“Rules of Engagement” in the UK [Archives:2000/33/Focus]

August 14 2000

By Brian Whitaker

Rules of Engagement, the Hollywood film about a siege at the American embassy in Yemen, arrived in Britain on August 11. Despite accusations of racism, its makers are obviously hoping to repeat the huge success it enjoyed in the United States earlier this year. Advertisements for the film were running on British television all week.
I went to see it on the first night and, I’m happy to say, out of 300 seats in the cinema, at least 230 were empty. The film, like all the characters in it, has no redeeming features. It’s utterly bad.
The problem is not just the racist portrayal of Arabs. The whole film reeks of American supremacism: Its message seems to be that international rules of behaviour can be ignored where American interests are at stake.
We are shown a couple of hundred demonstrators shouting outside the US embassy in Sana’a. Some wave Yemeni flags. Others wave banners which are difficult to read – though I did make out the word “jihad”. Are they Islamists, nationalists, or what? It’s impossible to tell and, as far as the film’s makers are concerned, it doesn’t matter. It’s just the typical sort of thing they imagine happens all the time in the Middle East.
We are told that Yemenis have been holding demonstrations outside the US embassy in Sana’a once a week, to protest at “the American presence in the Gulf”. Ah, so now we know where Yemen is – “in the Gulf”.
Anyway, it’s all too much for the American ambassador, and he wants to go home. It doesn’t occur to him to ask for a police escort to the airport. Instead, the US Navy diverts an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean and within minutes three helicopters full of Marines have entered Yemeni airspace without so much as a phone call to ask President Salih if he minds.
This infringement of Yemen’s sovereignty is never questioned in the film. It is, apparently, OK to invade another country if people shout at your ambassador.
The Marines park their helicopters near the back door of the embassy (which the demonstrators have conveniently left unmolested) and go inside to rescue the ambassador and his family.
At this point, anyone who visited Yemen will become confused because the scenes were actually filmed in a mud-built village near Ouarzazate, in Morocco. This makes Sana’a look like a rural backwater, and the architecture is completely wrong.
The US “embassy” in the film is an old casbah with rickety wooden doors which are easily forced open by the crowd. If the Americans were so worried about terrorism, one wonders why they didn’t choose something more secure.
The “Yemenis” don’t look very Yemeni – probably because they’re Moroccan Berbers. They wear a variety of clothes from around the Arab world, though the film-makers have managed to obtain a couple of jambiyyas from somewhere.
Inside the embassy, the Marines come under fire, apparently from snipers on neighbouring rooftops. Their commander, Colonel Terry Childers, bundles the ambassador and his family into a helicopter, then risks his life to remove the American flag from its pole on the embassy roof.
The shooting from outside the embassy continues and three Marines are hit. Colonel Childers orders his men to fire at the demonstrators. They kill 83 and wound 100 more.
Amazingly, the film’s view is that this massacre was entirely justified, and that Colonel Childers is a hero. We are asked to believe that the Yemeni demonstrators – far from being innocent civilians – were in fact armed to the teeth and shooting wildly at the Marines. There are glimpses of old men, women, even a one-legged child, firing guns.
Back in the US, Childers is put on trial for mass murder by his superiors who have their own personal or political motives for wanting him punished. Most of the film – which at two-and-a-half hours is unusually long – is taken up by the trial. As a courtroom drama, it doesn’t work unless you accept the basic assumption of Childers’ innocence (and I suspect that British audiences won’t).
The picture of Yemen that emerges from the film is of a dirty, dangerous, primitive place. Yemenis, without exception, are deceitful, bloodthirsty fanatics.
Some of the images are gratuitously nasty. There’s close-up a shot of two hands clashing with jambiyyas in the street. This enhances the atmosphere of violence, though whether it’s a fight or just a traditional dance is unclear.
There’s also a hand-painted sign in a grubby alleyway saying “Funduq Taj Sheba”. Hopefully, the real (five-star) Taj Sheba will sue for defamation.
Personally, I found this view of Yemen and the Yemenis both stupid and unbelievable. But I have had the good fortune to visit Yemen several times. People who have never been there and know little about the country could easily get the wrong idea.
It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that the film’s portrayal of Americans is equally unflattering; they are shown as brutal, bullying, lying, cheats. But in their case this behaviour serves a higher moral purpose: protecting the American way of life.
I would like to think that the film is as wrong about Americans (and especially their leaders) as it is about Yemenis. I would like to think that the story was dreamed up by some second-rate scriptwriter who knows nothing about politics or the way the American military really operate.
But the terrifying fact is that the story was written by a man who once held a senior post in the American government: James Webb, Secretary of the US Navy under President Reagan.