The New King of Saudi Arabia

The death of King Abdullah and the ascension of King Salman to the Saudi throne reminds me of a time, nearly forty years ago, when I had cause to negotiate a complicated and somewhat sensitive matter with the Saudi Royal House, and Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as he then was, in particular.

This is the account, which formed chapter eight of my memoir, Fulfilment & Betrayal.

In October 1980, I was proud to announce plans for a feature film on the life of King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The origin of the project went back to early 1976, when the director Michael Darlow arrived in my office bursting with enthusiasm at the idea of telling the story for television. At the time when Quartet published the book on Oman that he wrote with Richard Fawkes, The Last Corner of Arabia, Michael had read H. V. F. Winstone’s book Captain Shakespear, and been thoroughly fired up by the story of how an eccentric, old-school Englishman became friends with a heroic, young and forward-looking Arab leader at a certain moment in world history. From this there followed the events through which Ibn Saud built a stable country, based on traditions of honour and chivalry dating back to the time of the Prophet, out of a group of frequently warring sheikhdoms in one of the most climatically hostile and least accessible areas on earth. It was a highly appealing story which needed to be told if there was ever to be a deepening of the West’s understanding of Arabs and Arab culture.

I found Michael’s enthusiasm infectious and agreed, ‘Yes! We must find a way to do it,’ but it seemed to me at once that the subject was ripe for an epic film treatment in the cinema rather than even a large-scale television drama. Another three years or so went by before we had our title, The Desert King, taken from David Howarth’s successful book, considered to be the definitive account. All the elements were there for a great action film. There would be no need to sacrifice historical accuracy for arbitrary commercial considerations in this story of how a legendary warrior united the tribes of the region into nationhood to create what was financially one of the world’s most powerful nation states. We were aiming for a projected budget of seven million pounds. The script, based on David Howarth’s text, was in the hands of the famous Italian scriptwriter Franco Solinas, working with the celebrated translator of French literature, Barbara Bray. As soon as I received a copy I phoned Michael Darlow to tell him, ‘I think I’ve found a way of doing our story. We have the rights and a wonderful script. Do you still want to direct? Will you read the script?’

It went round to him in a taxi, and that night he sat up in bed excitedly reading out passages to his wife. ‘In Franco and Barbara’s hands,’ he wrote later, ‘my original idea had been developed into something more exciting, ambitious and beautiful than I could have dared to imagine.’ With Michael lined up for the director’s chair we could go forward with confidence. His previous credits included the television productions Suez ’56 and Crime and Punishment.

A few months of intensive activity followed. A London production office was opened and a team began to be recruited, starting with an experienced line producer, Otto Plaschkes, who had come to Britain from Austria in 1938 as a Jewish refugee from Hitler. He was followed by Clive Reed as associate producer, Bert Batt as first assistant director and Harry Pottle as designer. Other appointments included David Watkins as cinematographer and Julie Harris as costume designer, as well as a film editor, a casting director, a battle arranger and stunt team, and various animal trainers. The team was rich in experience, for many of them had worked on the James Bond movies, with luminaries such as John Huston and on the films of David Lean, including Lawrence of Arabia. From a background of major international productions around the world, they had amassed an awe-inspiring collection of awards, including Oscars and BAFTAs. Then, as the casting began, many of Britain’s most highly regarded younger actors were provisionally engaged, though filling the pivotal role of Ibn Saud was more problematic. We had decided to look for an unknown – a potential future star rather than someone whose face and screen persona were already known to the public. Dozens of young actors were interviewed and screen tests were conducted in both London and Hollywood.

Michael Darlow managed to wangle himself a short-term appointment at Dhahran University to get a feel for Saudi Arabia at first hand, but then practical difficulties began to emerge over shooting the film in Saudi Arabia and we decided to make it in Morocco instead. Other major productions had been shot in Morocco in the recent past, so the country already had a basic film infrastructure and key local personnel who were familiar with working with English-speaking crews on large-scale movies. The Moroccan government readily offered its full assistance and by the summer of 1980 a production base had been established in Marrakesh and the team was scouting for locations. For the crucial battle scene, which would require the deployment of three thousand men together with hundreds of horses and camels, the Moroccan army agreed to the use of one of its battle-training areas a few miles outside Marrakesh.

Construction started nearby on the film’s largest set, a reconstruction of part of Riyadh as it was around 1900. Work began at the same time on converting part of the small town of Essaouria, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to represent late-nineteenth-century Kuwait.

Locations for other scenes were found in the desert south-east of Ouarzazate, a small oasis town near Zagora. The animal wranglers, trainers and stunt men set off to scour the country for suitable horses and camels. These were brought back to the base outside Marrakesh and their training began. Elsewhere, in the city itself, a team of seamstresses began work on thousands of costumes. Shooting was due to begin in the spring of 1981 and detailed shooting schedules were put together in readiness. Dozens of pieces of lighting, camera, sound and special-effects equipment were booked and had already been transported to Morocco.

At this point murmurs of dissent about the project began to be heard from the heirs and descendants of King Abdul Aziz. Overnight it became extremely difficult to proceed with completing the remaining part of the finance. Neither the banks which had been involved in coming up with the first tranche of the investment nor the individual investors were happy about continuing unless the objections from the heirs were withdrawn. Simultaneously the Moroccan authorities began to show signs of unease at the rumours of opposition to the film from the Saudi royal family. They sent word to the effect that unless we could manage to sort out the difficulties, they would have no alternative but to withdraw our licence to shoot the film in Morocco. As they went to some pains to explain, they could ill-afford to upset the Saudi rulers, with whom they had close ties.

This unexpected twist in events froze any further work on the film and put everything on hold. Only a speedy solution could help the situation, with the crews operating on pay. I found myself facing an impasse that was potentially ruinous. Then out of the blue there came a phone call from an eminent Arab friend based in London. As a result I had a meeting with Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, who was staying at the Dorchester Hotel and had asked the friend to contact me. The meeting was perfectly courteous, but the thrust of the whole conversation was the reluctance of the Prince to give his blessing to a film about his father’s life. In his view the project would be premature, so relatively soon after his father’s death, and therefore not in the interests of the family as a whole. I introduced the counter-argument, rather convincingly I felt, that a film about someone so much larger than life and colourful as his father could not possibly do harm to the royal family. On the contrary, it would help to raise the profile of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of people around the world, and especially in the targeted market of the United States, whose populace was sadly lacking in its knowledge of foreign countries, especially those of the Middle East.

To bring the meeting to a close the Prince suggested that, rather than having to listen to him labour his point of view, I ought to visit Saudi Arabia myself to put my case directly to the minister of culture. In the words of the Prince the minister was a man of high intellect and academic qualification, who would, he added graciously, listen carefully to anything I had to say. If I managed to convince him of the merits of the film, I would need look no further for the rest of the finance. He, Prince Salman, would personally see to its provision. The only request I then put to him was that Barbara Bray should accompany me to Saudi Arabia, and this he readily agreed to. My gut feeling was that as matters stood the prospects of completing the film were far from good and I must do everything I could to retrieve the situation. If the worst came to the worst, I would need to find a way of extricating myself from the liabilities already incurred. The money advanced for the film by the investors would have to be paid back. There were various contracts I had signed agreeing the fees of the producer and director as well as key members of the crew. And the adverse publicity that was bound to result from the cancellation of the film was hardly a minor consideration. The trip to Saudi Arabia was going to be make or break in every sense.

All went smoothly with the journey. We were met at Riyadh airport and whisked to our hotel in great style. There was an hour in hand to freshen up before being escorted to meet the minister of culture. He greeted me warmly and listened attentively, nodding his head in agreement from time to time. Even so, I felt a decision had already been taken to withhold approval for the reasons expressed by Prince Salman in London; indeed, after two hours of talking I was inclined to have a more sympathetic understanding of their concerns that the film, for all its good intentions, might provoke controversy within the kingdom through a premature chronicling of the life of its founder.

It was a point of view that deserved respect, and no amount of pleading (which I refrained from in any case) was going to alter the situation. I could only face the fact that my ambitions to make the film had been thwarted and my morale badly dented. However, I would have to salvage what I could from the wreckage.

Next day I saw Prince Salman to report the gist of my conversation with the minister. I made the point that if we abandoned the film, then the onus of responsibility must rest with the objectors. I had a duty and a moral obligation to pay off all those who had collaborated on the project. If I failed to honour their contracts, my reputation within the film industry would suffer. The Prince was receptive and sympathetic.

He agreed to appoint a small committee to look into the problems and try to work out a deal satisfactory to both sides. A great amount of haggling followed over whether it was reasonable for the payments to reflect the full extent of the contracts when the assignment had not been completed. On my side I argued that collapse of the project had nothing to do with the individuals concerned, because they were still obliged to carry through their contractual commitments. In the end, common sense and goodwill prevailed. I made a point of insisting that any payments made to me should be structured by a commercial company in Saudi Arabia, which would acquire the film rights to The Desert King against the outlay. This would be a simple commercial transaction, and in this way the idea for the film could be kept alive for revival if not immediately then in the foreseeable future.

This face-saving formula diffused the pressure on all the parties involved. There was general disappointment that work on The Desert King was being wound up, but relief and gratitude that everyone would be paid in full. It was an unusual situation in the generally remorseless world of the movie industry, where the sudden abandonment of a feature film often means that those who have invested their time will be lucky to receive adequate compensation. Repercussions in the press were mostly along the lines of regret for the loss of opportunity it represented for the British film industry, rather than implying criticism of the circumstances surrounding its cessation.

The intervention of the Royal House of Saud that led to the abandonment of the film, on the grounds that the making of it so soon after the death of its hero might have a destabilizing effect on the hard-won unity among the country’s tribal factions, was in itself a highly sensitive issue in which to involve the British film industry. Any interference with the process of film-making is likely to be interpreted as a kind of censorship, and should never be allowed to succeed. The diehard elements within the industry could have made a song and dance about the whole affair, which the press would then have seized upon to the detriment of everyone caught up in the politics of the story. For this reason it was imperative that the abandonment of the film should be seen as ultimately resting on my inability to raise the remaining finance, handicapped, perhaps, by the perfect right of the Saudi Arabians to withhold their cooperation. It was as simple as that; there were no other sinister reasons.

On that basis the industry was happy, and Otto Plaschkes wrote a letter to Screen International which stressed the positive side of the experience:

The cancellation of a film is always bad news – both for the people involved in the project and for the industry generally. It is indeed sad that the several million dollars that had already been spent on The Desert King did not lead on to better things. Nevertheless, a number of extraordinary factors did emerge: an extraordinary amount of goodwill from the financiers concerned, the unique talents of a new feature-director-to-be, the strong commitment and generosity of all the English artists and technicians and the dedication and efficiency of the Moroccan location personnel involved in the project. I would hope that, at the end of the day, the personal and political goodwill – if nothing else – that was forged over the past months will give rise to a more fruitful partnership.

I continue to feel that the time for the film was right, and am convinced that the subject matter would make it even more relevant today, given Saudi Arabia’s strategic alignment among the nations. The rise in the price of oil has generated fresh resentment in the West, unjustly placing the blame on leading oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia. This is partially because there is still in the West an unawareness of the workings of a tribal society that operates according to a code of conduct very different from its own. The systems of the West and the Saudis each have their merits but they have little in common. Even so, it is not inevitable that the disparity in cultures should mean a failure of communication. Many things in the future will depend on a higher level of mutual understanding. My ambition for the film of The Desert King is that it may yet be made and widely shown to help free the West from the clichés which it still believes are true of the Arab world.’

Quartet was to publish IBN SAUD The Desert Warrior and his Legacy by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray to considerable acclaim in 2012.

You still can’t see a movie but you can read the amazing tale of the creation of Saudi Arabia.

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