Engagement, the Hollywood film about a siege at the American
embassy in Yemen, arrived in Britain on August 11.
Despite accusations of racism, its
makers are obviously hoping to repeat the huge success it enjoyed
in the United States earlier this year. Advertisements for the
film were running on British television all week.
I went to see it on the first
night and, Iím happy to say, out of 300 seats in the cinema, at
least 230 were empty. The film, like all the characters in it, has
no redeeming features. Itís utterly bad.
The problem is not just the racist
portrayal of Arabs. The whole film reeks of American supremacism:
its message seems to be that international rules of behaviour can
be ignored where American interests are at stake.
We are shown a couple of hundred
demonstrators shouting outside the US embassy in Sanaía. Some
wave Yemeni flags. Others wave banners which are difficult to read
- though I did make out the word "jihad". Are they
Islamists, nationalists, or what? Itís impossible to tell and,
as far as the filmís makers are concerned, it doesnít matter.
Itís just the typical sort of thing they imagine happens all the
time in the Middle East.
We are told that Yemenis have been
holding demonstrations outside the US embassy in Sanaía once a
week, to protest at "the American presence in the Gulf".
Ah, so now we know where Yemen is - "in the Gulf".
Anyway, itís all too much for
the American ambassador, and he wants to go home. It doesnít
occur to him to ask for a police escort to the airport. Instead,
the US Navy diverts an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean and
within minutes three helicopters full of Marines have entered
Yemeni airspace without so much as a phone call to ask President
Salih if he minds.
This infringement of Yemenís
sovereignty is never questioned in the film. It is, apparently, OK
to invade another country if people shout at your ambassador.
The Marines park their helicopters
near the back door of the embassy (which the demonstrators have
conveniently left unmolested) and go inside to rescue the
ambassador and his family.
At this point, anyone who visited
Yemen will become confused because the scenes were actually filmed
in a mud-built village near Ouarzazate, in Morocco. This makes
Sanaía look like a rural backwater, and the architecture is
The US "embassy" in the
film is an old casbah with rickety wooden doors which are easily
forced open by the crowd. If the Americans were so worried about
terrorism, one wonders why they didnít choose something more
The "Yemenis" donít
look very Yemeni - probably because theyíre Moroccan Berbers.
They wear a variety of clothes from around the Arab world, though
the film-makers have managed to obtain a couple of jambiyyas from
Inside the embassy, the Marines
come under fire, apparently from snipers on neighbouring rooftops.
Their commander, Colonel Terry Childers, bundles the ambassador
and his family into a helicopter, then risks his life to remove
the American flag from its pole on the embassy roof.
The shooting from outside the
embassy continues and three Marines are hit. Colonel Childers
orders his men to fire at the demonstrators. They kill 83 and
wound 100 more.
Amazingly, the filmís view is
that this massacre was entirely justified, and that Colonel
Childers is a hero. We are asked to believe that the Yemeni
demonstrators - far from being innocent civilians - were in fact
armed to the teeth and shooting wildly at the Marines. There are
glimpses of old men, women, even a one-legged child, firing guns.
Back in the US, Childers is put on
trial for mass murder by his superiors who have their own personal
or political motives for wanting him punished. Most of the film -
which at two-and-a-half hours is unusually long - is taken up by
the trial. As a courtroom drama, it doesnít work unless you
accept the basic assumption of Childersí innocence (and I
suspect that British audiences wonít).
The picture of Yemen that emerges
from the film is of a dirty, dangerous, primitive place. Yemenis,
without exception, are deceitful, bloodthirsty fanatics.
Some of the images are
gratuitously nasty. Thereís close-up a shot of two hands
clashing with jambiyyas in the street. This enhances the
atmosphere of violence, though whether itís a fight or just a
traditional dance is unclear.
Thereís also a hand-painted sign
in a grubby alleyway saying "Funduq Taj Sheba".
Hopefully, the real (five-star) Taj Sheba will sue for defamation.
Personally, I found this view of
Yemen and the Yemenis both stupid and unbelievable. But I have had
the good fortune to visit Yemen several times. People who have
never been there and know little about the country could easily
get the wrong idea.
It is worth mentioning, perhaps,
that the filmís portrayal of Americans is equally unflattering;
they are shown as brutal, bullying, lying, cheats. But in their
case this behaviour serves a higher moral purpose: protecting the
American way of life.
I would like to think that the
film is as wrong about Americans (and especially their leaders) as
it is about Yemenis. I would like to think that the story was
dreamed up by some second-rate scriptwriter who knows nothing
about politics or the way the American military really operate.
But the terrifying fact is that
the story was written by a man who once held a senior post in the
American government: James Webb, Secretary of the US Navy under
The 'towel-heads' take on Hollywood