Susan King is the Hero Complex specialist on classic Hollywood, and today she looks back at the long history of American popcorn films set in the Middle East — and their complicated legacy.
Disneyand producer Jerry Bruckheimer are together again with the opening this Friday of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which represents the latest in a long Hollywood tradition of setting films of action, romance and fantasy in the long ago and far away of the Middle East. Let’s rub the magic lamp and venture back to look at the cinematic forebears of “Prince of Persia,” including two classic versions of “The Thief of Bagdad.”
Some of the films are charming, others are creaky and hopelessly cornball, but they can all be fascinating in their own way. They can also be startling in their demeaning and clumsy presentations of Middle Eastern cultures. Don’t look for diverse casting of leads either; with “Prince of Persia,” there’s been something of a dust-up over the casting of the title character (the film stars America’s own Jake Gyllenhaal, who is of Swedish and Jewish heritage), but for most of the 20th century, that sort of debate never came up.
If a film’s lead character was a minority, white actors would play the part. Supporting roles did go at times to actors of “exotic” heritage, such as Sabu, born in India, who plays Abu in the 1940 version of “Thief of Bagdad.” Prejudice was public in those days and Hollywood also could point to the anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage and even, at times, sex between two different races. Love scenes between stars of different races were strictly taboo on screen. Until the 1950s, most states enforced those laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that the laws were unconstitutional. Regardless, let’s get on with the movies.
“Ali Baba Goes To Town” (1937) — Popular comedian/singer Eddie Cantor headlined this comedy in which he plays Al Babson, a hobo who decides to go to Hollywood. He ends up on a film set where he signs on to be an extra. After Al falls asleep on the set, he dreams he’s in old Baghdad where he ends up introducing a version of Roosevelt’s New Deal to the Sultan and becomes prime minster.
“The Adventures of Hajii Baba” (1954) — John Derek, the handsome matinee idol who later married and made a star out of Bo Derek, plays the title role in this forgettable costume romance. Derek’s Baba leaves his father’s shop to seek fame and fortune, not knowing that his fate is intertwined with that of a beautiful princess (Elaine Stewart).
“Babes in Bagdad” (1952) — The tagline of this hoot-of-a-film was “1001 Adventures! 1001 Delights! The Arabian Nights Never Saw Sights Like This!” Paulette Goddard and famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee headline this musical comedy set in a harem. Even a young Christopher Lee shows up as a slave dealer.
“The Thief of Bagdad” (1924 and 1940) — The fanciful 1924 version directed by Raoul Walsh stars the athletically daring charmer Douglas Fairbanks as the title character, a thief named Ahmed who lives on the mean streets of Baghdad. He manages to steal a magical rope that allows the owner to climb up to the sky. Ahmed uses the rope to get into the Caliph’s palace, where he instantly becomes smitten with his beautiful daughter. Will he be able to win her heart? The film has includes a wonderful flying carpet, winged horses and amazing visual wizardry of production designer William Cameron Menzies.
The splendid 1940 Technicolor British version of “Thief” was produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan. Interestingly, Menzies was back as an uncredited director on the film. The film (which won Oscars for cinematography, special effects and art direction) began production in England but moved to Los Angeles after World War II broke out in Europe. Sabu plays the thief Abu and John Justin is the handsome Prince Ahmad who is overthrown by the evil Grand Vizier (Conrad Veidt). Both Ahmad and the Vizier have their eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter (June Duprez); the Vizier ends up blinding Ahmad and turning Abu into a dog. The film is filled with magical images including the flying carpet, a six-armed dervish, a mechanical horse and a terrific giant Genie (Rex Ingram) who grants Abu three wishes.
“Arabian Nights“ (1942) — Universal Studios hit paydirt in the war years with a series of lavishly fun Technicolor period fantasy adventures starring lanky, handsome Jon Hall and exotic Dominican-born actress Maria Montez, including this romp starring Hall as the caliph of Bagdad who must go into hiding with a traveling group of performers after his brother takes over the thrown. Montez plays the beautiful Scheherazade, who is the object of desire of both brothers.
“Bagdad“ (1949) — Redheaded Irish actress Maureen O’Hara was between classics (“Miracle on 34th Street” was released in 1947 and the “The Quiet Man” in 1952) as she starred in this tepid action movie that presented her as a Bedouin princess who returns home after being educated in England only to learn that her father has been killed by evildoers. She sets out to avenge her daddy’s death.
“Kismet“ (1944 and 1955) Based on the 1911 play by Edward Knoblock (and filmed previously in 1920 and in 1930), the Technicolor 1944 romantic adventure and the 1955 musical version takes place “when old Baghdad was new and shiny.” In the 1944 version, British actor Ronald Colman plays Hafiz, a delightful rogue who calls himself the Prince of the Beggars. Marlene Dietrich is the wife of the Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold); Joy Pages is Hafiz’s daughter and James Craig is the young Caliph who roams the streets of Baghdad disguised as a commoner in order to get to know his subjects. The 1955 version based on the 1953 Broadway musical adaptations features Howard Keel, Ann Blyth and Vic Damone and features such tunes as “Strangers in Paradise,” “Baubles, Bangles and Beads.” Vincente Minnelli directed.
“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves“ (1944) — Hall and Montez are back; this time around he plays the son of the Caliph of Baghdad who is raised by a group of thieves after his father is murdered by the soldiers of the enemy, Hugalu Khan. Ali Baba ends up becoming the leader of the thieves who are intent on bringing freedom to Persia. Montez plays Khan’s fiancée. Squeaky-voiced American comic Andy Devine is a bit hard to take as one of the 40 thieves.
— Susan King
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FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post implied that Baghdad was in Persia, now known as Iran. Baghdad is in Iraq.
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