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,Black Tent, The

The Black Tent

Movies are many things, but they're also history, just as the first dazzled theorists thought they were at the turn of the century, before the invention of Hollywood. Cinema was first seen as the solution to a nest of basic, nagging human problems: how to see something important in an ever-more-connected world when you can't be actually present, how to preserve a memory or an event, how to freeze history for the future. This essential perspective is what makes many films, not just the great and revered classics, worthy of preservation, restoration and observation; cinema itself is like history writ with lightning, as Woodrow Wilson said about D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). (Was Wilson wrong about that famously bigoted film's warped use of history, or right about the film itself becoming history manifest?) These are pertinent thoughts when you come up against an odd duck like Brian Desmond Hurst's The Black Tent (1956), a mainstream postwar British film that has never received much fan love in its day or since, and in fact is barely remembered today. But it is, for one thing, the first English-language film shot largely in Libya, which had only established its new monarchal independence from Italy's colonial occupation five years earlier.

Film-history-wise, The Black Tent plays like something of a prophecy - six years before the epochal on-location imagery and direct exploration of British colonialism we're all familiar with in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), here are vast desert-dune landscapes punctuated by Englishmen and testy Bedouin on camels, with all of the culture-collision freight that implies. The story here is very different, however, set in the postwar era, and entailing a British aristo (Donald Sinden) traveling into the Libyan desert to seek out the truth of how his brother (Anthony Steel), a captain during the war, was killed. What he uncovers, seen in extended flashbacks, involves the brother's conflicted marriage with a Bedouin chieftain's daughter (Anna-Maria Sandri), and a teenage son raised as a desert nomad but eligible for a duke-sized British inheritance.

The Irish-born Hurst, it should be said, was an uninspired and rather lifeless filmmaker, despite possessing a rousing biography of war-fighting and bohemian living and rollicking travails with John Ford and John Wayne. The Black Tent's visual palette is stodgy at best, and the performances are cardboard (with the particular exception of Anton Diffring, who made a career of playing Nazis and Nazi-like villains, and here is a German field officer with a boyish zest for self-glorification). But it's a politically loaded film, as are so many that dare to probe the legacy of the colonial era in the postwar culture. By the 1950s Nasserism and Arab nationalism were snowballing forces, just as are the various Arab democracy movements this year, and Hurst's film tries to find a balance between stiff-lip British supremacy and the self-possessed gravitas of "native" peoples. But the Arabs of The Black Tent are not terribly Arab, they're just slightly less educated Englishmen. In fact, there isn't a single Arab or Libyan in the cast: Sandri is Italian (and completely redubbed by Nanette Newman, wife of scriptwriter Bryan Forbes), the Shakespearean-toned sheikh is played by Old Vic vet Andre Morell, and a sneaky tan-faced servant in a fez is played by veteran character actor Donald Pleasence.

But then again, the Nazis are mostly all Brits, too - such have been the conventions of film industries worldwide. Every culture has its traditions of unbridled narcissism, which are best viewed with passing years as camp - here, you see in hilariously pure form the Brit fantasy of millionaire aristocrats leaving their castles behind to dash off heroically to war and being all Steve McQueen-ish on the battlefield, when in reality we know it was the working class that went and did the combat zone fighting and dying. Still, the matter of how the Bedouin rode out WWII figures heavily into the plot, as they tolerate the invading Europeans of either side as best as they can, and as Steel's intolerably chrome-curled stud-Brit connives with the nomads into laying a trap for the passing German convoys. This sequence is the film's most interesting, because it involves extended on-location shooting within the fascinating ruins of Leptis Magna, a massive, semi-intact Roman Empire fossil city on the Mediterranean. Surely the first film to ever exploit this startling location, Hurst's movie comes alive when the story reduces down to the cat-&-mouse use of an ancient landscape we've never seen on film before.

Arab culture would have some years to go before it would be depicted with some kind of wisdom in English-language film - Lawrence of Arabia, despite the prevalence of British and American actors under swarthy makeup, certainly interrogated the colonial presumptions as no film ever had, and attempted to sympathize with the Arabs. But the process of de-Orientalization, if you will, is a slow one, and you can still look to films like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky (1990) and see the ghosts of European racism looming over the ideas about Arab identity. Films such as The Black Tent are best seen as artifacts of a past consciousness, like a piece of obsolete technology, as the various Arab cultures accelerate the growth of their own film industries, and take control of how they are seen on film. It's been happening in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Algeria, and can only continue, as history rolls the post-colonial monarchies over.

Producer: William Macquitty
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Screenplay: Robin Maugham (screenplay and story); Bryan Forbes (screenplay)
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: George Provis
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Alfred Roome
Cast: Donald Sinden (Col. Sir Charles Holland), Anthony Steel (Capt. David Holland), Anna Maria Sandri (Mabrouka ben Yussef), Andre Morell (Sheik Salem ben Yussef), Terence Sharkey (Daoud Holland), Donald Pleasence (Ali), Ralph Truman (Major Croft), Anthony Bushell (Ambassador Baring), Michael Craig (Sheik Faris), Paul Homer (Khalil ben Yussef).

by Michael Atkinson



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