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Khayyam with popcorn
Persian poet in the eyes of Hollywood

By Darius Kadivar
March 2, 2003
The Iranian

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Omar Khayaam, The Rubaiyat, Quatrain XI

Persian poet, philosopher and mathematician Omar Khayyam is probably the most famed of all Persian poets in the West, ever since Edward Fitzgerald translated the Rubaiyat in Victorian 19th century. This profoundly influenced the West's perception (or misperception) of Persia in the turn of the century. In fact as unusual as it may seem, one of the original manuscripts of the Rubaiyat was carried aboard the Titanic and was to dissapear with the doomed liner under the sea never to resurface again.

Very first 1859 publication of
Omar Khayyam's
Rubaiyat translated by Fitzgerald

The popularity of Khayyam's quatrains -- sold for one Pence as a pocket book -- was such that it was enjoyed not just by London's upper class, or only in cultural circles. In fact they became an international hit, including in the United States where Khayyam's poems became a symbol of earthly wisdom and celebration of epicurian life.

Many named their children "Omar". For example General "Omar" Nelson Bradley (1893-1981), known by his troops in World War II as "The Soldier's General" because of his care of and compassion for those under his comand. Or the 1930's Hollywood costume designer Omar Kiam.

Khayyam's tribute to wine was also used often to promote the virtues of alcoholic beverages. Thus Khayyam became a formidable merchandizing vehicle, cited in ads promoting all sorts of items ranging from Persian rugs, wine, and porcelain figurines. There were even restaurants named after him, like Omar Khayyam in Pittsburgh or Omar Khayyam in Fresno, California, established in 1932.

Royal Doulton figurine Omar Khayaam (HN 2247),
designed by M. Nicoll and issued between 1965 and 1983.

A number of artists put his poetry into musical form, including British Composer Hubert Bath's Omar Khayyam: Four Eastern Impressions for Piano.

Piano music composed by Hubert Bath (1883-1945)

In mid 1920's, Girl O' Mine was a song in a musical based on Omar Khayyam's poetry.

Musical with Omar Khayyam's poetry
(Larger image)

In 1931 a mystery-adventure series -- Omar - Wizard of Persia,13 episodes -- was broadcasted with a great deal of success on US national radio.

It is therefore not a surprise that Hollywood very soon discovered the potentials of a film on Khayyam's life and times. The Oriental touch of Khayyam's poetry, his glorification of the good life and the universal appeal of his poetry, made him attractive to movie goers thirsty for exotic romance and adventurer.

Omar the Tent-Maker (1922)
Shireen (Virginia Brown Faire) and Omar (Guy Bates Post)
(Larger image)

At least three silent films exist on Khayyam: A Lover's Oath (1922; released 1925), Omar the Tent Maker (1922), and Omar Khayyam (1924).

A Lover's Oath (also released under the title The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) was directed by Ferdinand Pinney Earle, starring Ramon Novarro as Ben Ali ,with co-stars Kathleen Key as Sherin, Edwin Stevens as Hassen Ben Sabbath, and Frederick Warde as Omar Khayyam.

Artistic backgrounds and trick photography were the draws in this romantic drama. As Ben Ali, Ramon Novarro practically disappears in the midst of all the camera work and set design, as does his co-star Kathleen Key.

Cast of A Lover's Oath
Right to left: Kathleen Key, Ramon Novarro,
Frederick Warde (as Omar Khayyam), Edwin Stevens
and Snitz Edwards in "A Lovers Oath" (1922 / released in 1925)

Ben Ali, the son of Omar (Frederick Warde), is engaged to Sherin (Key), but lusty old sheik Hassan Ben Sabbath (Edwin Stevens) wants Sherin for himself. Although Ben Ali gets the girl, Edwin Stevens walks off with the acting honors, and occasionally another actor's presence emerges memorably in the midst of all the fancy backgrounds and harems, most notably funny-faced character actor Snitz Edwards as Omar's servant.

This was Ramon Navarro's (known as Samaniego) first starring role. However, the film was initially without a distributor, and stayed hidden in a vault for three years until Navarro had become a full fledged star in Fred Niblo's 1926 Silent Epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ . By then, both the actor and the film had changed names.

Omar the Tentmaker directed by James Young and produced by Richard Walton Tully was one of the first attempts to adapt Khayyam's own "life story" to the silver screen. It was adapted from the stage play by Tully with mixed results. It shows Omar (Guy Bates Post, who also played the role on stage) as a student in love with Shireen (Virginia Brown Faire), the daughter of his teacher.

The couple marry in secret, but the Shah (Noah Beery) has heard of Shireen's beauty and carries her off to his native land. When she turns down his advances, she is imprisoned. Shireen gives birth while she is locked up and the Shah orders that both she and the baby girl be thrown off a cliff. They are saved, and the child is handed over to Omar, but Shireen is sold into slavery.

It takes 17 years for Omar and Shireen to be reunited. During that time, their daughter (played by Patsy Ruth Miller) grows up, and falls in love with a Christian slave. Do not expect to learn much about Omar Khayyam nor his poems in this Art Deco silent film, but it has the charm of its time.

Not much can be said either of Bryan Foy's Omar Khayham based on his screenplay starring Phil Dunham which basically follows the same plot as Omar the Tentmaker.

Life Loves and adventures of Omar KhayyamOmar Khayyam

When Frank Freeman Jr., son of the longtime head of Paramount Pictures, read Manuel Kamroff's novel, The Life, the Loves and the Adventures of Omar Khayyam, he is more than thrilled, and suggests screen writer Barry Lyndon to work on it immediately.

This was the 19050s. A research staff gather material from more than 300 books on 11th century Persian history, politics and art. The result is a mammoth screenplay of 1.5 million words which served as the backbone to a multi-million-dollar film with the most popular stars of the time: Cornel Wilde, Debra Paget, John Derek, Michael Rennie and Raymond Massey.

Filmed in Vista Vision technicolor the film depicts the life of Omar who appears as a soldier, poet and scientist. The exacting task of designing Medieval Persian costumes went to Ralph Jester, who already worked for most of Cecile B. DeMille's films such cas the Ten Commandments (1956) , and Samson and Delilah (1949). (Legend has it that actors had asked Jester to sew invisible pockets into the flowing robes so that they could carry lunch, money, cigarettes, car keys and hankerchiefs.)

In 1957, amidst great publicity and merchandizing (including poetry contests to win free tickets) Paramount released Life Loves and adventures of Omar KhayyamOmar Khayyam directed by William Dieterle.

Poster release of Omar Khayyam 1957
Larger image)


Eleventh Century Persia is beset with enemies . The Mighty Byzantine army threatens its border. At Court a band of fanatical murderers, The Assassins, plot to set up their own Shah. Eyeing the throne is also Prince Ahmud (Perry Lopez), vindicative, jealous offspring of the Shah's first Wife, Zarada (Margaret Hayes). Ahmud, hates handsom Prince Malik (John Derek), courageous son of the Shah and rightful heir to the throne.

Amid this scene of intrigue and treachury is Omar Khayyam (Cornel Wilde), adventurer, poet, astronomer and man of action. The shah ( Raymond Massey) appoints Omar as counselor to the court, a move which pleases the Shah's chief Minister Nizam (, who needs Omar's wisdom for guidance.

Nizam, Omar and the wealthy and fawning Hasani( Michael Rennie) are former schoolmates, intensly loyal to eachother. Knowing that Omar's beloved the beautiful Sharaine (Debra Paget ) is to become the Shah's fourth wife, Hasani brings Omar a pretty slave girl (Joan Taylor). The latter promises to be Omar's faithful servant, hoping to win his heart.

Omar Khayyam merchandizing
(Larger image)

The Byzantines thrust themselves across the border. Prince Malik earns the honor to go into battle with the Shah. By following Omar's scientific calculations, the Shah routs out the enemy with a surprise counterattack.

Through the slave girl, Omar has discovered the Assassin's seemingly invincible fortress. Strangely enough, he is welcomed by the Assassins and is shocked to discover that Hassani is their leader. Conveying the impression that the Assassins are winning him over their side, Omar covertly surveys the rock-hewn structure for means of destroying it.

Learning that the Shah and Malik have been wounded and half their forces wiped out, Prince Ahmud, who is in t league with the Assassins, rides with his army to cut off what is left of the Shah's forces.

Omar seeks out the Shah and prevails upon him to muster his remaining soldiers and attack the Assassins stronghold. Through Omar's knowledge of chemistry and geology, the forteress is destroyed and the Assassins defeated. The Shah dies of his wounds. Ahmud's and Malik's forces join in battle during which Ahmud is killed. Malik ascends the throne and Omar and Sharain find happiness together.

Although details of Khayyam's life are unknown, this movie invents one for him that include his real achievements - inventing a new calendar and of course penning poems. Thus the film provides us with a splendid cinematic introduction to Persia's greatest poet.

A contemporary artist's rendition of Omar Khayyam born
18th May 1048 in Nishapur, - 4 Dec 1131 in Nishapur, Persia

Khayyam appears as a compassionate and noble figure whose extraordinary literary talent and all-encompassing intellect displays no natural boundary. Khayyam is admirably portrayed as a fascinating personality. The casting of the movie is exceptional and we are treated to fine supporting performances by distinguished actors of the time such as as Michael Rennie as Hassan Sabbah (Hassani) and Sebastian Cabot as Nizam al-Mulk (Nizam) among others.

Omar Khayyam (Cornel Wilde, right) hardly suspects his
childhood friend Hassani (Michael Rennie, far right) of any
mischievous plans, as harem girl Yaffa (Joan Taylor) looks on

(Larger image)

Somehow Hollywood seems to have only retained Khayyam's celebration of wine by making Cornel Wilde play an often-drunk Omar who longs for his sweetheart whom the Shah (Raymond Massey) keeps in his harem as his third wife. Omar works in the Shah's court as a mathematician who is drawing up a new calendar. 

Omar Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) is in love with
the Shah's harem wife Sharain (Debra Paget)

The movie also attempts to explore key historical issues surrounding the life and times of Khayyam. We learn about the Byzantine Roman Empire's war with Persia involving an alliance composed of Bulgars, Greeks, Franks and Lombards. We also confront a number of other historical and scientific issues that are portrayed with an interesting admixture of detail and insight that seems to be unusual for such Hollywood productions.

Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) sitting to the right
of the throne becomes the Shah's
(Raymond Massey) military advisor

(Larger image)

Khayyam additionally provides us with a fascinating glimpse of the assassins, a sect known as the infamous "Hashashin" and led by Hasani (Michael Rennie). Also the film has Khayyam romancing with Sharain (Debra Paget) while foiling the sect's plot to kill the Shah's son Prince Malik (John Derek) (historically the future Malik Shah).

Prince Malik (John Derek) left finds in
Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) right a loyal protector

In his efforts to root out the assassins out of their extrodinary mountain fortress, Khayyam is led to cross swords with a sect whose members are deluded by their leader into thinking that they are in paradise when they are actually in a hashish-induced zombie state.

Thus Cornel Wilde as Khayyam appears as a remarkable military genius in addition to his poetic and scientific skills; while Nizam who historically was a political genius of his time, is reduced to a supporting role by Sebasien Cabot. Hassan Sabbah, portrayed by Michael Rennie, is a suave and calculating villain with deceiving good manners.

This leads us to conclude that Khayyam's portrayal in Dieterle's film is certainly highly exagerated, especially regarding Khayyam's military skills, and tends to reduce his poetry to the love af wine. The real Khayyam may have been more in phase with the the one depicted by Amin Maalouf in his bestselling novel Samarkand.

However the film can still be considered as a sincere, albeit highly romantized, tribute to Khayyam's genius very much in the style of other Hollywood movies such as The adventures of Marco Polo (1938) starring Gary Cooper, The Life of Louis Pasteur (1936) or The Life of Emile Zola (1937) starring Paul Muni -- the latter also directed by William Dieterle). Therefore Omar Khayyam is truly a joy to watch as a Technicolor spectacle and contains all the ingredients that make up an exciting Oriental tale.

Sharain (Debra Paget), Khayyam (Cornel Wilde)
and the Shah of Persia (Raymond Massey)
on video release poster of the 1957 film
(Larger image)

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

-- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, Quatrain VIII

* Printer friendly


Some films where Khayyam or his poetry are mentioned

Films quoting Khayyam's poetry:
, Duel in the Sun, and Pandora
(Larger image)

In Adrian Lyne's (Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks ) Unfaithful (2002), Diane Lane is a wayward wife and Richard Gere is her suspicious husband. Connie (Lane) leaves her suburban home on an errand, venturing into Manhattan during a wicked windstorm. On a trash-strewn Soho street, she literally runs into Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a handsome young Frenchman carrying a huge stack of books. Connie has a bad scrape on her knee, and is unable to get a cab, so Paul invites her up to his apartment. Paul is quietly flirtatious as he gives Connie some ice and a bandage for her knee. Connie phones home and explains to her son, Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan), that she's running late. Before she leaves, Paul gives her a book of Persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam ...

Kismet (1955) directed by Vincente Minnelli starring Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, Dolores Gray. This fourth film version of the warhorse Edward Knoblock theatrical piece "Kismet" was based on the Broadway musical version of the same property. Howard Keel stars as Hadji, the poet of old Baghdad, who goes from beggar to millionaire in a single day. Hadji's daughter Marsinah (Ann Blyth) falls in love with the young Caliph (Vic Damone), while Lalume (Dolores Gray), the sexy wife of the despotic Wazir (Sebastian Cabot ), sets her sights on Hadji. Meanwhile, the Wazir plots and plans to topple the Caliph from the throne and to add Marsinah to his own harem. Making periodic appearances is Omar Khayyam, played as a doddering old meddler by Monty Woolley.

Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951) directed by Albert Lewin was a film based on the legend of The Flying Dutchman.James Mason plays Henrick Van Der Zee (The Flying Dutchman), a man doomed to roam the seven seas for eternity, only being allowed to stop for six months every seven years to find someone who loves him enough to die for him. He meets Pandora, Played by Ava Gardner, who sees his ship in the harbour and swims out to it as her curiosity gets the better of her. The British version of the film ends with James Mason picking up a copy of The Rubaiyat and, with his beautiful northern English diction, reads:

The moving finger writes:
and having writ,
Moves on: Nor all thy piety
nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel
half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out
a word of it.

-- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, Quatrain XI

You can hear James Mason quote this verse here. You can hear James Mason quote. You will need real player.

The American version, however, omits this and substitutes a few phrases explaining the legend of the Flying Dutchman, almost as if American audiences were not accorded enough intelligence to appreciate the Rubaiyat quotation.

King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946) a dramatic love story set in the American West with Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Omar Khayyam is quoted towards the end of the film by Peck's character "Chavez" who tries to confort his daughter Pearl:

One thing is certain, and the rest is lies
The flower that once has bloomed, forever dies.

-- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, Quatrain LXIII

Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's work is also deeply influenced by a contemplative look on life which is reminescent of Persian poetry but also to a certain extent of Khayyam's philosophy expressed in the "Rubai'iats" . In the Wind will Carry us his film released in 1999 Kiarostami quotes Khayyam:

Some for the Glories of This World;
and some Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash,
and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

-- Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, Quatrain XIII

A verse initially censored by the Islamic authorities, who considered it subversive.


Cornel Wilde played Omar Khayyam. He was one of Hollywoods leading men in the 40's and 50's in such films as Forever Amber or Cecile B. DeMilles The Greatest Show on Earth with co-star Charlton Heston. and appeared as Alladin in Alfred E. Green's 1945 film One Thousand and One Nights.

Debra Paget is Sharain. Paget was one of Elvis Presley's sweethearts and a co-star in Love me Tender . She often appeared in adventure films in the mid and late 50's.

John Derek is Malik (Malik Shah). Better known as Bo-Derek's husband and director, he nevertheless made memorable appearances in such films as Cécile B. DeMilles Ten Commandements 1956 and three years prior to the film on "Omar Khayyam" he took on the role of another "Persian hero" Hadji Baba in The Adventures of Hadji Baba (1954) directed by Don Weis.

Paul Picerni who co-starred with John Derek in The Adventures of Hadji Baba (1954) also makes a small appearance in this movie cast as a Persian Commander, most of you who liked the tv series "The Untouchables" will certainly recognize Eliot Ness' side kick

Michael Rennie portrays a suave Hassani (Hassan Sabbah) and is certainly the actor who is best remembered for his role as an Outer Space Alien in The Day the World stood Still (1951).

Raymond Massey is the Shah ( Alp Arslan ) and is no other than one of the lead characters in the famous "Bank Carlaid" series of the 60's and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) with Cary Grant. He also appeared as President Roosevelt in the successful tv series Winds of War starring Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw , and many who used to follow the series "Bankeh Karlaid" (Persian title) a Dynasy or Dallas type tv vehical of the late Sixties will probably remember the Old Patriarch who played along with George Hamilton.

Yma Sumac is Karina. She is the musical presence of the film. The five-octave queen of exotica, Sumac began performing on radio in Peru in her early teens. Bandleader and composer Moises Vivianco discovered her and began promoting her throughout South America. In 1947, Vivianco and Sumac married and moved to New York City. She performed with Vivianco's combo, Conjunto Folklorica Peruano, until she was contracted by Capitol Records in 1950. Sumac made a series of records on the Capitol Records label mostly singing exotic Hollywood versions of Incan and South American folk songs. The combination of Sumac's extraordinary voice, her exotic, mysterious looks, and her stage personality made her a great hit for American audiences. During the height of her popularity, she appeared in the films "Secret of the Incas" and "Omar Khayam". Sumac has remained mostly out of the limelight since the late 1950s, performing intermittently. She did record a complete album, "Miracles," a Rock "tour de force" in 1971, as well as one cut on Hal Wilner's tribute to Disney music, "Stay Awake," in 1991. Visit her official website at

On the Music Score

The music score of this film Life Loves and adventures of Omar KhayyamOmar Khayyam (1957) was composed by Victor Young with Lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, with "The Loves of Omar Khayyam", "Take My Heart", and "Tell My Love" performed by Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who also features in the film.

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By Darius Kadivar




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