Tuaregs in the Movies

The nomads faced by the French Foreign Legion were most typically the Tuaregs (some say Twa-regs).  They are a Berber people known for their abilities to move camel caravans across the Western Sahara.  They were also a good match for the Legionnaires as they were celebrated individualists, fiercely resistant to intrusion from foreign powers.

My short list of movies featuring the Tuaregs finds them mostly in the same role that the Indians played in American Westerns.  They were faceless attackers in Beau Geste (an earlier Gary Cooper film, Morocco, had the heroic Legionnaire facing unnamed desert marauders).  In Legend of the Lost, the Tuaregs are anonymous proprietors of camel caravans, but in Timbuktu, they are a complex and dangerous desert culture.  In Chapter 7: Egypt, there is a movie called Valley of the Kings (1954) where a Hollywood hero (Robert Taylor) and a feisty female (Eleanor Parker) make an expedition up the Nile and are taken prisoner by a Tuareg chieftain played by Victor Jory.

In my search for resources for my book, The Caravan: A Metaphor for the Millennium, I found a book called The Last Caravan, by Thurston Clarke (1978).  It is a sad chronicle of the nomadic way of life of the Tuaregs in the western Sahara.  There had been a terrible drought in this area from 1968 to 1974 and recovery of the old ways has been slow and disheartening.  Civilization and ecological shifts were squeezing the nomads out of existence.

Last of the Caravans (1995)

On the Sahara, 2009

On the Sahara, 2009

The text on the DVD cover promises an “insightful documentary” on the “Tuaregs and their camel caravans while exploring how the rapid changes of the modern world threaten to forever alter their way of life.”  This, in fact, is a fairly ordinary documentary film on life in the desert of Niger.  It opens in the oasis town of Nachi where life centers on waiting for the caravans to arrive.  It is a dying world.  An effort has been made to replace the camel caravans with trucks but the trucks have proved unreliable and the camels continue to operate.  When at last a Tuareg camel caravan arrives, the women conduct the trading – salt and dates for millet and other necessities.  The caravan now moves on to the east toward Bilma.  Then it returns to its point of origin in the southwest part of Niger.  What this film does best is capture the tedium and danger of caravan life in the Sahara.  The caravan leader is the only one that knows the way and if anything happens to him the caravan would be doomed.  Sandstorms are the most common inconvenience.  The caravan cannot stop because of limited supplies of water and feed.  When after more than 60 days in the desert the caravan returns to its home, life is better and some money has been made.  Filming was done in 1993.  A legend at the end says that soon after filming was completed civil war broke out in Niger and the caravans have been brutalized.  The future looks dim for this way of life.  In this same year of 1995, there was a French documentary called Middle of the Moment following a French circus troupe across the Sahara and contrasting their nomadism with that of the Tuaregs.

Timbuktu  (1959)

This was not a proud moment for Hollywood.  Still, it evokes some of the little-known reality of the southern Sahara in 1940.  The French garrison in Timbuktu is diminished by the transfer of troops to the fight against the Germans.  Tuareg leaders take the opportunity to mount a rebellion against the French occupation.  American gunrunner Mike Conway (Victor Mature) is among the bigger opportunists, and he plays all the angles.  Conway is enlisted by the French commander to join an expedition to a desert city where the rebellion is centered.  Two pretty women join the small caravan.  One is the raven-haired wife of the commander (Yvonne de Carlo) and the other is a petite blond married to the officer in command at the distant outpost.  Victor has his eyes upon Yvonne.  The Tuaregs are no mere nomads but are led by an emir who has a fine palace in the destination city.  He his holding prisoner an elderly imam who wants to warn the tribespeople that the rebellion is not in their interest and is only for the profit of the emir.  The story is convoluted almost to the point of incomprehensibility.  Both of the military husbands die in the final hostilities and Victor rides off into the desert with Yvonne.  For all the flaws, there is some credible representation of the tensions between the French Foreign Legion and the Tuaregs.  This is all the more remarkable as the movie was filmed in the coral sands of Utah.

The Wind and the Lion (1975)

The Berbers are an indigenous tribal group concentrated primarily at the western end of North Africa. Since the time of the Islamic conquest, their relations with the Arabs to the east have been uneasy. At times, they have been determined adversaries, and at other times they have assimilated to the Arab culture that stretches across North Africa. In this movie, Sean Connery plays a Berber chieftain from the Rif Mountains.

Watched this movie the week we returned from Morocco.  Sean Connery stars as a renegade Berber sheik, “last of the Barbary pirates,” who abducts an American woman (Candice Bergen) and her two children from their aristocratic home in Tangier.  It is 1904 and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) is in the White House.  The captives are carried into the Rif Mountains while international diplomacy grinds into action.  The rescue of Eden Pedecaris and her children becomes a U.S. campaign issue, and gunboats are sent to Tangier harbor.  A mission is sent with a gift of lions to the Sultan at Fez.  The efforts at diplomacy are mostly comical.  Bergen and Connery never become lovers, but there is a certain romantic tension between them, and a great deal of discourse.  The issue of debate is “barbarism.”  He insists he is not barbarous, though he finds it necessary to disciple two of his men by chopping off their heads in front of the woman and her children.  He is a Berber (with Scottish accent), called Lord of the Rif, and a devout Muslim.  Quite a bit of parallel screen time is given to Teddy Roosevelt and his equation of American Christian morality with manliness.  In the end there is a shootout involving American Marines, German interventionists, Moroccan royalists, and swarms of Berber horsemen.  The Americans are rescued at the seashore near Rabat, and the sheik returns to the desert where his cause will be lost.  The story is loosely based on a real life incident, and a rich portrait, if a little cartoonish, of a clash of cultures.  Filmed in Spain!

Wikipedia says this film was appreciated in the Islamic world “for its accurate, detailed, and sympathetic depiction of Berber and Islamic culture.”

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