James M. Wall
Empire builders don’t watch the right films. This became clear to me as I prepared several lectures that coincided with the 2004 U.S. presidential election. As is my custom in delivering lectures on most any subject, while I was writing, I was also looking for film clips to use, not to illustrate my lectures, but to offer material that would resonate with the theme of the current U.S. empire building project.
The lectures are entitled: ‘Resurrecting Empire’, and they are designed to discuss American foreign policy under the presidency of George Bush. As background reading for the lectures, I asked seminar members to read Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (2004), a book written by Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East studies at New York’s Columbia University.
My film research revealed a disturbing pattern of the use of film as propaganda, and only a few encouraging signs that some film makers have left us with films that utilize cinema to explore racist western attitudes toward non-western populations, the attitudes required for an empire to dominate other populations. The research also left me with the depressing realization that very film western films have been made that honestly explore the inevitable failure of empire building.
It became clear to me that neither the United States government, the movie industry, nor the paying public has supported films that question that U.S. claims to build democracies around the world are, in fact, only a convenient way to control foreign populations for its own imperial purposes. The victim nations themselves have made attempts to address the issue, but rarely do these films gain commercial exposure in the west.
Three films did emerge, however, as examples of past empire building efforts, all films that resonate with our current situation: The Quiet American (the second of two versions), which deals with the U.S. in Vietnam; Lawrence of Arabia, Great Britain’s Middle Eastern empire project; and The Battle of Algiers, one of the very few western films (Italian) made from a non-western perspective that critically examines the final years of a western (in this case, French) empire.
Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, published in 1955, was a scathing indictment of the deceptive tactics used by the United States in the early years of the American war in Vietnam. The two film versions based on Greene’s book are illustrative of the degree to which government and public support for empire building affects a film’s content and its distribution.
The second and far superior film adaptation of The Quiet American was directed by Australia’s Philip Noyce and starred Michael Caine and Brendan Fraiser as the novel’s protagonists, Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle. The picture was scheduled for release in the fall of 2001.
U.S. distributor Miramax screened the picture for distributors on 10 September 2001. The next day’s attacks against the U.S. that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths, eliminated that option. Miramax, after a few trial screenings for the public, pulled the film from circulation. The company concluded that the U.S. public was in no mood to see a film that was critical of American colonialism. The film was kept from general circulation until January 2003. It received critical acclaim but was not a commercial success.
The first version of The Quiet American (1958) a distortion of Greene’s book, was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and starred Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave. Greene’s sense of moral ambiguity in the novel is eliminated, leaving Murphy, the ‘quiet American’ as a naive, but well-meaning hero. What the American viewing public did not know at the time of the film’s release in 1958 was that America was beginning to take over the conquest of Vietnam from the French, who had essentially given up on that corner of their empire after losing the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
H. Bruce Franklin suggests the degree to which American media was a co-conspirator in actual events to deceive the pubic. Greene includes in fictional form in his novel incidents, Franklin writes, that reveal the manner In which the U.S. employed terrorist tactics (while blaming Communists) to build U.S. public support for a war against Communist forces in Vietnam.
Franklin recalls a New York Times headline, ‘Reds’ Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center’ that appeared on 10 January 1952 over a story written by Tillman Durdin, a Times reporter in Saigon working in tight collaboration with the CIA. Durdin tells his Times readers that the bombing was ‘one of the most spectacular and destructive single incidents in the long history of revolutionary terrorism’ carried out by ‘agents here of the Vietminh.’
A blood-chilling photo of the carnage described as a Communist attack ran as the ‘Picture of the Week’ in the January 28 LIFE magazine.’ (Nation magazine, February 3, 2003). Greene, a former British secret agent, with connections with the French security services, was in Saigon at the time of the January 1952 bombing. He later wrote in his memoirs that he suspected a close collaboration between Life magazine and the CIA, a suspicion he incorporated into his novel.
The Mankiewicz version of Greene’s novel is a good example of how a movie, when performing in the ‘service’ of a national policy, acts not as art, but as propaganda. Noyces, in sharp contrast to Mankiewicz, did not need to conform to a U.S. propaganda formula, nor adhere to the preferred version that would be embraced by popular U.S. opinion. Instead he offers a vision that respects Greene’s original intent.
Arrogance of imperialism
David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, offers a similar contrast, not between two films, but between different levels of the same film, one of the most acclaimed in modern history. Initially praised for its scenic beauty, tense battle scenes, musical score and superb acting, as well as Lean’s directorial treatment of a complex historical period, the film has its celebratory moments for British imperialism, but it also includes sharply written dialogue that lays bear the arrogance of imperialism.
Lawrence examines the wartime exploits of the tortured, heroic figure of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) during Great Britain’s victory over the Turkish army in World War I. In using clips from this film my intent was not to ‘illustrate’, but to share Lean’s vision in order to look behind the scenes of empire building. Consider, as one example, the sequence in the film after Lawrence has travelled to Cairo to report to British General Allenby on the successful surprise attack Lawrence led against the Turkish port of Aqaba.
Before Lawrence left Aqaba, travelling alone except for two boys as his companions, he tells Prince Ali that he, Lawrence, must make this journey, rather than send an Arab leader, ‘because they would not believe you.’ Lean’s script reveals at many points like this one that Lawrence is aware that the British attitude toward Arabs is racist, an attitude that assumes that the western ‘white’ world is inherently superior to the non western world.
Racism also emerges in another empire building film, Khartoum, which deals with the 19th century war between the British and the Sudanese Muslim leader (Lawrence Oliver in blackface) who called himself the Mahti (chosen one). When the Mahti’s Sudanese army destroys an army of Egyptian soldiers under British command, leaving 10,000 dead, British Prime Minister Gladstone is furious: ‘How could this happen; they were commanded by British officers?’ This is not patriotism; it is racism.
Rashid Khalidi cites a good example of this racist attitude when he reports that a British proconsul in Egypt, justified a cut in the educational budget there by saying he believed that Western education would ‘create a group of intellectuals imbued with national ideals and a sense of frustration over their inferior status.’ (Resurrecting Empire, p.18). Seen from the perspective of recent events, the film brings a sharp focus on the recent departure from the Bush cabinet of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell, like Lawrence, is a man with a vision about his role as a leader. Both men tried, unsuccessfully, to reconcile personal idealism with the harsh reality of a political environment based on deceit and deception.
Of course, because Lean’s film is a work of art, and not propaganda, its vision leaves room for interpretation. Art is the means through which the artist explores ambiguity and leaves to the viewer the freedom to reach a personal interpretation of the vision of the artist. In the end, both Lawrence and Powell are shoved aside by politicians who used and then discarded them. Powell, the most respected and credible member of the Bush war team, presented what later proved to be a completely false set of claims against Iraq in his speech to the United Nations.
There are echoes of Powell’s UN performance in a scene in Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence enters General Allenby’s office and encounters his old Arab friend, King Feisal. The King greets Lawrence, but he is clearly disappointed to see that Lawrence has discarded his Arab desert robe for his British army uniform. As he departs the king says:
- ‘Major Lawrence no doubt has a report to make, about my people and their weakness. And the need to keep them weak (pause) in the British interests and in the French interests too, of course. We must not forget the French.’
- General Allenby angrily protests: ‘I told you sir, no such treaty exists.’
Feisal: ‘Yes, General, you have lied most bravely, but not convincingly. I know this treaty does exist.’
Lawrence: (genuinely puzzled) ‘Treaty, sir?’
Feisal: (pointing to Lawrence then slowly turning to Allenby) He lies better than you, General. But then of course, he is almost an Arab.’
When it becomes obvious after Feisal leaves Allenby’s office that Lawrence ‘really doesn’t know’ about the Sykes-Picot agreement, it is patiently explained to him that two ‘civil servants’, one British, the other French, have signed an agreement that after the war France and England would ‘share the Turkish empire, including Arabia’. To gain their loyalty, Lawrence had promised King Feisal and other Arab tribal leaders that the British had no desire to control their lands after the war. Now he sees his promise negated, and angrily shouts: ‘There may be honour among thieves, but there is none among politicians.’
Dryden (Claude Raines), the British diplomat working with Allenby, cuts him off: ‘You may not have known, but you certainly had suspicions. If we’ve told lies, you have told half-lies. And the man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth, but the man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.’
This film is not remembered for such insightful, biting dialogue, but rather for its scenic beauty, its music, its narrative brilliance, and the commanding performance of O’Toole. But it is also through dialogue like this exchange that we see the transcendent power of the film.
Cinema as art persists over the years precisely because it is not limited to the moment of its creation, nor is it limited to the circumstances of the material it describes. Instead, cinema as art resonates over the years as a vision that evokes understanding and insights into successive historical moments.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that returns to memory as we reflect on Powell at the UN, because it deals with deception as a prevailing tactic of colonialism. An empire, to be successful, must persuade its own people that what it does is in their own best interest. What better way to reach a gullible public than to call on a war hero to persuade a domestic public and potential allies that the cause is a just one?
A third film that resonates with the theme of empire building is a modern film classic, The Battle of Algiers, directed in 1966 by Gillo Pontecorvo, a cinematic breakthrough in looking at colonialist repressive tactics. The Battle of Algiers examines a pivotal moment in Algerian history, when the local population resorted to its own form of terror tactics to fight French military occupation between1954 and 1957.
The film shows a French-arranged demolition of an Algerian apartment building, followed by terror attacks from the Algerians. In documentary style, Pontecorvo depicts a massive French military force confronting suicide bombers. He describes torture employed to force Algerians to reveal the location of their leaders.
A war that began in rural areas, is shown moving into the crowded urban environment. This forces French paratroopers to fight an elusive army of a highly organized underground Algerian army in the crowded narrow streets of Algiers, virtually a training film for both sides today in Palestine and Iraq.
Drawn from the autobiography of Algerian revolutionary leader Saadi Yacef, who plays himself in the film, The Battle of Algiers follows in close and painful details the cost to both sides as the French try to control an Algerian population that is struggling for self-determination, resisting a colonial enterprise doomed to failure for the simple reason that self-determination is too strong a drive to allow for permanent occupation.
Two moments in the film depict the suffering of both occupier and occupied. In one segment, Pontecorvo photographs a young woman who carries a bomb into a crowded public restaurant. The girl sits at a counter, places her purse with the bomb under her stool and then slowly glances around at the civilians her bomb will kill. The camera pans to see a boy licking an ice cream cone; young couples dancing; and animated dinner table conversations.
In the film’s opening sequence, under the credits, a badly beaten Algerian informer stands before his captors, who have forced him, through torture, to cooperate in a search for an Algerian resistance leader. The impassive soldiers who watch, and the anguish of the informer, whose pain leads him to betray his comrades, is a potent image of both an occupying army and an occupied population.
Striving to avoid any condemnation of the French paratroopers who perform their unpleasant tasks, Pontecorvo also refuses to glorify the Algerian insurgents, even though it is clear that his sympathies lie with the Algerians. He says in a documentary, issued with the film on a new DVD, that he used the same music for both the French and Algerian dead, music with a ‘religious theme inspired by Bach’. He adds that he wants his film to have ‘the smell of truth’ which is why he insisted on using non-professional actors.
The second film version of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and The Battle of Algiers are three films that show, through the visions of three film artists, the machinations of empires that are ultimately self-defeating. All three cry out as warnings to the current attempt by the United States to resurrect a new western empire.
James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor for the
Christian Century magazine , Chicago, USA.