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The Woman Who Helped Shape the Middle East: Comparing Gertrude Bell's Life to Hollywood Adaptations

Gertrude Bell; An extraordinary adventurer, adviser to Kings, ally of Lawrence of Arabia and once described as the most powerful person in the British Empire.

It took me only a few days to read the book Desert Queen by Janet Wallach (Penguin Random House, 2005). I was totally absorbed by this biography of an amazing individual, who left her comfortable privileged aristocratic life in England to explore her life's passion in the desert.

Gertrude Bell was a woman in a mans world and often went where men feared to go.

gertrude bell in the middle east
Gertrude Bell. Photo: Public Domaine

Gertrude Bell was an Oxford graduate (first class honours degree!), an archaeologist and anthropologist, a cartographer, a linguist, a translator, a poet, a political attaché, a diplomat, an aviatrix and even a spy! Most of all she was a prolific writer, which allows us a great insight into her remarkable life. Now, how many people can write that on their resume?!

Gertrude became the world expert on the Arab nations and was instrumental in the drawing up of the borders for Iraq and Lebanon following the end of WW1. She was respected and admired by Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites alike, as well as most other foreign governments. It was the remarkable work of Gertrude Bell, as well as her money, that established one of the worlds most important museums The Iraq Museum. In Bell's time, it was called the Baghdad Museum of Archaeology.

city picture of Cairo Egypt
Come, visit Cairo in Egypt. Gertrude Bell loved it. Photo: Unsplash
The pyramids without all the tourists. Photo: Unsplash

After reading Janet Wallach's book (you can read my review of Janet's book here), I just had to see the film by the same name and directed by Werner Herzog. How would she be portrayed, especially as they cast Nicole Kidman in the key role? Although I felt Kidman did not do Gertrude Bell justice, I found the film visually exciting and stirred one's emotions as only the desert can.

The music was both haunting and mesmerising and totally captured the essence of Arabia. The other characters were also far from convincing. Robert Pattison was ineffectual as T.E. Lawrence, as was Damien Lewis. James Franco was only marginally better.

The emphasis in the film was on her love life and related tragedies; a watered down version of who this magnificent intelligent lady really was. Hollywood has perfected the fine art of trivialising and romanticising women's history. Disempowering women to fools of love! Remember the movie Out of Africa about Karen Blixen? Same story.

Gertrude Bell was one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived, but you wouldn't know it from the movie! Nor would you know it from history books, where she is rarely mentioned. How soon we forget and neglect the true place of women in our history - and keep doing it to this very day. What a loss it is for us all.

My advice; I think you need to read the book by Wallach first to fully appreciate the successes and failures of the film. However, the film is certainly worth watching.

My rating is 3 ½ star out of 5 and goes towards the breathtaking scenotography and the mesmerizing soundtrack.

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