The many achievements of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) cover archaeology, travel, political administration, and more. She was a key figure in the formation of the modern state of Iraq and founded what became the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, yet – almost a century after her death – she is lamentably overlooked. But now, with a campaign to make a museum out of Red Barns, her childhood home in Redcar, Werner Herzog’s 2015 film Queen of the Desert, and this new documentary, it seems she might get the recognition she deserves.
As the title suggests, Letters from Baghdad features Bell’s correspondence. It is a quite wonderful premise: the film consists entirely of readings from letters, diaries, secret communiqués, and other primary sources by Bell and her associates and critics, as well as archive film footage and photographs. Writings by Bell are read mainly by Tilda Swinton (also an executive producer of the film), while those from her younger years are read by Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones. Other actors appear on screen, reading the words of the real-life figure they portray, such as Florence Bell (her stepmother), Vita Sackville-West, Percy Cox (High Commissioner of Iraq), and archaeologists T E Lawrence, David Hogarth, and Leonard Woolley.
The obvious problem that arises for such a project is that, with such a wealth of material, there is a limit to what can be covered in the 95-minute run time. Though the film has to race through some aspects of Bell’s life, it does use the material selected to paint an enthralling and intimate portrait of one of archaeology’s greatest heroines, while focusing on British involvement in Iraq from different points of view.
The film centres on Bell as a kingmaker and an adventurer. She lived in London in an ‘orgy of independence’, climbed the most dangerous Swiss mountains just for the challenge, and was sent to Romania to ‘get rid of her Oxfordly manner’. Bell’s position as a woman is also a key theme throughout, with comments by contemporaries like Lawrence, who describes her as ‘a wonderful person, not very like a woman’.
Given the political focus of the film, archaeology unfortunately plays more of a supporting role, giving the impression that it was something Bell only turned to in earnest when, having helped secure the position of her chosen candidate, Faisal, as King of Iraq, she became less involved in state affairs. Yet Bell had long been greatly concerned about the preservation of antiquities and the damage done by illicit digging, and throughout her travels around the Middle East she took (and published) a great number of photographs of archaeological sites. She was a close adviser of King Faisal, who appointed her as provisional Director of Antiquities; she wrote Iraq’s first Antiquities Law; and she started a museum in Baghdad, a fitting home for the archaeological riches of Mesopotamia, including spectacular finds from Leonard Woolley’s dig at Ur, the first permitted under her new law.
Writing about the museum to her father in June 1926, Bell relates: ‘I had a nice little ceremony on Monday when the King opened the first room of the Museum. It was open to the public for the first time today and as I came away at 8.30 this morning, I saw some 15 or 20 ordinary Baghdadis going round it under the guidance of the old Arab curator – very gratifying. Everyone agrees that it looks like a museum.’ With words like these from the protagonist herself, the result is a much more intimate portrayal than the usual biopic. A few weeks after this letter, Bell died. In 1927, the main wing of the museum was dedicated to its founder. In the decades since, the collection has seen a change of location and, in 2003, devastating looting during the invasion of Iraq.
As Lawrence advises near the end of the film, ‘read her letters; they’re splendid’. It is well worth remembering that Newcastle University’s fantastic Gertrude Bell archive has published thousands of her letters, diaries, and photographs on their website (www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk).
This review was published in CA 326.
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