Iraq, close to the border with Iran. The two nations have been warring since 1980, and following the derailing and eventual destruction of a steam train, Iranian news proudly reports that a small invading force has successfully entered Saddam's territory and destroyed a train carrying Iraqi weapons.
Only, they hadn't. It wasn't a military operation of any sort that had sent splinters of steel and wood high into the air in a ball of flames. It was a film crew.
Shortly after Saddam Hussein's rise to power, and with the flush of money entering the Gulf states with the rise in oil prices, his regime was investing in nation building. Part of this project saw funds directed into the arts, more specifically projects intended to engender a vision for the new Iraqi nation, and more specifically again into a motion picture of Hollywood proportions aimed at telling the story of the nation's birth. In an attempt to pull of this feat, the scale of which the country had never before attempted, the Iraqi government turned to British producer Lateif Jorephani. What ensued was a process so bizarre and baffling it makes Argo sound like Cheaper By the Dozen 2.
Clash of the Loyalties was a 20th century epic based on the formation of Iraq from Mesopotamia and its emancipation from British administration. Its production featured circumstances nearly as volatile as the subject matter. The cast included a host of British actors – James Bolam, Helen Ryan – headed up by Oliver Reed. As even the most modest introduction to the English actor will tell you, the man liked a drink, and as a result his presence both on and off screen teetered in a constant balance between vulgar mischief and aggressive disruption. Add to that the constant presence of Hussein's regime overseeing the production – oh, and the ongoing Iraq-Iran war – and it doesn't seem unreasonable to refer to the filming of any sort as a miracle.
But despite this remarkable story, the film never saw the light of day. The months and months of filming in a war zone, Oliver Reed's one-man assault on the bartenders of Baghdad and the elaborately executed military sequences were buried. Saddam Hussein's regime came to a pretty well-documented end, and the film was lost.
Until now. Since shooting ended, all of the footage from Clash of the Loyalties has since been collecting dust in Jorephani's garage in Surrey. A documentary airing on Channel 4 this weekend – Saddam Goes to Hollywood – has collated the rushes and gathered interviews with cast and crew in order to build a picture of why and how this peculiar project happened in the first place.
We spoke to the man who has been sitting on the film all these years, Lateif Jorephani, about his involvement with Clash of the Loyalties and his memories of making it. During our conversation Jorephani was somewhat defensive when discussing Saddam's actual involvement in the project, arguing that he had no day-to-day influence. Yet the production – a propaganda tool for a regime that was to become infamous – still stands as a peculiar relic of Britain and Iraq's tumultuous historical relationship.
VICE: How did you come to be involved with Clash of the Loyalties ?
Lateif Jorephani: I'm retired now, but I ran a film production company and we had many clients overseas who we provided technical and creative services for, including a lot of clients in the Middle East, in particular a film studio owned by the Iraqi government. At the end of the 1970s – about '79 – the country of Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein. With the increase of the oil price, quadrupling in some cases, these countries suddenly had more money than they knew what to do with. Part of the Iraqi leadership drive was to use this money to modernise the country, and they thought the arts should do its bit to build the country as well. This official government studio had already been working on Arabic projects for the Middle-Eastern market, but the new leadership said, "No, you need to go out into the world so that international film-makers come and make projects here."
So this client suddenly came to us and said, "We are going into the international film industry."
So you were tasked with turning Baghdad into Hollywood?
Well, we'd worked on a series of projects with them before, but eventually said, "Look fellas, if you want to get into the international business you need to a lot more money." Their entire budget wouldn't cover one actor from Hollywood. So they went to the government, who said, "If you need the budget, fine." From that point on we had the go-ahead to do whatever it took. Unfortunately, having started in the late 70s, we hadn't counted on a full war breaking out in the exact location where we were making a war film.
How was it working in war zone?
When the Iraq-Iran war started, the leadership and the people thought it would be a couple of weeks. The Iranians had a different idea. They were going to fight. So we started the film, and then this thing happened and we said, "Look, it is absolutely impossible." They agreed at first and we stopped, but then suddenly we had the instruction from our client to carry on. We asked how, and they said, "Whatever it takes." The leadership of Iraq wanted it to appear that things were going on – business as usual. From my point of view, when my client tells me, You've got a contract; carry on," I can't refuse. Then I'm in the middle of families who are asking for their husbands and dads back.
What other practical difficulties did the conflict present?
The practical difficulties of shooting in the middle of a war were huge. I had lorries leaving Shepperton studios full of war materials. They'd get as far as Turkey, who would say, "There is no way you are coming through." Customs officers would open lorries and see them full of guns, and the drivers who'd been driving for days would have to explain they were props that only fire blanks. It's very funny, really.
How closely involved was Saddam Hussein?
I've been in this business 60 years and never done interviews, but over the past couple of weeks I have done a few about this film and all anybody wants to talk about is Saddam Hussein! Saddam Hussein was the leader of the country and he was dictator and he said yes or no to everything.
But he was giving the go-ahead to decisions involved with the production?
Spending a lot of the country's money would have required him to say yes or no. But he was not a producer or anything like that. I need to make that clear.
Did he see a final cut of the movie?
Oh yes, and he loved it. Saddam Hussein was very interested in the arts. It wasn't a pet project, but it was part of his vision for his regime. He tried to infuse this into all areas of the country.
The other presence that looms very large throughout the film is Oliver Reed. He's described at one point during the documentary as "a weapon of mass destruction". How great of a challenge did working with him actually present?
Oliver Reed – good old Olly, God rest his soul. You've read enough about him, I'm sure. He went off on his off days, and when he was in the public eye. It's the same as the way that Kylie Minogue puts on a skimpy dress and shows her vital statistics; it's a way of being in the public eye. I've known actors all my life, and there are some who are professional, do their job and go home. They don't want to become a celebrity, and I admire that. Then, for some, like Olly Reed, celebrity is unpaid publicity. You act silly and everyone will write about you. Next time someone hires you, you can ask for more money. It's the same old story. As an actor he was absolutely brilliant. He would be such a nuisance at nights, but come morning he was on set, on time, word perfect. He would even tell the director what to do on occasion.
Why then, after such a notable production, has the film ended up lost to history?
On the 2nd of August, 1990, the world woke up and the Iraqi army had taken Kuwait in six hours. That was the Gulf War number 2. Then Iraq occupied Kuwait. On the same day, the UN issued a sanction which made it illegal to contact Iraq, send anything there or receive anything from them. This made it impossible to promote the film, despite it having appeared at so many major film festivals – London, Venice, Cannes. Those sanctions lasted all those years, up until the third Gulf War and the occupation of Iraq. Because of this I couldn't risk pursuing anything to do with the film.
Finally, was there any point throughout this wild process when you thought about cutting ties with the project?
Not really. You get infected with a kind of enthusiasm. Plus, British film technicians are incredible. Put them anywhere and they get on with it.
Saddam Goes to Hollywood is on Channel 4 on Sunday 24th July at 8PM
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