Review: Letters from Baghdad

Gertrude Bell. Image from the documentary Letters from Baghdad.

I was eager to see Letters from Baghdad on PBS. It told the story of Gertrude Bell, an amazing and intrepid English woman who helped set the course of the Middle East a century ago.

I was not as uplifted by the documentary as I had hoped to be. An earlier biopic about Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman called Queen of the Desert was mostly panned. Surely a documentary on PBS using Bell’s actual letters would be better.

Gertrude Bell. Image from "Letters from Baghdad"

I found Letters from Baghdad disjointed and I didn’t learn nearly as much as I wanted to about the remarkable Gertrude Bell.

Here’s what I did get out of it. Bell left England after she finished university. She went to Persia, Mesopotamia, the Ottoman Empire, and what we now call Iraq. From 1892 until shortly after WWI, she traveled everywhere. She learned many languages, became friends with archeologists, sheiks, kings, and many top British officials. Her books about the area were widely used, and her opinions were sought by the highest officials.

Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence. Image from Letters from Baghdad.

She influenced everything: the creation of nations, who became king, where border lines were drawn, how archeological digs were conducted, what made it into museums and much more.

In the documentary, Bells’s letters were read by Tilda Swinton. To her credit, she did a marvelous job interpreting Bell’s writing. Bell was a remarkable, expressive writer. A few letters from people back to her were also included. She had a least a couple of lovers whose letters survived.

Two women shared the directing tasks: Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum. You can visit your local PBS station on the web and watch the film or wait for it to replay on your local station.

The documentary contains archival footage and photographs, mostly in black and white. The imagery was often general photos that didn’t include Bell. There are a few modern day actors who show up as talking heads with observations on Gertrude Bell. For example, Eric Loscheider said a few things in the role of T.E. Lawrence. Rachael Stirling spoke in the role of Vita Sackville-West. Every word in the film was sourced from an original document. Nothing was added or fictionalized.

Gertrude Bell died in 1926 from an overdose of sleeping pills.

More people should know about Gertrude Bell. Sadly, this Letters from Baghdad documentary isn’t compelling enough to satisfy my interest in her.

Did you see the documentary? What was your opinion about it?

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One thought on “Review: Letters from Baghdad”

  1. “Queen of the Desert,” the dramatized version of Bell’s life, is not very good. See my review on Amazon UK (2 stars).

    “Letters from Baghdad,” the documentary film about Bell, is much better. See my review on Amazon UK (4 stars).

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