It was my lunch hour. I was sitting on a wooden step watching the world turn. The sun was doing it’s hot summer thing as a ferry pulled out of Wellington harbour. The usually gusty Wellington wind was a mere puff. Tourists and locals alike went about their business with an air of gentle summery indifference. Everything was calm. As I watched, I listened. Headphones in, I was catching up on December and January episodes of the BBC Radio 4 Film Programme podcasts. At the end of one of these podcasts, as I was about to flip open my phone and choose another, I heard Francine Stock say the words ‘First World War’. Well that’s my interest piqued. I rewound the pod to listen more intently this time. It was a film called ‘Theeb’ that she was recommending. Set during the time of the Great War. Well that’s it, add that to the list.
As it turned out ‘Theeb’ isn’t really a proper Great War Film, it’s one of those partial ones where the war is referenced or linked to the action in some way. But however tenuous the connection was (and as it turned out in this case it was pretty tenuous) it did get a review. ‘Theeb’ is the story of a young Bedouin lad called (you guessed it) ‘Theeb’ whose older brother becomes a guide for a British Army officer as he tries to locate a specific well near to a railway line from an unspecified reason. It’s kind of a coming of age story although there’s also clearly a strong influence from classic American Westerns.
From a Great War Film perspective there are some visual and geographic links to other Great War Films. The story is set in the vast landscape of the Wadi Rum Valley. This is classic Great War Film territory. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was famously set amongst the towering backdrop of this amazing landscape. The young British Officer is reminiscent of TE Lawrence or maybe the fictionalized version of Richard Meinhertzhagen played in ‘The Lighthorsemen’ perhaps. Basically he’s an upper class ‘Hooray’ with a superiority complex. It’s also a bit like ‘The Lost Patrol’ in as much as the desert acts as a proxy for an unknown foe, always just out of sight but with the fear that a muzzle is constantly trained at the heads of our protagonists.
The story follows the short time the brothers spend with the British Officer with Theeb running away from his Bedouin family to join them as they set about finding the well. There are of course some baddies hiding out there in the desert, as there should be, and this is where the film starts to become a bit cowboys and Indians. There are shootouts, stakeouts and dilemmas all set against this classic, stifling and echoing backdrop.
The eponymous ‘Theeb’ is a young lad and like the majority of the rest of the cast was chosen from non-professional ranks. He plays the role with an understated grace, being both headstrong in parts and yearning to be a man whilst at the same time frightened, wide eyed and in need of a big hug. The scenery is a character in itself and the echoes of the baddies, as they shout their threats, seem to come from the rocks themselves.
‘Theeb’ has been nominated in the best foreign language category at the Oscars this year and as such is the first Jordanian film to have this honour, fingers crossed it does well. It was knocked out on a tiny budget and has secured some excellent performances from its amateur cast. It’s well written and beautifully shot. The location really does lend itself to these sorts of things. My Mrs has camped for a night in the Wadi Rum and she described it as ‘awe-inspiringly, massively, huge’ and ‘beautifully deadly’, I think that says it all. It’s also recently been used as the Mars landscape for Ridley Scott’s ‘comedy’ ‘The Martian’.
The ending takes an unexpected turn which I really liked. I won’t ruin it for you but I will say that it really added a final ‘Something’ to the story. What became of our eponymous hero? Where did he end up? Good stuff.
So do I give it a recommendation? Yes, by jove, I do. It’s barely a Great War Film if I’m honest but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be here on my blog. The acting didn’t feel laboured or amateurish, the story was gripping and moved into places I wasn’t expecting and the scenery, as ever, amazed me. So do, if you can find it, watch it. And, as ever, let me know what you think. Clicky Clicky here for your copy.