Clash of Loyalties: Saddam Hussein’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia

Soon after he took power, the Iraqi dictator decided to make an epic movie about the birth of the nation. What happened to it?

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You’re a Middle Eastern dictator looking to burnish your image. You want to tell the world that your country walks tall and that your people are noble, brave and strong. So what do you do?

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Well, what Saddam Hussein did just months after becoming President of Iraq in 1979, was to commission a multimillion-dollar, Hollywood-style movie portraying the birth of modern-day Iraq in 1932 and recounting how the Iraqi people escaped the clutches of evil British colonial rule.

Mildly surprising perhaps, but the startling part of the story was that he signed up Oliver Reed to be the star of his propaganda film.

The story behind Clash of Loyalties, as the movie was called, or Al-mas’ala Al-Kubra as it’s sometimes referred to, is a bizarre tale, from start to finish. The film – “Saddam’s version of Lawrence of Arabia”, according to one of the actors – also featured James Bolam, who was at the time appearing in the BBC’s When the Boat Comes In, and John Barron, best known as the brilliant CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. And it was put together by a producer based in Surrey.

Having the world’s most famous drunkard as your lead actor is bound to bring complications, and it certainly did, as we shall see, but the shoot, in Baghdad and the Iraqi desert, faced a much more fundamental problem than that.

A few months after the paperwork was signed, but before a single scene could be filmed, Saddam invaded neighbouring Iran, sparking a bloody war that was to rage for eight years.

But the Iraqi dictator – then, of course, an ally of the UK – wasn’t going to let a mere war prevent his movie from being made. He’d invested millions in the project – it had roughly the same budget as Return of the Jedi, which was also being made around that time – and was determined to see it through. As a result, when filming began in 1981, the cast and crew had to work their way around a real war that was raging a few miles away. Fighter jets would fly overhead on their way to the front, tanks would rumble past on the streets.

Producer Lateif Jorephani recalls: “I had 140 people out in Iraq during a war. These people were accustomed to making movies in Shepperton, Pinewood, Hollywood – not being in the middle of nowhere while real missiles and bombs were going off all over the place.”

Stephan Chase, who played an army captain in the movie, says that until he flew out, he’d not paid any attention to the fact that Iraq was at war.

But he realised things were not normal while on board the plane flying him, Reed and other cast members out to Iraq. “There’d been lots of drink, some arm wrestling and some press-ups on the plane but, apart from that, nothing untoward. Until, that is, we looked out of the window and saw that a fighter plane was escorting our jumbo,” he says. “I thought, ‘They’d only put a fighter jet up there if they were seriously worried that we might get shot down’. We landed in the middle of the night, in total darkness. It was scary.”

On set, the war brought other complications. Some comical, some far less so. Scenes had to be reshot after local actors suddenly went missing. “We’d start a sequence with an Iraqi actor, and come the second or third day, he suddenly didn’t appear. He’d been called up [into the army],” recalls crew member Roger MacDonald. “Then three or four weeks later we’d get a message back saying the poor actor had been killed.”

Meanwhile, war or no war, there was Oliver Reed to deal with. He’d flown in with his 17-year-old girlfriend – later to become his second wife – and a raging thirst. Stephan Chase recalls how Ollie would often be “pickled by the hotel pool in the morning, dreaming up things for us all to do”. This might involve being dangled by his ankles from a hotel balcony, or simply starting a fight.

Jorephani remembers: “One day Ollie was in the restaurant, got hold of an empty wine bottle and urinated in it. Then he called the waiter over, and asked him to send the bottle over to the next table, ‘with my compliments’.” The result? An overturned table, fists thrown – and a demand, which was later rescinded, from the Iraqi government that Reed be fired. “Ollie was a weapon of mass destruction,” says one of his colleagues.

But Reed wasn’t the only actor in trouble. Fellow cast member Marc Sinden, son of actor Donald, was in his early 20s when he got a role on the film.

Before he flew out to Iraq, he says he was approached by a UK government official and told that the security services would be “very interested in seeing my holiday snaps”.

“I said, ‘Of course. What sort of holiday snaps are you interested in?’ They said, ‘Radio communications towers, palaces…’”

Sadly, Sinden’s snaps led to a sharp tap on the shoulder from an Iraqi secret policeman – and three days spent in a grim cell. His release only came when he told his captors how he and Ollie Reed had been dining with the Iraqi president just ten days earlier.

So much for the off-screen drama. But what happened to the finished movie? It was shown at several film festivals but never secured a distribution deal. It’s quite possible that no more than a few hundred people have ever seen it. Then, when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, any hopes for it were killed stone dead. Today, one of the only known copies of the movie is in Jorephani’s garage in Surrey.

So, is it any good? “It could have been,” says Jorephani. “Ollie was absolutely brilliant. And James Bolam was great. But the director wasn’t experienced in shooting movies and unfortunately, it could have been a great deal better.”

And all these years on, how does Jorephani reflect on the experience of making a movie for Saddam Hussein? “Today, more than 30 years later, one can sit back and say it was a great deal of fun,” he says. “But, believe me, it wasn’t.”

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Saddam Goes to Hollywood: Sunday 9pm C4