Based on the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell
“No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”
"Here I am a Person” –Gertrude Bell
”No Englishwoman of her distinction was ever so little known to the English-speaking public.” –Elizabeth Robins
As storytellers, we love discovering extraordinary individuals who made a profound impact on our world yet were somehow forgotten by our history books. This is what drew us to Gertrude Bell.
History has long glorified the adventures of men such as T.E. Lawrence, the celebrated "Lawrence of Arabia," yet few people are aware that the architect of the Kingdom of Iraq was a woman, Gertrude Bell. The first female officer in British Intelligence, Gertrude played a crucial role in establishing the British-Arab alliance that helped defeat the Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia. Following World War I, she was instrumental in drawing the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and she saw Faisal I crowned Iraq’s first king, acting as one of his most trusted advisors. Gertrude was revered as Iraq’s uncrowned Queen, and she is possibly “the only British diplomat to be remembered by Arabs with anything close to affection.” While Lawrence, a man known for his uncanny ability to “back into the spotlight,” penetrated popular consciousness through David Lean’s Oscar-winning movie and Lowell Thomas’ traveling show, “With Lawrence in Arabia,” Gertrude largely faded from public recall. Why was Gertrude written out of Western history, especially when she was considered during her time as far more influential than Lawrence over British policy in the Middle East?
Sadly, female erasure from history is an all too familiar issue. Growing up, it was disheartening how few female role models we learned about in school. If women were even acknowledged, their stories were too often told through the defining filter of the male gaze – defined by their relationships to men, becoming caricatures lacking any true complexity or depth. Where were the stories of brave, complex, trailblazing women?
We are passionate about telling stories of complex, inspirational women, and there are none more complex and inspiring than Gertrude Bell. She was a woman of extraordinary achievement – an Arabist, explorer, mountaineer, linguist, cartographer, archeologist, photographer, writer, Oriental Secretary, Kingmaker. Gertrude was also a woman of fascinating contradictions: an ardent royalist yet tireless advocate for Arab self-rule; a fiercely independent woman yet an Anti-Suffragette; an intellectually formidable debater yet forever childlike and almost vulnerable in her father's presence with an unflagging desire to earn his praise. Her accomplishments amazed us, and her complexities and contradictions fascinated us. Fortunately, Gertrude was an incredibly prolific writer, and we poured through the 1,500+ letters, diary entries and photos housed in the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University. We also optioned the official biography, Gertrude Bell: A Biography by H.V.F. Winstone. Through our journey with Gertrude’s story, we became more and more enamored with her humanity and her heart.
Gertrude was born into great wealth and all the privileges afforded the British upper crust, yet she still found herself constricted by the norms and prejudices of Victorian society, ultimately defined, and limited by her sex. It was in the Middle East where she found her heart, her freedom, and her home. Whereas Gertrude was forced to have a chaperone when travelling about England, she travelled freely and independently in the Middle East, making nine solo treks across the desert. In the Middle East, Gertrude was welcomed into the tents of sheikhs and viewed as an honorary man yet without compromising her sartorial choices or femininity – she wore the latest Parisian fashions regardless of location and carried her fine china with her on her desert treks for a proper afternoon tea. Gertrude felt accepted as an equal in the Middle East, profoundly stating that, “here, I am a Person” with a capital P. Guided by her heart, Gertrude battled her commanding officers to champion Arab self-rule and to achieve perhaps her greatest personal accomplishment, that as Kingmaker. Gertrude’s love and affinity for Arabs was one of deep understanding, empathy, and respect. She understood, at the deepest level, what it felt like to be marginalized. For example, her lauded 1920 white paper, “Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia,” was met with outright incredulity in the press. It was hotly debated how an esteemed magnus opus such as this could have been written by a woman: “The general line taken by the press seems to be that it’s most remarkable that a dog should be able to stand up on its hind legs at all – i.e., a female writes a white paper. I do hope they’ll drop that source of wonder and pay attention to the report itself, and if it will help them to understand what Mesopotamia is like.”
Yet despite being a victim of sexism, of struggling for respect and equality amongst her male peers, Gertrude was a devout anti-Suffragette! Whether built upon the psychological scar of losing her mother at a very young age, or because of inherent biases she unwittingly adopted and mirrored, Gertrude found women too “tiresome” and uninterested in the critical issues facing the day to deserve the privilege and responsibility of voting. But far be it for any man to tell Gertrude what she could or couldn’t do once she set her mind to it. What a fascinating contradiction, and what a complex and multi-layered character.
Determined to be instruments of change, we are passionate about telling Gertrude’s story. Kingmaker is the story of a truly remarkable woman - a complex, multi-faceted female protagonist; a trailblazer who determined her own path in life. It is told through the female gaze – her life and legacy remembered for her love and kinship with the Arab people and not by her relationships with men. It is a triumphant, character driven story of learning to trust your heart, of conquering your self-doubt and finding the courage to stand up against the system to fight for your beliefs. We look forward to bringing her amazing and inspiring story to the screen.
-Alexa-Sascha Lewin & Brad Rister
“She was, I think, the most brilliant creature who ever came amongst us, the most alive at every point, with her timeless energy, her splendid vitality, her unlimited capacity for work, for talk, for play. She was always an odd mixture of maturity and childishness, grown-up in her judgment of men and affairs, child-like in her certainties, and most engaging in her entire belief in her father and the vivid intellectual world in which she had been brought up.”
–Janet Hogarth, lifelong friend and sister of David Hogarth, Arab Bureau