The old reels of 16-millimeter film give off the sour, tangy smell of vinegar. These rusty film cans and little curlicues of movie clippings were hauled out of South Arabia more than 60 years ago, and some of them haven’t been watched since. Now they fill a storage room of the Smithsonian Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with the distinctive odor of decaying acetate. The first reel has just been digitized, and it’s playing on a nearby computer screen now.
The moonscape of the Yemeni desert scrolls by. There are close-ups of toiling camels, and huge, quarrelsome spiders, and regal dancing girls, their hair dipped in camel urine to keep it smooth. Archaeologists with sunburned necks whisk away at hunks of limestone.
And then a skinny, rather pale figure appears on-screen in aviator shades and a red-and-white headdress, a pair of pearl-handled Colt pistols by his side. He looks rough and dashing—and also a bit like a boy playing dress up.
“That’s Wendell! He’s drawing his .45! Fantastic!” shouts Rocky Korr, a retired collections manager who remains the museum’s reigning expert on the mid-century explorer Wendell Phillips. Korr, like me, is witnessing these scenes for the first time. “No one has seen this. No one has seen this. Oh, fabulous— now he’s shooting!”
A hapless can of peaches hops around in the sand as Phillips sprays bullets, but it’s a little unclear what he is aiming for. He styled himself a steely-eyed gunslinger, bragging that his personally engraved six-shooters were his “most valuable insurance policy.” Yet he seems to have used them mostly to intimidate the giant spiders, and to entertain the Bedouin locals. And of course, Colt was one of his expedition’s sponsors.
It’s difficult to overstate how famous Phillips was in the 1940s and ’50s, when—at the tender age of 26, with no credentials, training or connections—he organized a series of daring and extravagant archaeological quests in Africa and the Middle East, culminating in Yemen, where he led the first-ever American dig to a nearly disastrous end. Upon his return to America, Phillips was named one of the Top Ten Young Men of 1954, alongside Chuck Yeager and Robert Kennedy, and Lowell Thomas heralded him as “America’s Lawrence of Arabia.”
Rumors have even circulated that Phillips could have provided an inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. He once described being served a dish of eyeballs in a sultan’s palace while getting fanned by palm fronds. He staffed his expeditions with beautiful women, including a truck driver with “the figure of a mannequin” and a 19-year-old secretary so attractive that he feared she would be annexed into a local harem. He talked of discovering buried treasure and pledged to find traces of the Queen of Sheba. Indeed, he brought his own movie cameras into the desert, took countless publicity pictures, held international press conferences and telegrammed President Truman, all in between visits to his mom.
Hollywood flourishes aside, Phillips also delivered the goods, gathering over several field seasons what’s still considered to be one of the finest and most coherent collections of ancient Yemeni artifacts outside of South Arabia, housed partially in the Smithsonian. The collection’s scholarly significance has only increased in recent years, as excavation work in Yemen is at a standstill due to the country’s civil war and intensifying humanitarian crisis.
All of which makes it fascinating that this extremely memorable, manically accomplished man, who was born almost penniless but was rumored to be one of the wealthiest Americans when he died in 1975, has by now been all but forgotten. Today his archaeological colleagues are mostly gone, and Phillips left no children—his closest living relative is his younger sister, who still controls much of his collection.