Everybody has heard of T. E. Lawrence–“Lawrence of Arabia”–adventurer, explorer, expert on what’s now called the Middle East. Certainly every movie-goer has seen Peter O’Toole in flowing white robes, riding through the wide-angle desert with his coterie of Arab horsemen.
Far fewer people have heard of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), an Englishwoman who did much of what Lawrence did. “Letters from Baghdad,” using entirely Bell’s own words from her diaries and letters, as well as many of her photographs and films, finally rights this wrong. Tilda Swinton is Bell’s voice in the film. (Don’t confuse “Letters from Baghdad” with Werner Herzog’s 2015 “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, and variously described by critics as “a muddled mess” and “rambling and tedious.”)
Bell was born into a well-to-do British family. Her mother died when Bell was very young; her father remarried, and most of Bell’s affectionate letters are addressed to both her father and step-mother. She left 1,600 letters, as well as 7,000 negatives, plus films, some in color.
In 1892, after graduating from Oxford, Bell went “to the East,” which she rarely left before her (probably self-inflicted) death in 1926. She was fascinated with the Arabs–their language and its dialects, their culture, their arts. She wrote numerous books. When World War I broke out, Bell joined the Red Cross. She also worked for the British government, possibly as a spy. She hobnobbed with the mighty and famous: a photograph shows her sitting between Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence.
In return for cooperating with the British, the Arabs were promised their own country after World War I. Not given one, they revolted. Bell, blaming oil for much of the problem (does that sound familiar?), sided with the Arabs. Appointed Director of Antiquities, Bell created the Museum of Iraq, which, tragically, was ransacked in 2003.
In addition to the footage of Baghdad, Tehran, the desert, and the antiquities Bell collected, “Letters from Baghdad” also shows London street scenes circa 1915, scenes from World War I, Cairo, and much more. Bell’s two ill-fated romances (the focus of Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert”) are mentioned but not emphasized. As essentially the only woman in a similarly important position in the British government in the east, she suffered from loneliness and lack of female companionship, as well as physical ailments, none of which are elaborated in her letters. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills.
“Letters from Baghdad” doesn’t sentimentalize or glamorize Gertrude Bell. Rather, it’s a window into an extraordinary woman’s life and career, well worth watching.