Death of a Princess revisited

Antony Thomas. Photo: Kempton/flickr

Last week, very wisely, the New York premiere of the film The Interview was cancelled. This week, Sony Pictures cancelled the release of the film, then changed its mind and announced it will release it on Christmas Day.

Am I the only one to find an air of déjà vu in the North Korean-The Interview affair? Has everyone forgotten, or are they too young to remember, that in 1980, the British film Death of a Princess, by Antony Thomas and Gladys Ganley, provoked similar responses on the part of Saudi Arabia?

Let us recapitulate: 19-year-old princess Misha'al of Saudi Arabia was stoned to death in July 1977. Her 20-year-old lover was decapitated. British journalist Antony Thomas conducted a number of interviews, then wrote what became not truly a documentary but a docu-drama showing the ravages of Sharia, thus embarrassing Saudi Arabia and the 500 or so members of the royal family.

The film did not ridicule a leader but exposed the hypocrisy underlying a whole society, and the Saudis claimed it was an affront to Islam. It was offensive, and the Saudi reaction was swift: they expelled the British ambassador to Jeddah, they denied visas to Saudi Arabia, and they forbade the British Airways Concorde from flying over Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, causing it to cancel its London-Singapore flight. If I remember, but this may have only been a rumour, the Saudis threatened to ban oil exports to countries that would dare show the film.

The film was shown once on British television, but a number of politicians questioned the wisdom of broadcasting what was a dramatization and not a documentary. A month later, the Foreign Secretary called the film "offensive."

In the U.S., Mobil Oil, one of the main sponsors of PBS, publicly denounced the film. Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote PBS, due to schedule the film: "We have no doubt that, in the exercise of your programming judgment, you will give appropriate consideration to the sensitive religious and cultural issues involved and assure that viewers are given a full and balanced presentation."

Can one imagine today's Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a balanced presentation of The Interview and a consideration of cultural issues? Or congressmen denouncing the bad judgment of the filmmakers as some of them did in 1980? That year, despite pressure from Arab countries, some PBS stations broadcast Death of a Princess, but felt compelled to add a one-hour discussion of "The Arab Dilemma." Other countries like Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand yielded under pressure and cancelled the showing of Death of a Princess.

Eventually the whole thing was forgotten, except by some academics like Edward Said, and Saudi Arabia remained the indispensable ally of the West. The British ambassador returned to his post a few months later, oil continued to flow, Saudi Arabia went on importing much-needed American goods and armament, and, it seems, few people today remember the event.

Andrée Lévesque is history professor at McGill University. She is the author of Red Travellers. Jeanne Corbin and her Comrades, Making and Breaking the Rules, and other books on the history of women and of the Left.

Photo of Antony Thomas. Credit: Kempton/flickr

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