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A couple of years ago I watched and blogged the 1957 lost-in-the-desert adventure Legend of the Lost, mainly because a lot of it was filmed in the ruins of Roman Leptis Magna. In a comment, swisstone recommended this film to me as another very similar example of the same thing - so I added it to my Lovefilm list, and have at last got round to watching it.

The main story in this film involves a British army officer fighting in Libya in the second World War, who gets wounded and separated from his division. He gets taken in by a Bedouin tribe, whose leader lives in the black tent of the title, and (inevitably) falls in love with the sheikh's daughter who nurses him back to health. Since the British have been pushed out of the part of Libya where he is located, and the area is crawling with German patrols, he accepts the sheikh's offer to protect him, and hides out with the tribe, eventually marrying the daughter. But news soon comes of a British resurgence, and he hatches a plan to rejoin his troops - promising his distraught new wife that he will soon return. Instead, he gets killed saving the sheikh's life while they try to ambush a German convoy together. Years later, his brother arrives in the desert, trying to find out what had happened to the army officer, and meets the same Bedouin tribe, complete with a blond-haired child who is the deceased officer's son. The sheikh turns out to be concealing a page from the officer's diary showing that he had left all his property to the child - which the sheikh doesn't want him to take up, as it will mean the child leaving the tribe. The officer's brother is happy to go along with it, despite the fact that he has inherited the property in the meantime. But the child (rather hokily and implausibly) decides he doesn't want it anyway, as he'd rather stay in the desert with his people. And that's the end of the film.

Hardly the sort of story I'd bother to watch normally - but it was considerably livened up by the presence of the theatre at Sabratha, playing an un-named ruin near to where the tribe have their tents. As swisstone said, this is very much the same trick as is played with Leptis Magna in Legend of the Lost, since it's made pretty clear that the Bedouin tribe's lands are deep in the Libyan interior, even though the real Sabratha is right by the sea - and the camera angles were obviously managed quite carefully to conceal this. Unlike in Legend of the Lost, though, the dialogue in this film doesn't attempt to provide any plausible name for its desert ruins. The European characters clearly know that the theatre they are seeing is Roman, but it is largely just accepted as a local curiosity, and no-one ever shows any interest in how or why it was built there.

In plot terms, in fact, the Roman ruins are not really necessary in this film. In Legend of the Lost, the ruined city is the destination which the main characters set out across the desert to find, and it houses a lost treasure which we are meant to imagine is the last legacy of a romantic lost civilisation. But in The Black Tent, the theatre simply serves as a place for the army officer to hide in while German troops check for any surviving British soldiers in the Bedouin camp. A clump of palm trees, a rock formation or a watering-hole would have served just as well. It's tempting to speculate that the Libyan government was at this point deliberately encouraging European and American film companies to feature the local Roman remains heavily in their desert-based stories, so that they would become better known abroad and thus attract lots of tourists.

Still, since it's there, the theatre does manage to add a modicum of symbolic resonance to the story. As a remnant of a fallen empire, it is perhaps appropriate that it helps to shelter the British officer, whose empire (as it would have been clear by 1956) was also on the decline. Meanwhile, the German officers who are hunting for the British hero also interact with it. But while the British character admires the theatre and is clearly in harmony with it, the German officers mainly just seem interested in taking turns to pose on the stage and take each other's pictures. Are they, then, in the cultural role of the Arab invaders at the fall of the Roman empire, conquering the land and turning its assets to their own pleasure? It's probably not a very deep metaphor, but it's nice to see the contemporary WWII story picking up just a few historical resonances from its Roman setting, anyway.

In summary - nice for a bit of Roman architecture porn, but otherwise probably not worth watching unless it's a rainy bank holiday afternoon.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 2nd, 2011 10:57 am (UTC)
You may be tight about the Libyan government deliberately encouraging tourism - at this point they had not discovered oil, so tourism was one of the few sources of foreign income available.

But I also note that a lot of Hollywood movies in the 1950s are shot in Europe. Roman Holiday was entirely filmed in Italy, and Three Coins in the Fountain has significant location footage shot in Rome. Hitchcock went to London to make Dial M For Murder and The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Monaco for To Catch A Thief. I Was A Male War Bride was shot in France, and Boy On A Dolphin in Greece.

I think there are a number of possible reasons for this. Economic incentives from local governments is one possibility, or even incentives from the US seeking to rebuild war-torn Europe, though I don't know of that happening. Also, there's the fact that it was possible to film overseas again, after having been mostly impracticable in the 1940s; indeed, the expansion of trans-Atlantic air travel madeit cheaper and easier than ever before. And finally, expensive foreign shoots were something television could not yet afford, and so this was another feature Hollywood employed to get people away from the box and into cinemas.
May. 2nd, 2011 11:03 am (UTC)
Yes, I see your point. It would be something that benefited both parties - the host country for getting the exposure, and the film crews for getting the exotic footage they needed to wow their audiences.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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