I’m a visual thinker. I’m also a film buff. As I research the events and people of the late Ottoman Empire, I’m often reminded of scenes from the movies. For example, when I wrote about the Bedouin sheikh who saved an Armenian family, I could see snippets of Lawrence of Arabia in my own private theatre—my mind. The sparse but beautiful desert landscape, the flowing robes and colourful encampments of the Bedouin, the old REO trucks—they were all vividly real to me, thanks to the movie. T.E. Lawrence (portrayed by Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) move and walk and talk for me, however, wherever and whenever I want. I just have to conjure them up. Writing is hard work. This process makes it much easier. All I have to do is describe the scenes in the movies of my mind!
Talat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, was described by American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau as “a big man with large wrists.” I immediately thought of Gustave Doré’s ogre (the big guy with the big eyes and big puffy cheeks, pictured far above), with a moustache and fez. He was also jovial, so I add to my image Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), a friend of the archaeologist Indiana Jones. But Talat was mercurial, and had a sinister side. So, in my mind, he’s also got some characteristics of Snidely Whiplash, the archenemy of the cartoon Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant, Dudley Do-right. Even villains are complicated characters.
When I read Susan Wealthy Orvis’ journal about her trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express during the Russian Revolution, I could picture it perfectly, thanks to Reds, the Warren Beatty film based on John Reed’s book, Ten Days That Shook The World. The images of Reed (Beatty) and his wife, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) on the train, being jostled by crowds of revolutionaries and peasants, came instantly to mind. All those muted greys and browns, with occasional flashes of revolutionary red, set the mood. Susan’s descriptions of the month-long journey culminating in Moscow during the Revolution brought up images from Dr. Zhivago (the 1965 version with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie): the hot steam of the train crossing the frozen tundra; the crowded stations and long lines at every stop; masses of military personnel and constant troop movement; crowds of people dodging bullets in the wintery streets; and men with guns—everywhere she looked.
When I read in Louise Bryant’s book, Mirrors of Moscow, about her encounters with Enver Pasha, I immediately thought of Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), Agatha Christie’s fussy, little Belgian detective. She described Enver as courteous, fastidious, vain, with a large but easily-bruised ego. “His only hero is Napoleon,” she wrote. Morgenthau concurred. Ever since Enver’s military school days, his nickname was Napoleonik (Little Napoleon). It was fitting in more ways than one. He exhibited the classic characteristics of a Napoleonic complex—overly-aggressive, domineering even, to compensate for his short stature.
Susan Wealthy Orvis rode a camel on her visit to Jerusalem in 1908, and spent more than twenty years in Turkey. She learned to drive a REO truck to transport relief supplies around the sanjak (province) of Cesarea. Naturally I’m reminded of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) travelling around Mesopotamia, Turkey, Arabia and the Syrian desert, sometimes on a camel, sometimes in a REO, in Queen of the Desert. Bell was an explorer, archaeologist and political advisor who was influential in helping to establish the modern state of Iraq. She also had a romantic relationship with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis). Fellow archaeologist Sir William Ramsay wrote in his 1909 book, The Revolution in Constantinople and Turkey: A Diary, about the heroic efforts of then-British Consul of Mersina, Doughty-Wylie. He saved its mostly-Armenian citizens from being massacred by the sultan’s supporters. Afterward he rushed “by special train to Adana” and gallantly rode back and forth on a horse to patrol the town himself. Can’t you just see Damian Lewis doing that? Before he was wounded in the arm, Doughty-Wylie pressured the vali (governor) to order troops to restore order. The American and Canadian missionaries in Mersina and Adana praised him to no end after that.
When I think of the orphans that Susan and her colleagues cared for, I think of the 1922 version of Oliver Twist. Oliver and all the other little children were dirty, disease-ridden, dressed in rags, and perpetually hungry—just like the Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and Turkish orphans discovered by the relief workers in 1919. It’s especially noteworthy that Jackie Coogan played Oliver, because he was the one of the biggest draws of the Near East Relief fundraising campaign. He had become famous as a child actor when Charlie Chaplin cast him in The Kid as the kid. Jackie was probably responsible for raising more money for the cause than any other single person, with the exception of Cleveland Dodge and Aurora Mardiganian.
Images from the movies serve me well when I’m researching and writing. But there comes a time when I have to stop. When scenes in my head from the movie-within-a-movie in Atom Egoyan’s Ararat make the passages about the deportations and massacres too real to bear. I have to turn off my internal projector. The printed words on the page become adequate, thank you very much. Because there’s only so much simulated reality a girl can take.
Since this blog is for educational purposes, I trust that the use of movie stills falls under the fair use clause of the copyright act. In any case, I’d like to acknowledge the following: Warner Brothers (Queen of Desert); Paramount Pictures (Reds); Horizon Pictures (Lawrence of Arabia); Lucasfilm Ltd. (Indiana Jones); Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Dr Zhivago); Chaplin Studios (The Kid); Jackie Coogan Productions (Oliver Twist); Carnival Film & Television (Hercule Poirot); Jay Ward Productions (Snidely Whiplash); Alliance Atlantis Communications (Ararat).