Monday, December 29, 2008


Warner Brothers released their “B” movie "Adventure in Iraq" on September 27, 1943. Like many of the studio’s low budget features, this picture amounted to a remake, drawing its plot from the 1930 film "The Green Goddess." Warner Brothers scenarists George R. Bilson and Robert E. Kent retained most of the plot from Scottish writer William Archer’s Broadway play. Unlike Archer’s stage play or Julien Josephson’s "Green Goddess" screenplay, both of which set the action in the imaginary kingdom of Rukh, the Warner Brothers remake left nothing to the imagination and pointedly established Iraq as the setting in both title and action.

Former Flying Tiger fighter pilot Doug Everett and his two passengers, estranged couple George and Tess Torrence are flying from India en route to Cairo, Egypt, when a cracked cylinder head and a broken fuel line forces them to land somewhere in Iraq. When George tries to radio Cairo about their forced landing, he discovers that the tubes are dead and that Doug carries no spares onboard. The three Americans set off on foot and miles later enter an Arab village. Doug believes the inhabitants are a sect of devil worshippers, and George nearly cooks their collective geese when he sits on the ceremonial idol of a snake. About that time, Sheik Ahmid Bel Nor arrives to welcome them and offers them the hospitality of his palatial residence.

No sooner have the heroes and heroine accustomed themselves to the Sheik’s generosity than he reveals that he plans to forfeit their lives because the British are about to kill his three brothers for espionage. Sheik Ahmid Bel Nor offers to spare Tess if she will consent to marry him. Of course, Tess refuses. Meanwhile, Doug and George try to bribe the sheik’s English butler to wire Cairo of their whereabouts, but Devins has nothing but bad memories about English and does not cooperate with them. Eventually, George steals some tubes from the Sheik’s large radio receiver and replaces the tubes in his plane with them. The Sheik and his armed tribesmen catch them at their plane trying to contact Cairo and a gun battle breaks out. Before he dies from a gunshot wound from one of the Sheik’s disciples, George lies to the ruler that he never got through to Cairo. The Sheik and his tribesmen return with Doug and Tess and are about to execute them when a squadron of USAAF planes arrive. One lands, and the commander warns him that they will drop bombs unless he releases his hostages. The Sheik releases Doug and Tess. In the last shot, the Sheik decides that Tess would only have proved a nuisance, and he is better off without her.

The PCA file on "Adventure in Iraq" contained two letters to Warner Brothers. In his August 31, 1942, letter, Breen acknowledged that the PCA had read the final script dated August 27, 1942, and reported that aside from a couple of routine problems that the film met the basic requirements of the Production Code. In the scene where the Sheik’s servant girls provide Tess with a wardrobe, however, Breen warned the filmmakers “care must be used in the costuming of these oriental girls at the bath. Also in the undressing scene of Tess in scene 75, care should be used that there is no undue exposure of Tess’ person.” Breen further complained about the ambiguity surrounding a woman in Sheik’s palace. According to Breen, “the dialogue of Devins’ seems to infer that Timah is not his wife, and we suggest that the underline portion of his dialogue [‘Yes, sir. I suppose you would say so.’] be deleted, to remedy that.” Breen also voiced his concern about a break in the dialogue when the Sheik says to Tess, “If Madame would be so gracious as to favor me with her - - society.” Evidently, based on the final cut of Adventure in Iraq, Warner Brothers complied with all of Breen’s demands, because the second and last PCA letter dated October 1, 1942, approved of all the requested changes. In its Analysis Chart, the Production Code classified Adventure in Iraq an action melodrama with four killings along with little drinking and violence ranging from shooting, fighting, and bombing. The PCA gave Warner Brothers a certificate of approval to release Adventure in Iraq.
Typically, the OWI prepared a script review and then at a later date a film review, but this was not the routine with Adventure in Iraq. Ulric Bell wrote a letter to OWI Chief Elmer Davis in early 1943 complaining that Warner Brothers “did not submit material on these films [The Desert Song and Adventure in Iraq] until they were completed.” Bell’s implication was that getting the studio to reedit the film might prove virtually impossible. Apparently, the OWI did not impose any penalties on the filmmakers for their lack of cooperation in letting the analysts read a preliminary script so that many of the problems could have been eliminated during that stage of the production.
The OWI-BMP feature review of Adventure in Iraq dated December 21, 1942, noted immediately that it was a remake of The Green Goddess with the action relocated to Iraq. “This is an unfortunate choice,” wrote the analyst, “because Iraq is of strategic importance to the war effort and because the picture they present of that country is a distorted one.” The analysts felt that Warner Brothers had ignored several facets of the war effort. They enumerated eight problems, balanced against only one asset, the folly of trying to negotiate with Hitler. Doug questions a treaty that the Sheik is going to enter into with the Nazis, saying, “Don’t you know that Hitler’s treaties aren’t worth the paper they’re written on?”
First, they argued that the filmmakers accused all of Iraq and its inhabitants of not only being pro-Axis but also murderous fiends. The movie could “only serve to alienate a country which is still technically neutral.” Worse, because the filmmakers depicted the Arabs as devil worshippers, the analysts feared that such “a presentation is bound to offend the Arabs in other parts of the world who have shown themselves friendly to the Allied cause.” While they presented Iraq and the rest of the world an offensive view of Arabs, the moviemakers had also given the American public a distorted picture of the country where Americans were stationed.
Second, Adventure in Iraq created a negative impression of the British. The analysts felt that the British came off as villains. Specifically, the OWI-BMP stated, “There is the statement by the Sheik that he was learned to speak English, among other languages, because the British covet his oil lands and he has to protect himself against their designs.” The OWI-BMP also interpreted this to mean that had the Sheik not learned English, then the British might have taken advantage of him. Furthermore, the Sheik shows more alacrity to conduct business with the Axis because they will give him more money than the English. What disturbed the analysts about this anti-British commentary was that the Nazis had disseminated extensive propaganda about British imperialism and the Axis could exploit this to their own use. The OWI-BMP also took issue with the villainous character of Devins, the British butler, because it was “bound to cause resentment among the British and will certainly not contribute to any better understanding of the British on the part of the Americans.” They objected especially to Devins’ line of dialogue in reference to his life before he went to work for the Sheik, “What did the English ever do for me but put me in a reformatory?”
Fourth, Adventure in Iraq emphasized the superiority of the white race. The three Americans look down their noses at the Arabs throughout the film. The analysts also pointed out that, “The members of the U.S. [Army] Air Force who come to rescue the prisoners show the same intolerance and lack of understanding of the natives.” When Doug and George attempt to bribe Devins, they do business with him because he is white, or as they say, “You’re one of us.” The OWI-BMP review stated concisely about this issue, “This distinction between races is in direct contradiction to this country’s war aims. We are fighting for all races and all creeds”
Fifth, the film raised the specter of class distinction. The Americans hold Devins in contempt, because the butler pretends to be a gentleman in his negotiations with Doug and George. Wrote the analysts, “To make social distinction in the middle of a war that is being fought by all the people and for all the people is a little absurd.” They explained that this attitude can generate resentment from individuals lacking the educational advantages of others.
Sixth, the OWI-BMP analysts decided that the pro-Axis Sheik emerged as far more benevolent than intimidating. “The Sheik is so charming,” they admitted, “that one is apt to forget he is a villain.” The filmmakers neglected to present the Sheik as treacherous, especially in light of his collaborating with the enemy and his decision to sign a treaty with the Nazis.
Seventh, the filmmakers misrepresented the role of the American Army Air Force in wartime. The analysts complained that the Air Force came to the rescue of the Americans and bombed a technically neutral village. They argued that this gave the impression that “the U.S. Government clubs them [the villagers] into submission, ” and were “using the very methods we object to in the Axis.”
Eighth, Adventure in Iraq gave the impression that British authorities would voluntarily release three deadly prisoners for three American civilians. The OWI-BMP noted, “To suggest that three civilians, two of whom at least, are making no contribution to the war, would be a fair exchange for three dangerous spies, creates a false sense of values.”
OWI-BMP Hollywood chief Nelson Poynter contacted Steve Trilling at Warner Brothers on December 28, 1942, about Adventure in Iraq and urged the studio to withhold release of the movie until they had given some solemn deliberation to what the analysts had written about it. Poynter used this incident to demonstrate “the wisdom of submitting scripts to this office.” He wrote, “The morale situation in the Middle East and among the Arabs is such as to give the OWI and the British greatest concern, and I know that Warner Brothers do not want road to the confusion.”
OWI Overseas Film Bureau Chief Robert Riskin wrote to Ulric Bell about this very objectionable film,
In case you didn’t get this review of the horrible Warner Bros. Adventure in Iraq, here it is. In the event you don’t know that it has been stopped dead in its tracks for export I am glad so to report to you. It was one of those pictures Warner Bros. hid away until they presented it to the censor. He [Rothacker] passed it—he says before the African invasion—but recanted after the State Department stepped in. We made vigorous objection to it to the censor and to Warner Bros. as soon as we heard about it.

Despite Warner Brothers’ assurances of cooperation they clearly sometimes did not cooperate to the OWI-BMP’s satisfaction.
Warner Brothers executive Steve Trilling wrote to Rothacker on January 9, 1943, and informed him that “’Iraq would not be submitted for export without first consulting you or your office.” Trilling went on to write, “You can appreciate that when this war is over or even prior to it the whole censorship situation might change, especially any fears of pictures carrying an adverse propaganda influence, and we might wish to revise our whole views on the matter.” At the conclusion of his letter, Trilling added, “You can always be assured of our complete cooperation--and with my kindest regards.” Rothacker replied on January 11, 1943, to Trilling that “what you say in your communication is quite all right [,] and it is, therefore, understood that no prints of Adventures [sic] in Iraq will be submitted for export without the approval of this office.” Warner Brothers released their “B” movie Adventure in Iraq in America on October 9, 1943. The film still gave cause for all eight of the OWI’s objections discussed above.
The controversy over Adventure in Iraq lingered in Bell’s mind at the OWI, and he sent Rothacker a letter dated September 27, 1943, to clarify the situation. Bell pointed out that “you have an iron clad agreement under which Warners Bros. will not attempt to export this without giving due notice to your office—meaning, in effect, that they will withhold it from overseas exhibition indefinitely.”
In a letter dated August 13, 1944, George Barnett of the Antilles Department of the U.S. Army Motion Picture Service wrote to Rothacker about the Warner Brothers’ films Adventure In Iraq and Murder on the Waterfront (1943). Barnett wanted to show them to the troops because his organization showed a different movie every night, thus they required 365 movies a year. Barnett requested prints of the films because, “Under present curtailed production you can realize that we are hard-pressed to obtain that number of reasonably suitable films.” Barrett reminded Rothacker that “the export ban does not apply to men in uniform, nor on shipments to Puerto Rico, which is our port of destination.” Consequently, Barrett asked Rothacker to request that Warner Brothers be allowed to send them the films. In a letter dated August 23, 1944, Rothacker assured Barrett “that insofar as the Office of Censorship is concerned there are no restrictions on shipments of motion pictures to Puerto Rico.” Unfortunately for Barrett and the soldiers, in a letter dated September 29, 1944, Francis S. Harmon of the War Activities Committee in New York City, informed Barnett that Adventure in Iraq would not be available to them. Some sixty years later, Adventure in Iraq made its worldwide debut on DVD without a whisper of the controversy that it had aroused in World War II.