to survive in the big city. Jon Voigt played Joe Buck, the Texan who heads to New York City to work as a male prostitute. His hopes of making money from rich women soon fade and instead he is trying to survive by serving men. He meets a street con artist known as Ratso Rizzo, brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman. The two have an uneasy alliance. Rizzo promises to help Joe in his career but when he realises he has been tricked, Joe tracks him down. Thrown together, the two navigate the city. We learn about their pasts and their hopes for the future, which in Ratso Rizzo’s case includes making it to Florida.
The film ends on the road to Florida, but there is no upbeat ending here. It is a classic and worth the freezing cold cinema experience of a late night showing. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This is the third film that, in a pre- home cinema age, sent me back to the ABC Oxford in the same week to see it again. I made it back three times in one week and might have made more visits except the film didn’t go into a second week.
To be honest, it isn’t one of life’s masterpieces but it was the first time I saw a gay relationship on film and it affected me. I had to return to check that I had actually seen two men kiss in a loving way.
The plot is a simplistic one: man is attracted to another man but is married (to a wonderful woman played by the wonderful Kate Jackson) and does not know what to do about these strange feelings. As they grow, he becomes conflicted about his marriage. Things are not helped by the fact that the object of his affections is a well adjusted medical doctor; not every gay person is a psychological wreck!
I have seen some amazing films over the years that illuminate the lives of gay men but in 1982 this was still rare. The idea that it could be a Hollywood film was still new to me and my return visits to the cinema were about checking that these lives were projected onto the big screen as much as they were about anything.
‘Making Love’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?