This film is held by the BFI (ID: 18105).


INTEREST: Travelogue. Map (44); views of Baghdad from the river, with crowds crossing Maude Bridge, which is laid across floating boats (108); statue of General Maude (127); views of the river Tigris (150); a 'guffah' or tub-like boat on the water in the vicinity of water-buffalo (208); a 'kalak' or house-boat, supported by inflated skins, with a man and his household on board (266); King Feisal I, in medium close shot (273); Iraqi troops on parade, with British and Iraqi officers (310); mounted police (333); the Civil Court (354); traffic in the narrow streets (377); the native quarter (419); a barber at work (449) and a cobbler (480); entrance to the bazaars (508); a caravan of donkeys and camels (532); the Shrine of the Sheik Omar (555); the Mosque Abdelkadar, with a call to prayer from a minaret; the worshippers wash their feet and pray towards Mecca.



At the time of its theatrical release in June 1928 as part of the third set of British Instructional Films’ Empire Series, Baghdad was already playing within non-theatrical circles. It had been shown at the launch of the Imperial Institute cinema in June 1927 and was listed in British Instructional’s catalogue of non-theatrical films for hire in 1928 (The Times, 29 June 1927, 14). In describing Baghdad, the catalogue stated that ‘the film shows life in Mesopotamia, and demonstrates the nature of a British Protectorate established over an Eastern land, and the penetration of the East by the West’ (British Instructional Films, 1928, 16).

In 1917 General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude had led the British Indian army into Baghdad and upon its capture proclaimed ‘Our Armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators’. In a post-war international climate resistant to the outright annexation of territories, Iraq was placed under British Mandate. The Covenant of the League of Nations described the Mandate in the Arab lands as a ‘sacred trust of civilisation’ (Balfour-Paul, 1999, 498). Liberal historian H.A.L. Fisher was more sceptical, arguing that the ‘crudity of conquest was draped in the veil of morality’ (cited in Brendon, 2007, 322).

Britain’s interest in Iraq was initially born out of a desire to protect its trade route to India (and subsequently the Empire air route). After 1907, when oil was discovered in substantial quantities in South West Persia, Western governments and commercial enterprises became increasingly interested in the region, with the British government now seeking to consolidate and protect the Persian and Iraqi oilfields.

The British imported their own style of government and ideals into Iraq, establishing an Arab government backed by British advisors. Comprised mainly of the Sunni Arab urban communities (which made up less than 25% of the population), the government was neither representative nor popular, and faced almost constant opposition. The unrest within Baghdad was most clearly illustrated by the revolt of 1920 which cost the lives of an estimated 6000 Iraqis and 500 British and Indian soldiers (Tripp, 2000, 45). In a bid to maintain order and hold up the newly formed government, the British retained a strong military presence throughout the decade. In particular, the RAF operated within the region using aeroplanes as a means of exacting authority and as a ‘substitute for administration’. The RAF bombed rural areas that resisted paying taxes – for example a two-week bombing campaign in December 1923 killed 144 people – prompting Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to comment after a visit in 1925 that ‘if the writ of King Faysal runs effectively throughout his kingdom, it is entirely due to British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces’ (cited in Sluglett, 2007, 191-192). Historian Piers Brendon noted the adoption of aeroplanes as ‘the cheap, efficient, modern method of colonial control’ and as a ‘convenient alternative to terrestrial administration’. The RAF gave demonstrations of bombing ‘native villages’ both in Baghdad and in England at the Hendon air show (Brendon, 2007, 320).

Alongside the British military presence, there was an Iraqi army, which grew from 3,500 men in 1921 to 12,000 men in 1932. Peter Sluglett has described the Iraqi army as ‘no more than a glorified gendarmerie acting as an occasional adjunct to the RAF’, while Sir Hugh Trenchard, the Chief of Air Staff, stated in 1921 that he wanted to ‘let the Arab army remain purely as eyewash’ (Sluglett, 2007, 183). The film briefly shows the ‘force of mounted Police’ and also presents to the camera King Feysal, who was enthroned on 23 August 1921.

Historian Charles Tripp presents the Mandate as a defining period in Iraqi history. ‘It had’, he began, ‘not only laid the institutional foundations of the Iraqi State and demarcated its territorial boundaries, but had also made the state the principal arena for the multiple struggles that were to constitute a distinctly Iraqi politics’. The organisation of power, and the promotion of British imperial ideals and interests, was, Tripp argued, ‘a troubling legacy which the grant of formal independence would do little to remove’ (Tripp, 2000, 75). 



In many respects Baghdad follows the conventions of other films within British Instructional Films’ Empire Series. It endorses a rhetoric of British progress and technological advancement, represented by modern transport (though not aeroplanes). A title explains that ‘Nowadays, motor lorries roar down the streets that Harun-al-Rashid once trod’, while in contrast we see ‘Transport of the old-fashioned kind – oxen, donkeys and camels’, highlighting the ‘primitive’ nature of the locals. This is also apparent in the footage of local trades and customs (a defining feature of the series), as we see the local method of cutting hair (shown and described in similar terms in Basutoland and its People) and of mending shoes. The somewhat flippant titles privilege the British viewer by emphasising the ‘primitive’ nature of these local customs (‘a curious native craft’, ‘a kind of houseboat supported on inflated skins, combines the useful properties of a dwelling place and a hencoop’). While endorsing British primacy, the film positions Baghdad within an imperial framework. This is achieved through the initial use of a map, through the historical titles (‘a statue raised to General Maude in recognition of his work in driving the Turks from Iraq in the Great War’) and through other titles which again relate local landmarks to British points of reference – ‘The owner calmly sucks up Tigris water, which is about as clean as the Thames at London Bridge’.

The film presents a popular romanticised image of the ‘exotic East’ for its British audience. It introduces Baghdad as a ‘city of romance’ and as the ‘scene of the Arabian Nights Entertainments’ and later refers to ‘the glamour of the East’. Its footage of the ‘great Bazaars’, of crowded streets and indeed of local religions all reinforce this stereotype. Such scenes also serve to highlight the retention of local customs and to foster a British acceptance and tolerance for existing practices and religions. In particular, the film promotes an idealised image of British and Arab collaboration, achieved both visually (for example, Arab and British officers are shown smoking together), and through the intertitles, which state that ‘The Iraq troops are instructed on the British system and the officers are partly British and partly Arab’. While exploiting this popular interest in ‘the glamour of the East’, Baghdad also affords some coverage of the administration within the region. It introduces King Feysal, shows the centre of Justice in Baghdad (‘the civil court where Arab law is administered’) and, in particular, highlights the (local) military presence within the region. It does not, however, consider the economic benefits of Iraq to Britain, both as a trading post and as a centre for oil, and unlike many films within the series, does not show the trade of products and industries with Britain.

Tom Rice (May 2010)


Works Cited

Balfour-Paul, Glen, ‘Britain’s Informal Empire in the Middle East’, The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 4, eds. Judith Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 490-514.

Brendon, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781 – 1997 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007).

British Instructional Films, Catalogue of Films for Non-Theatrical Exhibition (1928).

‘The Film World: Imperial Institute Theatre’, The Times, 29 June 1927, 14.

Sluglett, Peter, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (London: I.B. Taurus, 2007).

Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).



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Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
British Instructional Films



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