Hollywood’s first, and most violent, movie since 9/11 is “The Kingdom.” This heavy-handed action film — black (bad Arab) versus white (good American) — displays the heroics of four F.B.I agents who fly off to Saudi Arabia and kill gobs of Arabs. No surprises here; for decades seeing reel Arab corpses pollute the silver screen has been a familiar sight, as commonplace as seeing camels roam desert landscapes. What surprised me was that Universal studios spent millions of dollars to hype the disingenuous film. Weeks before “The Kingdom” debuted, TV viewers were saturated with bang-bang commercials promoting the movie’s violent scenes, mostly during football games, obviously.
When “The Kingdom” finally began appearing at movie theaters world-wide, I was pleased to see an “Entertainment Weekly” blurb stating that the film’s director, Peter Berg, “was determined to avoid stereotypes.” Berg even referred to my 2001 book “Reel Bad Arabs,” which discusses 900-plus films with Arab characters, saying: ” don’t think any filmmaker is in the business of turning people off.”
Given Berg’s rhetoric, I’d hoped his film would eliminate stereotypes; instead, it embellishes them, blatantly exploiting the viewers’ emotions. His $70 million jingoistic Rambo-in-Arabia thriller showing Arab evildoers being blown to smithereens turns people off, especially this writer. Likewise noted critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott. “Just as “Rambo” offered the fantasy of a do-over on Vietnam, “The Kingdom” can be seen as a wishful revisionist scenario for the American response to Islamic fundamentalist terrorism,” wrote Scott. Affirms Turan: ” ‘The Kingdom’ provides the most vivid, across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs it can manage….the film’s theme is similar to those jingoistic World War II-era ‘Yellow Peril’ films.”
Still, Berg’s phony kingdom turns some people on. When I watched it, a few teenagers cheered each and every time Saudis were shot dead in their tracks. The scenes most likely reminded them of violent anti-Arab video games. Throughout, we see gunfights galore, bombastic explosions, suicide bombings, rocket-propelled grenades and clearly defined heroes and villains. Berg’s political message is simple: All Arab Muslims, but notably the Saudis — men, women, even children — are Muslim terrorists out to kill Americans. The film features two kinds of Saudis: dozens of heinous grenade-launching terrorists and those other Saudis who are mute, overwhelmingly obstructive, uninterested in justice, and fully compromised by terrorists
So we had better kill THEM quick, before they kill US. And, we do kill them, again and again!
I first learned about Berg’s “Kingdom” last December, while participating in Dubai’s International Film Festival. One morning my host took me aside, saying that because the script was riddled with anti-Arab scenes, Dubai’s film execs wanted nothing to do with it. So, he said, Universal shot the movie in nearby Abu Dhabi. Some of his friends were cast as extras; all the director wanted them to do was “look and act mean and die realistically.” On returning home, I immediately offered my services to the studio as a consultant; I also asked if I might view and comment on the film during its post-production phase. My offer and requests were denied.
The movie is very loosely based on real terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers in Dhahran, and the 2003 attack on a U.S. compound in Riyadh, which killed 30 people, including nine Americans. Berg mutates these real and tragic events; he cleverly manipulates viewers into thinking his movie’s false scenes are what really happened. Opening frames of “The Kingdom” focus on American oil company workers and their families as they play and/or watch a softball game at the “Rahman Compound.” Suddenly, Saudi terrorists attack; they proceed to kill the most number of reel Americans in the history of cinema. More than 100 human beings, primarily women, teenagers and children, are either mowed down or blown to pieces; an additional 200 Americans are seriously wounded. “All glory to Allah” and “Allah will give us victory,” declare the terrorists. A side note here: Decades ago, “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, was a reel positive expression. For example, in the 1938 romantic comedy, “Vivacious Lady,” starlet Beulah Bondi cuts loose during a vigorous dance number. She smiles, raises her arms and bows, saying several times (in English), “Praise Allah.”
During the attack, the Saudi ringleader’s son watches the slaughter. Cut to the USA, to the son of F.B.I. agent Jamie Foxx (Ronald Fleury). The boy tells his father: “There are a lot of bad people out there.” Says Fleury, “Yeah, but you’re not one of them.” This scene, where an Arab child gives a thumbs up to terror but an American kid does not, takes the film’s theme to another level: Arab kids may look innocent but they, too, are “bad people.”
The film’s “State Department officials” are stereotyped as pro-Arab wimps; they refuse to allow F.B.I agents to investigate the attack, to put their “boots on Saudi soil.” To get into Saudi Arabia, Fleury sets up a secret meeting with Prince Thamer, the Saudi ambassador. Fleury threatens him, saying something like: “If we [agents] don’t get clearance, then a situation will be brought up to the press… how Saudi wives donated $3 million to an Arab American organization outside of Baltimore, and how this money’s been used to help fund terrorist groups.” In reality, charitable Arab women such as those belonging to Washington D.C.’s the Mosaic Foundation have donated millions to American hospitals, and to educational and charitable institutions. Berg’s attack on Arab American groups is a blatant lie based on prejudices, not realities. No Arab American organization in the U.S. has ever been linked to terrorism. Not one.
Fleury and three other F.B.I. agents board a plane en route to Saudi Arabia. The team has only five days to find and bring down the villains. Asked to describe the kingdom, one agent quips: “It’s a bit like Mars.” In fact, Berg’s Saudi Arabia is much worse than Mars; it is a sinister desert land filled with evil machine-gun toting Arabs lurking around every corner, waiting in the shadows to kill Americans.
During the final 30 minutes, an explosive firefight takes place — BANG! BOOM! The agents shoot dead scores of bad Arabs — I stopped counting after 35 Saudi bodies hit the sand. The camera cuts to one kidnapped agent about to be beheaded by the heartless followers of Abu Hamsa. Our agents arrive in the nick of time, rescuing their colleague and terminating the ringleader.
If Berg was truly sincere in wanting to help curtail the American-against-Arab mentality, he should have done several things: One, follow the advice I offer image makers in my book “Reel Bad Arabs”; two, study Ed Bradley’s revealing “The Saudis,” shown on CBS-TV in 1980, a brilliant documentary which humanizes the Saudi people; three, view Todd Nimms’ “HOME: The Aramco Brats’ Story” (2007), a wonderful film showing that since the 1940s, numerous Saudis have befriended and happily interacted with U.S. oil company employees and their families; and four, most of Berg’s reel Saudis are terrorists or in cahoots with them, so why didn’t he present some decent, ordinary Saudi citizens, having them befriend and comfort the American families, and demanding their ruler locate and execute the villains? Yes, Berg does have the agents meet two “good” Saudis, Col. Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum) and Sgt. Haytham (Ali Suliman); they help Fleury investigate the horrific attack. Says Ghazi: “When we catch the men who murdered those people I want to kill them.” But Berg should have expanded their roles. He offers, instead, one token 90-second scene featuring Col. Ghazi’s loving, albeit mostly-mute family members; they are wonderful folk who pray, do homework, eat dinner, and so forth. Berg could have continued with the commonalities theme by having Col. Ghazi and/or Sgt. Haytham discuss with Fleury how terrorism impacts all people, and that Americans and Arabs should work in unison to protect the innocent. Why not have Haytham and Ghazi speak to the 9/11 attacks, saying something like what the Saudi Grand Mufti actually said four days after 9/11: “Hijacking planes, terrorizing innocent people and shedding blood, constitute a form of injustice that cannot be tolerated by Islam, which views them as gross crimes and sinful acts … Any Muslim who is aware of the teachings of his religion and who adheres to the directives of the Qur’an and the Sunnah will never involve himself in such acts because they will invoke the anger of God Almighty and lead to harm and corruption on earth.” Affirmed Crown Prince Abdullah: … terrorists are criminals and murderers with total disregard for any Islamic and human values or decency. They are no different from vicious animals whose only concern is to shed blood and bring terror … we specifically warn anyone who tries to justify these crimes in the name of religion.”
Because this film depicts four F.B.I. agents as super heroes, don’t be surprised if the agency uses “The Kingdom” to recruit new members. Military commanders, however, should label “The Kingdom” a disturbing film, one which insults the integrity and fighting ability of our troops serving overseas. Think about it: Four F.B.I. agents fly over to Saudi Arabia and it only takes them five days to find and efficiently shoot dead dozens of Arab villains; they also kill Abu Hamsa, the mastermind behind the attacks, and then return safely home.
Final frames imply that Abu Hamsa’s innocent-looking grandchild is an up-and-coming terrorist. The boy is asked: “What did your grandfather tell you before he died?” He whispers, “We’re going to kill them all.” The camera presents an extreme close-up of the boy’s threatening eyes. This scene helps explain why some Western viewers fail to mourn the deaths of innocent Arab children, those who are gunned down and/or blown up in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere.
How will “The Kingdom” impact our servicemen and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will seeing reel American heroes kill all those reel bad Arabs turn them on, or off? Will the film prompt them to befriend or hate peaceful Arabs and Muslims? What about viewers in the Middle East; will they be turned on, or off, when watching four Americans gun down dozens of Arabs? Will they cheer, like the American teens did, when Arab bodies drop in the sand? Will this film help bring THEM any closer to US, or US any closer to THEM? Does Berg’s vilification of all-things-Arab benefit anyone?
Real war is not a Hollywood movie. War has never been, and never will be, as easy as “The Kingdom’s” reel racist scenario.