Based on an amazing true story, Born A King focuses on the diplomatic mission led by the thirteen year old Prince Faisal of the House of Saud to London in 1919. Through the eyes of a young prince from the desert it captures the human experiences and emotions involved in high-level diplomacy and power games that have helped shape the modern world.
A visually stunning film, Born A King is well cast and sensitively acted and directed. It offers a glimpse of a pristine, premodern Arabia and a window into key events that led to the redrawing of the Middle Eastern map at the beginning of the 20th century. It is set in Arabia and London before and after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes after centuries of ruling the Islamic world. The Ottoman Empire’s collapse was in part due to the 1916 Arab revolt, led by the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, and fanned and abetted by the British, with Laurence of Arabia playing an instrumental role.
This film offers a counter-narrative to the well-known one portrayed in the epic film of Laurence of Arabia, viewing events from the perspective of the House of Saud, trying to balance challenges to their rule from Sharif Hussein in Mecca, the Ottoman backed House of Rashid and the manipulation of events and power plays of the British in the region at the time. Laurence championed Sharif Hussein, promising the creation of a unified and independent Arab state, a promise that would not be honoured: after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East was partitioned into mandate territories by the British and French colonial powers.
Born A King depicts the events surrounding the 1919 diplomatic mission to London of a thirteen year old prince from the Arabian desert, who was later to become the influential King Faisal bin Abdalaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On the sea voyage to England the prince falls ill with malaria and it is uncertain whether he will make it through.
In a flashback to his childhood we see him watching his older brothers practicing fighting. He is eager to fight like his brothers and win the approval of his father, but his charismatic warrior brother Turki tells him “Power shouldn’t be used to wage war and kill others. It should be used to protect our people. True power lies in keeping your sword sheathed.” His brother Turki then leads him up to the tower of a fortress, as they sing verses of the poet Imru-l Qays, and he releases a hawk that soars over a pre-modern Arabia that is a mosaic of palm trees, camels and turreted traditional buildings made of baked clay.
The explorer St John Philby, put in charge of the British Political Mission to Central Arabia in 1917-18, and crossing Arabia from ‘Uqayr to Jeddah, becomes convinced that their father Emir Abdulaziz, and not Sharif Hussein, backed by Laurence, would be the best ruler for the region. He convinces Emir Abdulaziz that he must send a diplomatic mission to Britain, which Faisal is chosen to go on, despite his tender age, as his father is concerned if he goes himself his lands will be attacked by enemies.
Seen as a child in London, Faisal struggles to be taken seriously and received as a diplomat. Tasked with persuading the British to adopt a policy of non-interference, through Philby’s support and his friendship with Princess Mary, he battles colonial mindsets, navigating the upper echelons of British society and the machinations of the colonial powers in the Middle East.
Sensitively and artistically directed by Agustí Villaronga, Born A King boasts outstanding performances from the Saudi Arabian actors cast in the main roles, Abdullah Ali playing Prince Faisal, and Rawkan Binbella playing his father Emir Abdulaziz. Notable supporting roles are played by Ed Skrein as Philby and Hermione Corfield as Princess Mary. The movie is masterfully filmed, with beautiful desert landscapes, atmospheric scenes in the British corridors of power and well-choreographed battle scenes, giving a cinematic and evocative depiction of the period.
Four years in the making, Born A King is a missing puzzle piece in the story of the modern world, giving a fresh perspective on formative events that carved the landscape of the modern Middle East, and offering insight into the underpinnings of its current instability. The sons of Sharif Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah, went on to become the rulers of Iraq and Transjordan in 1921, while Emir Abdulaziz, Faisal’s father, defeated Sharif Hussein in Mecca in 1925, to become the ruler of Arabia. Through the eyes of an Arabian prince, Born A King brings the founding story of Saudi Arabia to life, making the experiences and emotions of Faisal’s extraordinary journey to Europe as a teenager vivid and relatable.