A clash of loyalties
Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency of Iraq on 16th July 1979. Two years later, embroiled in a bloody, unwinnable war against Iran, he sponsored the creation of an epic propaganda movie set in the desert which featured British actors including Oliver Reed, James Bolam and Marc Sinden. James Montague tells the strange story of Iraq’s version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and Sinden’s double life as an undercover agent
All images courtesy of the British Film Institute
16th July 1979 (Taken from: #4)
Mohamed Shukri Jameel – considered by many to be Iraq’s greatest living director – is rooting through a Jordanian skip. He is standing outside the country’s recently-closed national film archive picking through thousands of old Arabic film reels and discarded videotape which have been carelessly thrown out.
After an afternoon sifting through cinematic detritus Mohamed has found what he’s looking for: a single VHS copy of ‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’, a film until then believed to have been lost forever. It was to be Iraq’s version of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and boasted an impressive crew – Ron Goodwin, one of the greatest composers of film soundtracks of all time, wrote the score and Ken Buckle, who’d trained under the legendary Yakima Canutt, was the stuntman. But it was the casting that really raised eyebrows: the services of James Bolam had been secured alongside Oliver Reed – then one of the biggest stars on the planet. Then there was Marc Sinden: on-screen a dastardly British officer, Captain Dawson; off-screen a double agent recently recruited to spy on the film’s financial backer – a minor autocrat who was a friend of Great Britain: Saddam Hussein.
A 1920s British army officer in a pith helmet travels along the Euphrates by boat as the sun rises over the desert. Huge geysers spurt upwards and the camera focuses tightly in so that they fill the screen, gushing black gold into the blue sky. “How many Englishmen,” the narrator asks, “can claim to have gazed at Eden… what we call Mesopotamia. And what the Arabs call: Iraq.”
Cut to the present day and Marc Sinden has been sitting in the back of a café in Hampstead for half an hour. He had arrived early, ordered a coffee and waited. It had been a long time since someone had asked him about ‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’. He was curious and he didn’t want to be late. Sinden is a young-spirited middle-aged man, with a theatrical intonation, a greying goatee and moustache, and a deep voice uncannily similar to that of his father, the actor Donald Sinden.
“Have you ever read the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by TE Lawrence?” he asks as he pulls out a folder full of photographs. They are from Iraq circa 1981. He flicks through them, pausing at pictures of himself as a young man – top off, with a Kitchener-esque moustache – standing in front of a film truck. Some photos show the plains of Mesopotamia. Others capture Baghdad’s then-modern skyline, long altered by the bombs of successive American assaults.
The film was to be a war epic, set in 1920s Mesopotamia and centred around an Arab nationalist revolt against the cruel rule of the British”
“You’ll understand what Lawrence was doing and his total love…” he trails off as he gets to another picture of a barren desert landscape. “What I did get out of it was the love-hate relationship he had with the desert. You hate the place, the flies, the sand, the heat. It’s not like Camber Sands. That sand is hard. But when you leave you want to go back.”
It has been 30 years since Sinden left Iraq. As a young actor in 1981 trying to break free of the gravitational force of a famous father, he was offered the job of a lifetime. A new film was to be shot with a huge budget. Almost unlimited, he was told. It was to be a war epic, set in 1920s Mesopotamia and centred around an Arab nationalist revolt. The people rose up against the cruel rule of the British, imperialists who were hungry for the oil which was so prevalent that it seeped naturally into large black pools in the desert. The film was to be called ‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’: ‘The Great Question’. Later it would have a more resonant title for Sinden: ‘Clash of Loyalties’.
“A very well-known casting director called Lesley De Pettit cast me as Captain Dawson,” Sinden recalls. “I read the script and I thought: What fun! And I was being sent to Iraq – which was like being told you are being sent to Saturn. I had to look it up on the map. All I really knew was that I was playing the baddie.”
It was Sinden’s first film after spending most of his acting life in the West End. And there were certain benefits to be had. “Oh boy! Serious money. I don’t think I’ve ever earned as much money from anything since.”
He was told to prepare himself to leave in ten weeks’ time. He got his injections, bought suitable clothing to deal with the 50-degree heat and, finally, headed to the Iraqi embassy to get his visa. Shortly afterwards there was a knock on his door.
“Within a day of the visa being issued I was visited by two gentlemen in suits. They claimed they were from the Foreign Office. And I said, ‘Right, very interesting, what do you want?’ They asked if I was going to Iraq and I said yes. I didn’t have to tell them the date. They already knew when I was leaving.”
Sinden says he never knew where the men were really from. MI6 perhaps. Maybe another intelligence agency that he had never heard of. But the men made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, appealing to his patriotism. Saddam Hussein, they explained, was a loose cannon. He had just embarked on an insane military escapade against his sworn enemy, Iran’s new revolutionary regime. The West had, of course, provided arms and training to Saddam to fight off the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. But now the tide was turning. Stories of his brutality were emerging and information needed to be gathered about his secretive regime. Almost nothing was known about the layout of modern Baghdad and Sinden was asked to take some holiday snaps while on his trip – of the skyline, of anything that looked like it might have military value. Communications antennae, government buildings. Palaces. The holiday snaps sitting in the folder on the table in front of us now.
“Do you remember when the BBC and ITN showed pictures of Baghdad during the [first] Gulf War?” he says, gesturing to the folder. “They didn’t have anything, so I sold these to them.”
Marc Sinden packed his camera into his bag and headed off on the longest journey of his life.
A yellow open-topped car bumps along a sandy track. Behind the front wheel Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Leachman (Oliver Reed) sings an old public-school song before demanding some Woodpecker Cider from his Indian servant asleep in the back. “You are a drunk, lazy toad,” he shouts. “Now you get me another bottle of cider or I swear to God or Krishna or to whoever it is you might worship, if you drink one drop of that I am going to smash your arse.”
The first time Marc Sinden saw Oliver Reed he was being hung out of the fifth floor window of the Mansour Melia Hotel, Baghdad, by his ankles, upside down and screaming with laughter. The man holding him was a burly Frenchman, an ex-special forces soldier who now worked as Reed’s personal bodyguard. But Reed had said something that grievously upset him.
The Mansour Melia used to be a vision of opulent modernity. Nine years after Sinden met Reed here it would become notorious as the gilded prison where British passengers from a BA flight were held captive by Saddam as a military bargaining chip. Two decades later, the second Gulf War would leave it abandoned, looters stripping it bare as the city descended into anarchy. But in 1981 the Mansour Melia was the finest hotel in the Middle East, with a beautiful façade, swimming pools arranged like the Olympic rings and a delicate garden full of jasmine. And a man being dangled by his ankles out of the fifth-floor window.
“Do not say that again,” growled the Frenchman.
Oliver Reed, dangling over the fatal drop, screamed with laughter.
“DO NOT SAY THAT AGAIN,” repeated the angry Frenchman.
“We never did find out what Olly said,” laughs Sinden.
Reed’s drinking had become prodigious by this time. Now 42 years old, he had recently begun a relationship with 17-year-old schoolgirl Josephine Burge, who he’d met in his local pub in Surrey and would marry in 1985. Sinden insists that on set Reed – who played Lieutenant-colonel Gerard Leachman – was a model of professionalism, never forgetting his lines and never turning up drunk. But off it he would drink whiskey by the bottle, force anybody who passed him into an impromptu arm wrestle and, much to Sinden’s distaste, show off recently taken Polaroids of him and Josephine.
“He took great pleasure in showing us Polaroid photographs of what he had done with her the night before,” he said. “As if he had something to prove. Which was very sad.”
Filming progressed slowly. The shoots took place out in the desert, “at a place called Kut. A one-horse town about 50 clicks outside of Baghdad.” It was hot and arduous. The movie was directed by Shukri Jameel, who would go on to make further war epics paid for by Saddam, before being forced into a life in exile – forever tainted as Saddam Hussein’s propagandist-in-chief.
“He had a unique Michael Winner style of directing, with a riding crop. He would hit the extras,” recalls Sinden, making a thwacking sound with his hand against his leg.
The film centred on a famous Arab uprising against an unpopular British colonial ruler called Sir Percy Cox. Its centrepiece was a huge cavalry charge that involved more than 40 horses, many of which died.
‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’ would become infamous for being the last film to use the controversial “Running W” stunt technique. The “Running W” was essentially a piece of wire that would be folded into a W and held into place at each end by two car axles buried in the ground. It would work as a trip wire that would catch on to the horses’ legs as they galloped at full speed, yanking them to the ground and catapulting the stunt rider forward for a safe but spectacular shot. The problem was that if the the move didn’t kill the horse outright, it would usually have to be put down shortly afterwards. It was horribly cruel but Shukri Jameel insisted on the shot.
“It was banned worldwide. Except, we discovered, in Iraq,” says Sinden. “They decided we would do the famous cavalry charge. They wanted me to stand at a given point and point my revolver at the lead Arab charging at me. The horse went down with the “Running W” and the stuntman would literally fly past me. We were quite worried about the method of direction. The director would move the rider around by whipping a riding crop.” After five takes with Jameel whipping horse and rider, and the deaths of several animals, the scene wrapped.
When he wasn’t filming, Sinden was taking photographs and meeting occasionally with his handlers at the British Embassy. He knew the hotel was bugged after one of the crew discovered a windowless room containing reels and reels of tape recordings of conversations from the rooms.
Hussein was invested both financially and emotionally in the project, and invited Sinden and Reed for dinner at the Presidential Palace”
His shots revealed a country that was knee-deep in a disastrous military campaign in the east. By day Sinden would walk around the square near Rashid Street, home to a bustling, friendly market. Hordes of young men in military uniforms piled into the back of trucks destined for the front line with Iran. But at midnight every night the area was cleared without explanation. Sinden managed to break on to the
roof of his hotel and peer down into the dark square.
“I couldn’t use the flash because I would be spotted. But I could look straight down on Rashid Street and see what was happening. I could see trucks as far as I could see in both directions coming back [from the front]. At ten in the morning they would leave full of boys. Now they were emptying them, of piles and piles of bodies.”
The increasingly desperate military situation had to be hidden from the people and ‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’ was a chance to stoke nationalist, militaristic pride when the country badly needed it. Saddam Hussein was invested both financially and emotionally in the project, so much so that he personally invited Sinden and Reed for dinner at the Presidential Palace. A limo picked the two up and whisked them to Saddam’s quarters. The dictator sat at the end of his long dining table and greeted his guests in Arabic, through an interpreter, welcoming them to his home. Tariq Aziz, his Christian foreign minister, sat with him alongside a phalanx of generals. His notoriously bloodthirsty son Uday was there too.
“He was a little shit,” spits Sinden, showing a flash of anger for the first time. “Nasty man. At one point Saddam went into the most extraordinary revolutionary rant. No idea what he was talking about, it was in Arabic. He just went off on one. I could only liken it to watching Goebbels. The sheer power of oratory, we were sucked into it. He might have been ordering more food. But we were all mesmerised.”
One man however, was unimpressed. Oliver Reed had had enough. He wanted a drink. He wanted to get back to his hotel and his 17-year-old girlfriend.
“Olly was sitting next to me and, assuming no one could speak English, said: ‘What a cunt!’”
Dinner was over. Saddam rose and, after shaking each of his generals’ hands, approached Reed. “In the most perfect English he said: ‘Mr Reed, I hope I didn’t bore you too much.’ Later Sinden would discover that his dinner with Saddam, far from condemning him to execution for offending one of the world’s most brutal dictators in the most hateful possible way, in all probability saved his life.
Indian soldier: “[Iraq] is not like anywhere I have been before.”
British officer: “Better get used to it. We’re going to be here for a long time to come.”
The tiny cell had no window and stank of vomit. Inside it had a small, uncomfortable bed and a single chair with no desk. The screams of torture echoed through from neighbouring inmates, sounds that still haunt Sinden to this day.
A few hours earlier he had been taking pictures while enjoying the first of three days off from filming when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was an officer from Saddam’s notorious secret police, the Jihaz Al-Mukhabarat Al-A’ma. They had been following him for a few days, wondering why this young Englishman was so curious about photographing some of the drabbest parts of Baghdad. He was seized and taken to the interrogation centre and searched. They failed to find the roll of film hidden in his shoe. For almost two days Sinden believed he was just moments from death as he listened to the hideous sounds of human suffering.
“I don’t really want to remember. But you know, the silly thing, I pretended it was fake. It was like being back at boarding school. Mine was a Dickensian horror. And my defence used to be to pretend aged seven that I was in a film. I remember in the cell thinking the same thing, that there’s probably a loudspeaker outside the door. With BBC sound effects of torture going on outside. Screams.”
Thirty hours after his arrival he was interrogated by a chain-smoking officer in his fifties. Sinden was forced into a chair, topless, and made his opening gambit. “I mentioned the magic words. I was asked lots and lots of questions. I wasn’t tortured but the threat of torture was enough. It was nasty. ‘What was I doing there?’ they asked me. ‘Listen I’m here at the behest of your glorious leader, Saddam Hussein.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘He is funding the film I am doing. Look, I had supper with him a week ago.’”
The confused officer left. Within ten minutes Sinden had been upgraded to the governor’s office. The governor apologised, explaining that the Palace had ordered his release. The country was at war and precautions needed to be taken – he hoped Sinden would understand. A car was sent to take Sinden back to the hotel, the roll of film still wedged deep in his shoe.
“I got back to the hotel and no one even batted an eyelid. They just thought I’d gone walkabout. No one gave a toss.” Marc Sinden decided it was time to leave Iraq.
A British plane circles over the rebel horsemen, dropping bombs on them and spreading death and chaos. One fighter stands with his rifle and aims in to the sky. He fires, hitting the plane’s fuel tank: the pilot loses control and the plane bursts into flames. It is a solitary victory in a seemingly unwinnable war. The hero is killed before the plane hits the ground.
The shoot had meandered on longer than planned. Oliver Reed was long gone. Sinden got his Iraqi exit visa, which gave him a window of just 24 hours to escape. He put on his costume – a 1920s uniform, complete with pith helmet and pistol – and ordered a car to take him to the set, where he informed the crew he was leaving. Keeping a taxi on standby is an old trick, Sinden reveals, that actors use from time to time to chivvy up directors. “When they know that something is costing them money every hour, they soon hurry up. I went on set to do my last scene. Then I got in the car and told the driver: ‘Get to the airport, now.’
The car sped from Kut to the airport, just in time for Sinden’s flight to safety. His fellow passengers looked on in bewilderment at the strange British man striding on to the Iraqi Airways plane, where he fidgeted, cursing under his breath as it sat on the boiling tarmac. The doors closed and the plane took off, escorted by two fighter jets that peeled away 20 minutes later. “A cheer went around the plane, everyone was equally relieved, thinking: Thank God, they are not going to bring us back. We’ve made it out.”
When the Iraqi Airways flight taxied to its gate at Heathrow and unloaded its passengers, the air stewardesses looked on perplexed as a young British man, dressed in old colonial military fatigues and sporting a pith helmet and Sam Browne belt, charged down the stairs, dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac beneath them.
On Sinden’s return he was taken to a bar in Vauxhall Cross where the two men from the Foreign Office debriefed him. They were happy with his work, as was Mohamed Shukri Jameel. ‘Al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra’ was considered a success, it was screened at the 1984 London Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Festival. There were rumours that Saddam Hussein put on mass screenings of the film shortly before the Americans invaded in the second Gulf War. But as Hussein’s notoriety grew, the film he financed slid into obscurity and then perilously close to oblivion before that chance find in the skip of surplus Jordanian celluloid.
Sinden had spent the years since his departure looking on as Hussein’s dictatorship took Iraq further and further into tragedy. His small role on either side of the divide – part of Saddam’s propaganda machine on the one hand, part of his downfall on another – represented its own clash of loyalties.
“How do I feel now, looking at Iraq now? It’s gone, just gone,” he says after three hours recounting the story of Saddam’s lost masterpiece. “The sheer schoolboy excitement of being in the Cradle of Civilisation. Yes, I was full of awe for the civilisation. But Iraq was something special. I am privileged to have seen Iraq in something of a minor heyday. True, I saw those bodies coming back, it was like First World War cannon fodder. But I was in Hussein’s Iraq before we called him a baddie. I had a hugely privileged insight into that part of the world.”
Like TE Lawrence before, the desert has never left him.
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #4 of Delayed Gratification
You can buy the issue from our shop or
Subscribe and receive the magazine through your letterbox every three months
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter.
Thanks for signing up.