Camel, elephant, or bison? Oh my.

An extended trailer for Queen of the Desert was released last week and I wouldn’t be the ‘forensic fan’ I am unless I did a frame by frame analysis for you, our dear readers.

In an interview clip shown on Danish TV,  Damian Lewis does a spot on impression of Werner Herzog’s description of this film.

This film is like a camel, and an elephant and a bison on top of a donkey, and I’m the donkey. But together we will make a wonderful movie.

So Herzog is the donkey, but who are the camel, elephant and bison? Believe it or not, the trailer coupled with some background reading may provide some clues!

As we know, the principal character in this film is Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman). The story revolves around her and the adventures she had as an explorer, a surveyor, a map maker, and spy in the Middle East, in Iran and in Turkey.

Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert
source: Atlas Films, courtesy of

Because a single woman in the Victorian age going on adventures alone was such an anomaly, there are a slew of men around Gertrude at every turn, some amused by her gumption, bewildered by her, and some trying to stop her and tell her in no uncertain terms what’s done and what’s not done in Victorian society. What comes through the strongest from the trailer is Gertrude’s independent spirit. Its that spirit that seems to draw men to her as well. So while there are men bent on subduing her wild spirit, there are others who fall in love with that same spirit and proceed to flutter around her like moths.

Two of the most ardent men in Gertrude’s orbit were Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and Charles Doughty-Wylie (aka Richard, played by Damian Lewis). We don’t know which of these “ships” Herzog will be paying the most homage. The trailer seems to focus slightly more on Henry, but, suffice it to say, the biography devoted an entire chapter to Richard while Henry got a scant few pages.

For an abbreviated introduction to Gertrude Bell, go and catch a reading currently on BBC Radio of Georgina Howell’s biography of Gertrude Bell. The excerpts are peppered nicely with first-hand accounts from Gertrude’s letters and others in her circle. While I am new to Herzog, it’s clear that he will be showing us a ethereal portrait of life in the desert, complete with noisy dusty marketplaces, vignettes of a poetic but chaotic East juxtaposed with staid and orderly Victorian society back home in England. It looks to be a version of the East viewed thru a Western lens – literally – faithful to similar visions of the East communicated to Western audiences by Western film makers. Of course, there’s always the hope that the film will take us places the trailer doesn’t, some place we haven’t been before.

Postcolonial discourse generally frames the colonizers as being on a mission to divide and conquer. The Arab nations were no exception. Case in point, the Sykes-Picot agreement was drawn in secret between France and the UK (with agreement from Russia too) to divide Arab provinces into areas of future British and French control. No Arabs were invited to that table. We know from Howell’s biography of Gertrude Bell that she was an adamant defender of the Arab nations’ right to self-determination. Now, there is no indication that the film follows Gertrude’s life as told in the book by the same name. But we can rest assured that we will be seeing a lot of Gertrude’s determined vitality.

So on to the trailer: In the few scenes we see of him, Damian Lewis’ Richard comes off as desirous and impatient to have the object of his desire. He seems to be a practical sort who doesn’t want to dwell on the impossibility of their situation (ie him being married), and just wants to get on with the business of having a relationship with this fiery woman.

longing1longing2He wants her, he’s impatient with her. The body language in the trailer and in the various stills we’ve seen (particularly the still at the farm) show him widening himself trying to embrace her, encompass her, despite the obstacles in their way. The letters between them show no indication that he feels his accomplishments small in comparison to hers, so my read of this stance is that Richard wants Gertrude to see him, to notice him and respond. He seems to follow her movements, flighty and impulsive as they may be, to be close to her. He senses her walking behind him and turns quickly to see her, a movement which again communicates his enthrallment of her.

Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Charles Doughty-Wylie Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert
Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert
source: Atlas Films

In another scene clipped in the trailer, we see Gertrude in conference with a gentleman in uniform. When she’s had enough of this condescending fool trying to stand in her way, she rises suddenly from their conversation. The shot widens and we see Richard as an onlooker on this scene, listening, perhaps even taking sides with the guy trying to talk her out of a dangerous mission. But when she rises, he rushes to rise too, and walk away from the conversation, showing her that despite his better judgement, he wishes to stand by her. He’s perplexed by her, drawn to her, and eager to please her, in the hopes that eventually, he may have her.

Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert
source: QueenFilmFan’s Instagram
Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert
source: Atlas Films

When they finally are able to be alone together, it seems a quiet moment of intimacy eventually ending in tears.

Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert

Damian Lewis Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert
source: Atlas Films

It looks like it’s going to be a great scene! No doubt, I’m looking very forward to seeing it all play out, but I have to admit a tiny part of me is intuiting that Herzog’s vision and script may veer away from what is contained in Gertrude and Richard’s letters to each other. From the trailer, it seems more attention is paid to the Cadogan relationship. It would seem from this insufficient evidence that Cadogan is Gertrude’s main love interest, and when she can’t have him, she resigns herself to being alone forever. That serves her well, until she meets Charles Doughty-Wylie. Yes, we know Gertrude and Richard’s relationship was never consummated, but we also know, from the letters, that they shared a passion unlike anything either of them had experienced before. I dare say that Herzog, in this new venture for him of depicting romance on screen, doesn’t seem to be sticking to the evidence of the intricate subtext of Gertrude and Richard’s relationship. Of course, it’s totally unfair to come to such a conclusion on the basis of one preview alone. And I look so forward to being proven wrong when the film airs!

And what of the camel, elephant and bison? My arguable theory is that the camel is Gertrude herself, the noble creature gracefully gliding among dunes. The bison is Henry, an important and memorable love, but mild-mannered and a bit dull, except for a propensity towards self-damaging aggression (Henry had a gambling problem). The elephant in the room is Richard, who maintained a persistent memory of and attraction towards the ideals Gertrude represented, her “body and mind”. Richard also remained persistent in Gertrude’s mind always and forever. He was a stubborn “leader, a gentle giant, a playful rogue and reliable plodder.” (elephant personality traits!)

In one of his interviews, Damian Lewis confessed to imagining the characters he’s given to play as animals. I imagine the process gives him a feeling for their basic animal elements, the skeleton of emotional space from which he can then build the complex humans he portrays. Yours truly has an entire post at work dissecting his roles in terms of the animals they may represent, coming soon. For now, let’s imagine Queen of the Desert with Damian Lewis as the elephant to Nicole Kidman’s camel. And let the dusty desert sketches of Herzog’s vision entice us to seek this film out when it hits theaters in September.


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