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Raiders of black gold
Hollywood and oil

By Darius Kadivar
May 29, 2003
The Iranian

Fools, bureaucratic fools. They don't
know what they've got there...
Indiana Jones in final scene of
Raiders of the Lost Ark

The end of the Second World War was to lead to a division of Europe as defined during the Yalta Conference between the new emerging super powers, that is the United States and the Soviet Union. Old Europe and its Colonial Empires were no more but a heteroclite set of nations in ruins.

The end of Nazism raised great hopes, for a more peaceful Europe, unfortunatley political differences between the two superpowers soon turned the former allies into foes. Indeed the Berlin blocade by the Soviets in 1948, which was lifted after 462 days, was to lead to the construction the infamous Berlin Wall, symbol of what the ever visionary Winston Churchill justly called an Iron Curtain, seperating East and West.

When the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb, shortly after the WWII, it triggered a new era of unpredecedant competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for technological superiority. While both avoided direct nuclear conflict that would have certainly put an end to humanity, the rivalry nevertheless led to the Cold War, which truly ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall a concrete result of Michael Gorbatchev's Glasnost.

Naturally cinema and hollywood films in particular were to exploit this opposition between two radically different views of how the world should be run. It led to screen adaptations of John Le Carré and the "Man who came from the Cold" Starring Richard Burton or more exotic interpretations as in Ian Flemings popular James Bond vehicles.

Despite the term "Cold War", many conventional conflicts were actually taking place in Africa, South America or the Middle East through guerrilla movements sponsored by Americans or the Soviets, leading to coups as in Iran, or revolutions in places like Cuba or political assassinations as that of Chile's Salvadore Allende.

Pinochet's Chili and Castro's Cuba were to become the emblematic extreme examples of the type of regimes installed due to this duality between capitalism and communism. Greek filmaker Costa Gavras, with the help of the French actor Singer Yves Montand and his wife Simone Signoret, were to be in the forefront of political activism in favor of Human Rights and Democracy throughout the 60's and 70's, illustrated in a number of films such as "Z" which takes place during Greek military rule and "The confession" L'Aveu set in Communist Prague.

"The Confession" and "Z", two of several films directed by Costa Gavras with actor, singer and Human Rights activist Yves Montand, equally denouncing both Left and Right wing dictatorships.

Unlike the negative connotation given to Hollywood by many experts, particualrily Liberals, who see Imperialism in Hollywood commercial success, it should be noted that few movies could truly be accused of propaganda.

Yes John Wayne's "Green Berets" (1968), a pre-Vietnam movie, was to make headlines as a propaganda defending US intervention in Vietnam. It was brought down in the press, and even "Duke" was to regret to have starred in the movie, despite his reputation as a staunch conservative.

Naturally many films depicting America's positive role during the Second World War were often all-star vehicles. The audience could relate to the major characters, and the Americans most often came across as the heroes of the day.

Nevertheless and one has to give Hollywood credit (if we set aside Sylvestor Stallone or Schwartzenegar films of the 1980's). The heroes are not super heroes. Even if America as a nation comes across as a safe country, it is not without flaws.

Also, since the end of Macarthyism, Hollywood movies have actually contributed in denouncing political abuses among American politicians, and in alerting public opinion on the lack of Democracy and Human Rights in many countries, including allies, such as in Costa Gavras "Missing", which takes place in Chili when critics of the regime vanished during Pinochet's rule.

Alan J. Pakula's "All the Presidents Men" was to thrust Robert Redford as another political activist in Hollywood (thus joining his pal from "Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid", Paul Newman). The film, co-produced by Redford, and co-starred by Dustin Hoffman, describes investigations led by two ambitious journalists of the Washington Post, whose revelations on the Watergate scandal was to set the stage for President Richard Nixon's eventual resignation.

"All the Presidents Men" was also to have some consenquences on Americas foreign Policy. From then on Democrats were to be in the forefront of the struggle for Human Rights which culminated in Jimmy Carter's election in 1976.

Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" was one of the major political movies of the mid seventies released shortly after the Watergate scandal. It remains an exciting film portrayed with talent by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

In the Middle East two major events were to have their share of influence in shaping the future of the region. The first being the creation of the Israel in 1948, seen as a necessity by the Jewish Diaspora after the horrors of the Hollocaust. The second event was the emergence on the political scene of Arab Nationalism with the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, which ironically also was to confirm the end of the colonial powers political supremacy.

Top Left, David Lean's classic on the British spy hero "Lawrence of Arabia" starring Peter O'Toole. Right, Cecile B. Demille photographed by Yul Brynner fully dressed as the Pharaoh. Yul Brynner photographed on the set of the 1956 epic shot on location in Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

It was in July of that year that the Egyptian president Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez at Mansheya Square in Alexandria in front of a cheering crowd. His decision was in response to the British, French, and American refusal for a loan aimed at building the Aswan high dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the high dam project. The announcement triggered a swift reaction by Great Britain, France, and Israel, who all invaded Egypt less than two months later.

For anecdote, Cecile B. Demille's epic "The Ten Commandments" was shot amidst the Suez conflict, and with the help of the Egyptian Government. The charioteer of Yul Brynner, cast as the Pharaoh, was actually an Egyptian officer in Nasser's Army, Abbas El Boughdadly. And Egyptian workers contributed to help build the sets.

This did not go without its share of difficulties since the crew had to stop work five times a day for ritual Muslim prayers. And one particular scene where Moses (Charlton Heston) was to lead his people to the Holy Land of Israel, was also shot several times to De Milles dissatisfaction, including one at noon when the sun was at its zenith. That gave him a heart attack, from which he survived, but production had to be cancelled for some time.

A few years later British filmaker David Lean was to direct another classic with Peter O'Toole in what was to be a lifetime achievement that is "Lawrence of Arabia". The 1962 epic tells the story of a British spy hero who wanted to unite the Arab tribes into one single nation but whose noble goals fell short because of political interests among Arab and British leaders.

A funny anecdote: Peter O'Toole was to give a very strong performance but was directed by a very demanding director. Many close-ups were required showing O'Tool's eyes staring at the desert while sand was getting into his eyes, he was to have his eyes regularily washed with a pharmaceutical liquid.

Also, having suffered from riding on sadles made of hard wood and leather, O'Toole shouted at his director, "Listen David, this is a bloody Irish Arse ... Not that of a hard trained Bedouine." Omar Sharif, who was acting in his first big movie, chuckled discretely. Finally O'Toole put a cushion on the saddle for more comfort.

Film legend has it that King Hussein of Jordan who was visiting the set at Petra, found the cushion to be a brilliant idea and since then, the Jordanian Mounted Cavalry is equipped with the same saddles.

Top, left to right : Movies on the creation of Israel. Otto Preminger's film "Exodus" based on Leon Uris's novel with Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas, co-starring with Yul Brynner, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra in "Cast a Giant Shadow". TV film "Victory at Entebbe". Below, "Black Sunday" with Marthe Keller as a Palestinian terrorist plans a terrorist attack during the Super Bowl.

It was in this particular context that a number of films dealing with the creation of Israel and its struggle to survive were to strongly support the Israeli cause. This was the case for "Exodus" and "Cast A Giant Shadow".

Based on a novel by Leon Uris, Exodus, is the name of the ship filled with Jewish immigrants bound for Israel who are being off loaded on Cyprus. An intelligence officer, Paul Newman, succeeds in getting them back on board and through a subterfuge manages to lead them into bringing the ship to Israel.

The second part of the film concerns the Arab Israeli conflict. The film takes the side of Israels' right to exist but also denounces Jewish terrorist groups and their fanatical anti-Arab position. The film also makes us understand the harsh realities of the Jewish Holocaust that led so many Jews out of Europe with the hope for a better and more dignified future.

"Cast a Giant Shadow" is also an all-star cast. It is about an American army officer recruited by the yet to exist State of Israel to help it form an army. It is a good film with an always excellent Kirk Douglas and a supporting cast of celebrities of the time, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and Frank Sinatra, among others.

Films in the 1960's had some form of epic quality. They focused on individual lives of the protagonists, but set in a well known historical context. The came the 1970's when Hollywood launched a series of films much more in phase with the realism of TV news and headlines.

The escalation of violence in many movies (Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" series or Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" being extreme examples) was often a pretext to an extraordinary final scene that would sum up the rest.

While serving as a catharsis for many unfounded fears, they were probably also terribly misguiding, banalizing real problems and contributing more to general paranoia than anything else. Nevertheless a number of tragic events that took place in those years explains the particualrily violent content of many films to come.

The late Sixties and Seventies were indeed inflicted by terrost attacks, carried out by groups such as the Red Brigade, as well as the infamous Carlos, who took OPEC representatives (including Jamshid Amouzegar) hostage, or the PLO's Black September faction who cold bloodedly assassinated a group of Israeli athletes, on September 5, 1972, during the Olympic games in Munich.

"Victory at Entebbe" (1976) was a TV movie based on the true story of an Air France flight hijacked by Palestinians. We follow the action both with the hostages as they cope with confinement and threatened death, and the Israeli cabinet and military that must try to get them out. The cast of well known stars Burt Lancaster(Shimon Peres), Anthony Hopkins (Yitshak Rabin), Elizabeth Taylor, Linda Blair, Helen Hayes, Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harris Yulin, among others.

One cannot rate this as a good movie, despite some good performances. It follows a trend in American television to immediately make a film based on real tragic events and one cannot help think that the film was merely a pretext for the stars to make a fast buck.

John Frankenheimer's extremely violent "Black Sunday" (1977) stars Marthe Keller as a Palestinian terrorist masterminding an attack during the Super Bowl Games with the help of a deranged Vietnam vet played by Bruce Dern.

One can only wonder whether these disaster films of the Seventies contributed to giving bad ideas to Bin Ladens of today. Nevertheless, in the case of September 11th, reality certainly surpassed fiction in the most tragic way.

Amidst the Arab Israeli conflict, Iran and Saudi Arabia were to emerge as major exporters of oil to Western economies. Forming OPEC with other oil producing countries, both Iran and Arab states were often cursed by Western press.

Images of overwhelming wealth of Saudi Emirs in deserts transformed into luxiourious resorts, were often confounded with genuine efforts in modernization done in Iran, which did not only concern a privaledged few, even if it did have the mixed social and economic consenquences that led to the revolution of 1979.

Naturally America's commitment towards Israel and the concern of keeping the oil producing countries in their sphere of influence both for strategic and economic reasons encouraged support of the regimes in power.

The nationalization of Iranian oil, by Mohammad Mossadegh, was the very first lawsuit presented at the United Nations and the Iranian Prime Minister who was also a lawyer defended and won his case against the British Government, who had the monopoly on Iranian Oil.

The Shah of Iran, quite popular as a Constitutional Monarch, who had reigned but not ruled for 12 years, was to become a central figure in the years that followed. Political instability, the threat of Soviet infiltration through the communist Tudeh Party, and the unpredictable nature of the Iranian Prime Minister, who forced the Shah and his family to a short lived exile in Italy, was to convince the Americans to forment a Coup in 1953 by reinstalling the monarch on the Peacock Throne.

From then on a great deal of attention was drawn towards the Shah as a major political ally in the Middle-East and as an important leader on the international political scene after the Oil Boom of the Seventies. The particularily powerful position of the young monarch was to inspire a number of novelists and filmakers who were to question the Persian King's real motives and intentions regarding the West, which was deeply dependent on oil.

The Shah's regime was also being a subject of scrutiny and debate among Left-wing intellectuals and Liberals inside and outside Iran. Already back in the 60's a West-German anarchist group "Extra-Parliamentary" was led by an East German sociology student, Rudi Dutschke, which rejected all organized forms of government were to create an incident meant to embarrass the West German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger who was hosting the Iranian Royal couple on a visit to Berlin.

The same group pelted US Vice President Hubert Humphrey with stones and bottles when he visited the city a month earlier. But things really boiled over when the Shah arrived a few weeks later in May 1967. As the Royal Couple Entered the Opera House of Berlin, the West-German police was faced with a barrage of tomatoes, eggs, bottles and cartons of milk.

Soon the police started shooting which led to the unfortunate death of a German student Benno Ohnesorg .His death created a new martyr for the extreme left and more demonstrations and rioting were to accompany his funeral, leading to a mini post-May 68 throughout West-Germany. (See BBC article Full circle for German revolutionaries)

Such demonstrations were common among youth since the begining of the Cold War and the Shah's presence in Berlin was only used as a pretext by radical students to express their contempt with the "Consumption Society" in general.

The events of May '68 in France which led John Lennon to compose "Revolution" as well as the incidents in American Campus' were to confirm a general "malaise" among the youth in Western Democracies.

The German Spring Student Revolt was triggered by the death of a German Student (down right ) during demonstration in West Berlin against the Imperial Couples State visit in May 1967. "SHAH OF IRAN: Revolution from the Top?" June 26, 1961 issue of Newsweek magazine takes a look at the Shah's White Revolution.

Despite excellent relations with the West, speculations on the Shah's regime were to continue particularily in Leftist circles. This was partially paradoxal given the fact that despite Iran's staunch anti-communist stand, the Shah's regime maintained good diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and some Societ satellite nations and leaders, such as Erich Honecker's East Germany, or non-aligned nations of the Eastern bloc (at the time regarded as moderate regimes including by Western democracies), like Tito's Yougoslavia, or Chauechescu's Romania.

Aware of the fact that this social "malaise" was also touching Iranian youth, on Empress Farah's initiative the Institute for a Dialogue among Civilizations was created in Tehran, with the help of Islamic philosopher Hossein Nasr and France's respected historian Henry Corbin.

They consulted and were open to suggestions made by various intellectuals including some from diametrically opposite political spheres such as French Communist Party intellectual Roger Garaudy. The latter was to show his recognition by converting to Islam shortly after Khomeini's triumph in 1979 and by becoming a fervent supporter of the Islamic Republic.

As a major oil producing country, Iran had the double advantage of exporting refined oil, contrary to many of its neighbours, thanks to the world's largest oil refinery constructed in Abadan, and for its strategic importance in the Persian Gulf from where all Middle-Eastern oil exports to the West had to cross through the Hormuz Straits controlled by the Iranian Navy.

On November 30, 1971, in a joint operation baptised "Bazsetani" ("Retrieval"), between different units of the Imperial Navy led by Admirals Rasai on flag ship Artemis, and the Imperial Iranian Marine Commandos, commanded by Admiral Habibollahi and Prince Chahriar Chafik, were to successfully take hold of the three strategically important Islands of Tonb (Greater and Small) and Abu Musa with little human and material casualties thus putting an end to what Iran considered as sixty-eight years of Anglo-Qassimi usurpation of these Islands at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

The military operation was audacious, yet diplomatically risky for it took place shortly after the Shah had commemorated 2,500 years of Iranian Monarchy with great pomp at Persepolis earlier in October to which the vast majority of the Worlds Heads of State, Kings and Queens were conveyed. The United States endorsed the action, and Great Britain which recently had put an end to its protectorate, chose to ignore the takeover.

With the success of this operation, the Shah was soon to be known as "gendarme" of the Persian Gulf or the "Emperor of Oil", envied as such by many of Iran's neighbouring leaders and particularily by Saddam Hussein who was to attack Iran after the Shah's downfall.

The Shah was both a subject of admiration and envy in the Western media. He was to admit that using Oil as a weapon was a double-edged sword that could easily be turned against the person who would use it first, this was related in a French TV interview with Journaliste Léon Zitrone in the Mid-Seventies.

However by then Iran was seriously being considered by some diplomats and Western leaders as the "5th World Power" (probably an exagerated assessment), mainly because of Iran's oil revenues which was contributing to the country's rapid economic development and also enabling it to modernize its army which was equipped with the latest and most sophiticated conventional arms of its time and which was purchased mainly from the United States and Europe.

Since the fall of Mossadegh in 1953, Iran had adopted a policy often referred to as a "Positive Nationalism" as opposed to an Orthodox Nationalist approach quite popular in Third World countries as in Nasser's Egypt, which systematically opposed the presence of Western foreign powers on its soil, and often led to close ties with the Soviet Union or Cuba.

This "Positive Nationalism", based on friendly and constructive cooperation with economic partners of the time, accelerated the modernization process of Iran which was to reach its peak by not without its side effects and shortcomings.

A heavy centralized bureaucracy, lack of political freedom and imprisonment of political opponents ( Although alerted by reports by Human Rights Organizations on the deteriorating situation of political prisoners in Iran the Shah allowed by the mid seventies the International Red Cross to visit the prisons.

Nevertheless cases of physical torture and moral intimidation by the SAVAK the Secret Police of the Imperial Regime were regularily reported and denounced by Amnesty International) and lack of political pluralism.

The creation of the Rastakhiz Party in the Mid-Seventies put an end to the dual political representation in parliament, frustrated the intelligencia composed of genuine Democrats like Shapour Bakhtiar, some radicals, political activists and some prominent writers. Meanwhile there was an important rural exode towards urbanized cities over the years, because priority was given to Industrial development and less to Agriculture.

Yet Iran's achievements in the fields of Education, Health (creation of hospitals, training doctors and medical services and fighting major mortality causes linked to diseases like Cholera, or generalizing vaccination against Polio, also the Empress was to lead a personal campaign fighting Leprosy and making sure that those afflicted would be accepted socially) and social services, cultural openness, and social emancipation of Woman (Iranian woman could attend school as early as the 1930's and formed associations as early as the 1940's. For a source of comparison, in France woman got the right to vote only in 1944), were remarkable for a "Third World" country (a denomination often taken for as an insult by the Shah and many Iranians at the time) and were also to serve as an example to Ali Bhutto's Pakistan, neighbouring Afghanistan or India with whome Iran had close diplomatic and economic relations.

In addition to being labeled by the West as an "outstanding economic performer" with record earnings and revenues, Iran was also bringing its help to developping countries and the West. It was also partly thanks to Iran's foreign policy that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was to distant Egypt from Soviet influence and join the Western Camp, thus leading Egypt and Israel towards the Camp David Peace Accords (1977).

This also had its share of influence in the distribution of Egyptian films in Iran and the participation of Iranian films in Egyptian film festivals. Indeed, during Col. Nasser's rule and particularily since the Suez Conflict of 1956, some Egyptian films and movie festivals were boycotted by the Iranian government , and coud not be shown in Iranian movie theaters. This was not the case for "Om Koulthum, the famed Egyptian diva whose incomparable voice was to inspire many Iranian singers such as Haeideh.

"We are exporting oil today, but soon Iran will be selling pharmaceuticals to the West," boasted the Shah in several interviews he gave to the Western press. Juicy contracts were being signed in various sectors of the industry, and aware of the expiration of oil ressources, the Shah was also to fund a Nuclear Research Program "Eurodif" in 1974 with French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing. The Shah expressed his intention to purchase from France, 5 nuclear plants. He also stated that France would become a provider of uranium for Iran.

The Shah's self -onfidence in his own policy and vision for Iran was to irritate a number of foreign journalists like Italian Feminist Oriana Fallaci, or on the contrary, impress others like in the case of David Frost, and Barbara Walters who interviewed him on a number of occasions.

However a number of undiplomatic comments by the Shah, in the Mid-Seventies on the shortcomings of Western Democracies, as well as on the role of Woman in Society, his mysticism (the Shah was a sincere believer and would remind this in most of his interviews. However Oriana Fallaci was to admit that he could on one hand talk to you as a devout Muslim, and easily jump to a conversation on economics and handle figures better than anyone in his place), were to hurt his image as a trustworthy Ally of the West, and a progressive Muslim Leader which retrospectively he certainly was in many aspects.

This negative image was reinforced in the Western media in general especially after the Oil Boom of 1973, when Iran had the upper hand on OPEC's oil prices, and as Iranian journalist and writer Amir Taheri suggests, in his biography "Unknown life of the Shah".

The Persian Emperor was soon to be branded as an "OPEC Hawk", (sharing this title with Saudi Arabia's Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani) and concern over his regime's nature, especially regarding Human Rights, which was also subject to critisizm in even in the popular press, which in the past were mostly flattering "The loyal friend of the West", leading some novelists like Gérard de Villiers or Paul Emil Erdman to exploit this often with talent as a thorn in the Shah's personality often jugded as a megalomaniac and led to critisizm of his powerful position as well as raise questions on his true intentions regarding the West. De Villiers had already written a thriller "SAS Contre CIA" in 1965 about a plot by CIA defectors to assassinate the Shah with the intention of replacing him by someone dedicated to their cause.

An international crisis amidst Cold War paranoia involving the possibilities of a Soviet invasion of Iran, leads SAS agent "Malko" to investigate on the scandal and save the day. De Villiers was to reiterate in the mid-Seventies with "The Imperial Shah: An Informal Biography". Although inspired and well informed, with such precise allusions as to Khomeini's 1963 revolt, or General Teymour Bakhtiar's conspiracies against the monarch, the book made the Shah appear as an enigmatic oriental ruler with obscure ambitions.

Many pictures in the book tend to give an unflattering image showing the Shah with his thick sun-glasses, leaving his limousine in haste to an undefined destination surrounded by SAVAK agents. These pictures were often taken by Paparrazzis who could not expect, no more than the US administration or the CIA, that the Shah's regular private visits to France or Austria were actually for medical treatment and prognosis of a cancer which was in its early stages and would prove fatal in the years that followed.

Another book on the Shah, however this time a political fiction thriller, was to have such an unexpected international success, that some Hollywood studios were seriously thinking of adapting it to the screen. The novel written by Paul E. Erdman was published in 1974, shortly after the Oil crisis of '73 under the title "The Coming Oil War: How the Shah Will Win the World" . But it was to earn fame in 1976 under the prophetic title of "Crash of '79".

Erdman draws a false picture of the Shah and a highly exagerated interpretation of his ambitions, as a megalomaniac despot whose true goal, behind his pro-American policy, is World Domination thanks to oil boycotts and the purchase of nuclear technology. Not only was the book to become an International Bestseller, worse it was soon to be used as a propaganda tool against the Imperial Regime by Islamic Revolutionaries and the book could be found undercover and distributed along with the Ayatollah's "Green Book".

As a matter of fact this novel also inspired revolutionaries in the early months of the revolution who distribued cassets in which an often badly imitated Shah's voice was heard ordering to his officers and ministers to shoot on the people. These tapes were not taken seriously in urban cities, like Tehran or Shiraz, but had a great impact in villages where they were widely distributed among a less educated or less well off population.

Ever since the Nationalization of Iranian Oil by Mossadegh, and despite the CIA-aided coup in 1953, the country's "Black Gold" and its exploitations had finally come under the entire control of the Iranian government and ended the monopoly of British Petroleum on the country's major natural ressource. Although supported by the US, the Shah was to face opposition among a number of major Western oil companies known as the "Seven Sisters".

In 1954 a new agreement was signed between the Government of Iran and NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company) on one hand, and a consortium of British, Dutch, American and French companies on the other. Under this agreement, two operating companies were formed; one to explore and produce oil and natural gas, and the other to refine part of this oil at Abadan Refinery on behalf of NIOC.

But in the early Sixties the Shah and Italian Oil tycoon Enrico Mattei risked the combined wrath of the major international oil companies when the two signed a highly advantageous agreement for Iran, in which the Italian bussinessman offered to exploit new oil fields, leaving more than sixty percent of the benefits to Iran.

Thanks partly to this agreement Iran was to become the major and only exporter of refined oil and its oil revenues in 1975 were $18.6 billion, up from $4.4 billion in 1973. However in 1962 shortly after signing this agreement, Mattei was killed in a plane crash, the exact circumstances of which were to remain mysterious.

Left "IL Caso Matthei" (aka "The Mattei Affair") Enrico Mattei the Italian tycoon played by Gian Maria Volonte (Top ), in the 1971 film directed by Francesco Rosi. Insert the real Mattei and the Shah. Right, American Poster Release of Film "The Mattei Affair", (Top Right, Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlavi. (Bottom Right ) Cold War Paranoia: In the 1960's and 1970's a number of bestselling books speculated on the Shah's political power and his personality. Hollywood studios were tempted by possible screen adaptations. Envied and admired: November 4, 1974 issue of Time magazine featuring the Shah of Iran, confirming his image as the "Gendarme of the Persian Gulf" aka "Emperor of Oil" by the mid-seventies.

"L'Affaire Mattei" ("Mattei Affair") released in 1971 was an attempt by the Italian cinematographer Francesco Rosi to investigate the tragic end of the Italian Oil Tycoon. Rosi was also to face difficulties in making the film since one of his financial partners was to disappear.

According to Rosi, one of the goals of releasing this film was also to provoke a scandal, which it did indeed by revealing the intentions of the oil consortiums to eliminate Mattei. The film's thesis is enforced with the inclusion of documentary film reels, archives and never-before published facts on Mattei and his negotiations with the Shah.

With the actors performances, the film also creates an apocalyptic atmosphere in which Italian star Gian Maria Volonte, manages to reveal the Italian millionare's last years. The Film was to obtain the Palme D'Or at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and a "mention spÈciale" for its major star Gian Maria Volonte.

Left, A Missed Opportunity: Initially intended to be shot in Iran, "The Man With The Golden Gun", 1974 Bond film starring Roger Moore, Brit Ekland and Maud Adams. Top Right Jack Lord, was a steel worker in Iran in the 1950's before becoming a tv star, in "Hawaii Five-O". Insert Harold Robbins sulfurous author of many bestsellers in the 60's and 70's including "The Pirate" adapted for television with Franco Nero in 1978. Jean Bruce's "Iran OS 117 K.O." (aka "Délires en Iran") spy thriller novel set in Iran, and a screen adaptation "Pas de Roses pour OSS 117" with John Gavin. The Western world energy dependancy on the Middle East illustrated in James Grady's novel, "Three Days of the Condor", and on screen with Robert Redford and Faye Dunnaway

Spy thrillers have always been popular and a number of writers like John Le Carré or Ian Fleming were to draw their own picture of the world of secret services. On the same lines French author Jean Bruce was to write a series of novels based on OSS 117. One of them was set in Iran "Iran OS 117 K.O." aka "Délires en Iran" (1961) and another of the OSS books was adapted to screen with John Gavin called "Murder for Sale" (1968) .

In this Franco-Italian film, John Gavin, the OSS agent is confronted by Robert Hossein cast as a villian called "DR. Saadi", it takes place between Rome and the Middle East. The strange thing in this movie is that the evil character's name is "Saadi", like the celebrated Persian poet's "Book of Roses" (aka "Golestan"), and the French and Italian titles can be translated "No Roses for OSS 117". It is one of those B-movies trying badly to imitate James Bond.

Sydney Pollack's screen adaptation of James Grady's novel "Three Days of a Condor" was strangely made prior to the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon's impeachment. Starring Faye Dunnaway and Robert Redford, it is an excellent thriller about a CIA researcher Joseph Turner (Redford) who finds himself caught in a deadly vicious circle after he discovers his collegues assassinated during a lunch break.

Redford's character gradually discovers the implications of unnamed "Persian Gulf states", in these assassinations, and the CIA trying to cover up the operations for some obscure reason. The film concludes on the dilemma over whether the press and the free citizen should be informed of such undemocratic actions be it in the interest of the state or world economy.

In many aspects the film is quite representative of the 70's and the Cold War paranoia raising the awareness of Western Democracies over their increasing economic dependancy on oil imports from Middle East dictatorships.

Harold Robbins is known for his bestselling, steamy novels that revolved around sex, money and power. In his early days he worked as financial consultant for American oil companies in Iran. He ended up investing in one of them but went bankrupt.

In 1974 Robbins published "Pirate", a story with the Middle East conflict as a background and which was adapted as a series for US television starring Franco Nero in the role of a powerful Arab Prince married to an American (Anne Archer), and who realizes the futility of the Arab-Israeli conflict as he discovers he also has Jewish roots.

Maybe a little bit far fetched in the message by today's standards and clearly fit to satisfy pro-Israeli sentiments, Nero's character nevertheless shares a certain resemblance to the former King Hussein of Jordan, whose wife Queen Noor was half-American as in the film. Neither films directly mention Iran, and particularily not in the case of Harold Robbins TV adaptation, but one cannot avoid the comparisons of this 1978 TV series with the geo-political situation in Iran.

On a more trivial level, the screen adventures based on Ian Fleming's most famous British Agent were also to focus their attention on Iran. With the rapid pace with which the country was catching up with Western economies, It is therefore not surprising that Iran's strategic importance and exotic landscapes were to inspire Cubby Broccoli the major producer of the famous James Bond spy films.

During the preparations for "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974), the second James Bond movie with Roger Moore, film locations included both Iran and Cambodia, but the Oil Crisis of 1973 and political instability voided both places.

Interestingly American TV star Jack Lord hero of the famous detective series Hawaii Five-O also appeared in the first James Bond Film "Dr. NO". He was a steel worker in his young years and worked for 14 months building roads and bridges for the U.S. engineers in Iran, before returning to the US and deciding to work in the movies.

Two particular political thrillers were to take place in Iran, co-produced by the Iranian film companies. Unfortunatley thay have aged both in form and content, and did not necessarily make film history but are quite representative of the preoccupations of the time in regard to opium trafficking and arms dealing in the Middle East.

"Danger Grows Wild" aka "The Opium Connection"

UN-commisioned film on international opium trafficking (notice Iran map on background of video covetop right). On an investigative mission in Iran, a UN agent (Stephan Boyde) will soon be killed by drug smugglers. Below center, Marcello Mastroiani and Rita Hayworth (1966).

Synopsis: International Crusade against opium traffikers. Filmed on location in Iran, Monaco, and Italy. Based on a drug trade thriller by Ian Fleming that explains how poppies, converted into heroin, are brought into the United States.

Initially made for television, the film became such a success that it was released in movie theaters World Wide. On the sidelines of the James Bond box office success, this film also based on an Ian Fleming novel was directed by Terence Young with an impressive distribution such as Yul Brynner, Tevor Howard, Omar Sharif, Angie Dickinson, Rita Hayworth and Marcello Mastroiani among others, all of whom accepted a minimum wage for this film whose profits were entirely distributed to UNESCO. Iran was to be an active member of various UN organizations.

An Iranian actor Morteza Kazerouni also participates in this film but is not credited and Grace Kelly features in a short cameo role as Monaco's Princess Grace. Stephane Boyed who played the evil Messala in William Whyler's "Ben Hur" makes a short appearance as the UN inspector who is killed by drug smugglers in Iran.

Although a good film over all, which was shown on opening night at the Venice film festival in 1966, "Poppies are also Flowers" only major credit is to have been made prior to "French Connection" (1971) with Gene Hackman. The latter was truly to impose itself itself as a film genre in the Seventies.

"CRUISE MISSILE" (1978-1979)
aka "Tehran Incident"
aka "Missile X - Geheimauftrag Neutronenbombe"

Alec Franklin (Peter Graves), The Baron (Curd Jurgens)
and Galina (Karin Schubert)

Synopsis: "An American secret agent is sent to Iran to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and comes across a crazed international businessman called "The Baron" who has stolen a Soviet nuclear cruise missile. The Baron plots to use the missile on a peace summit in the Persian Gulf.

How else can one describe this film other than EMBARRASING? Although co-produced with Iranians, fortunately no major Iranian star was to cast in this film. Shot amidst the early months of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, this spy film clearly suffers from obvious budget resrictions, that wastes a good cast in a cliched movie. The success of Paul E. Erdman's Novel "Crash of '79" may have been one of the reasons that led the producers to set the film in Iran.

The film opens with an American spy being killed in Iran. Secret Agent Alec Franklin (Peter Graves) is called in to take out The Baron, who is presumably responsible for the killing, as well as an arms deal between himself and the Russian government. The Baron (Curd Jurgens) is a fey, unintimidating man. Alec Franklin is the greatest secret agent ever, but he'll have his work cut out for him on this particular assignment.

In fact, one could say his mission is impossibe ... Almost. Once Alec lands in Iran (which is populated solely by Western-looking people, some in UCLA sweatshirts), he is ambushed leaving his hotel, which leads to a 15 minute chase through the streets, culminating in a karate-infused showdown in the middle of a fruit stand.

After making short work of his pursuers, Alec gets to his hotel and meets Galina (Karen Schubert). This leads to the most disturbing scene in the film, in which an obviously 52-year-old Peter Graves makes old person love to her.

Alec learns of The Baron's plan to use a stolen cruise missle to disrupt a peace conference somewhere in the Persian Gulf and springs (slowly) into action. There is so much stock footage in this film (including the peace conference, airplane landing, and Iran) that I am surprised the filmmakers actually left their homes to shoot it.

The most ironic thing though, which makes this film interesting from a "historical anecdotal" point of view, are all the background news broadcasts and Ayatollah Khomeni causing trouble in Paris. Still, seen today, the film proves to be truly of bad taste, not to say criminal.

"Three Kings", starring George Clooney and
Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who parodies Christiane Amanpour.

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube star in the Three Kings (1999), it is a particularily violent film, but it comes across as a premonitary film given the situation in Iraq today. Christiane Amanpour's first Gulf War reporting on CNN is parodied by the whereabouts of one of its journalists (Nora Dunn) who is more shocked by the devastating casualties of the burnt oil fields on environment than by all the human casualties.

The film does not try to justify the war, and even if the Iraqi officers are portrayed as sadistic morons, civilians, however are shown as the real victimes. Do not try to find an in depth analysis of the conflict. And the characters played by Clooney and his co-stars are not heroes but looking for gold amidst the chaos caused by the conflict.

Two different looks at Islam and Arab civilization:
Left, Youssef Chahine's award-winning classic "Destiny" on Averroes (Ibn Rushd) the Andalousian humanist, philosopher and scientist. "The Message" aka "Mohammed, Messenger of God" (1976) starring Anthony Quinn as Hamza, the companion of Prophet Mohammad, whose image is never shown.

Despite these particular examples, one can conclude that Hollywood films have rarely been very objective in regard to the situation in the Middle East. Apart from particularily great historic epics like "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Exodus", few films had the oppurtunity to take an objective look at the real problems that inflict the region for decades, not to say centuries.

The religious and political rivalries, the power struggles between colonial powers of the past century and super powers of the Cold War have never been treated as objectively as one would expect. This is not necessarily a fault of Hollywood or American filmakers; they have tried to come up with an ironic conclusion to the films leaving the benefit of the doubt to the spectator, rather than an ideological explanation. One can justly distinguish American productions from purely propaganda films, as one would expect in times of war or crisis. This is to the credit of Hollywood as a dream making industry.

In the past two decades, however, television has certainly played a more disturbing role in manipulating images and distorting information, even if the proffession is conscience of this fact and tries at its best to avoid it, it is still has a great deal of challenges to face. There is and certainly was in the past a cultural gap between the East and the West. As Democratic ideas are penetrating the Middle East, most probably the task of filling the gap will have to be assumed by filmakers.

Religious intolerance has been denounced in a number of films notably by Egyptian Youssef Chahine, whose wonderful film "Destiny" (1997) was awarded at Cannes as a tribute not only to the Andalousian philosopher and scientist Averoes, whose free thinking penetrated the rest of Europe still under the Inquisition,.

But it is also a tribute to Hollywood's Golden Age, since the film is both an historic epic, and a musical. It is also a tribute to an era, when the Islamic World as opposed to Europe, was seen as a Lantern of Science and progress.

It should be noted that the great Iranian make up artist Abdollah Eskandari brought his talent to contribution on this Egyptian film.

"The Message" (Mohammad, Messenger of God) on the otherhand, was released In 1976. Directed by Mustaffa Akkad a Syrian-American, it which was shot in two versions -- one in Arabic, the other in English, with famous stars of the time, Anthony Quinn, as Hamza the companion of the prophet, Greek star Iren Papas and Michael Ansara in the title roles.

It was an ambitious project that wanted to follow the example of Biblical films made by Hollywood. It manages to depict the story of Islam and Arab conquests of the non-Islamic world. Mohammad's face is never shown directly in any scene. His presence is simply suggested, and the spiritual music score of Maurice Jarre ("Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zdivago").

The film glorifies the history of Islam and the conquest of the main kingdoms who refuse to aknowledge the prophet of Islam as the true messenger of God. While the Pharaoh of Egypt, and the Byzantine Emperor accept the message carried by an Arab courrier, Persia's Sassanid King Yazdgard III vehemently rejects it.

The film focuses on rivalries between Arab tribes and idolators whmo Mohammad and his followers want to convert. One has to recognize that the film is a spectacular epic and Maurice Jarre's music score adds to the battle scenes and the more intimate mystical scenes some kind of aura, common to most religious films. Quinn plays a rusty and down to earth warrior who at times doubts in Mohammad's vision and gradually becomes a believer.

However Contrary to Youssef Chahine's "Destiny", this film glorifies Jihad and justifies it. It is not always easy for a non-Muslim to totally adher to the films "message" precisly, and I suppose one must ask specialists on Islam or true believers to say how much of what is depicted in the film corresponds to the real interpretation of Islam?

The film was controversial when it came out, because it was financed by the Lybian government of dictator Ghaddafi, (Mustaffa Akkad was to direct both Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed in another Lybian production in 1980, "The Lion Of the Desert") but the film does use the same spectacular ingrediants used in most Hollywood epics.

If I may add a personal comment, I had the oppurtunity to see this film shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Cinema Saadi in Shiraz. It was a strange experience, for it was basically impossible to watch the film in normal circumstances without hearing someone cry "Allah o Akbar" ("God is Great"), "La Elaha El-Allah" ("There is no God but God"), and "Marg bar Kofaar" (Death to infidels) each time an enemy of Mohammad was slain.

Nevertheless it was an amusing experience given the fact that in post-revolution Iran, no American star was present on state TV and cinemas were banned from showing any American or Western films. So the presence of a Hollywood star like Anthony Quinn seemed surreal.

Also the particular scene with the Persian King Yazdegard III throwing the parchement at the face of the courrier was curiously followed by a heavy silence, I would never forget. No one cried "Marg bar Shah" ("Death to the King" as they did during the revolution) or anything of the sort. Was this an unexpected reminder of Iran's pre-Islamic past?

Left, Bahman Ghobadi's "Time for Drunken Horses",
and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar"
unviels the Turban in Afghanistan
as his daughter tries to do the same ...

Iranian cinema, meanwhile, has been spearheading a "new wave" which has been internationally acclaimed and recognized for its work despite its constant struggle with Islamic censors, threats of violence and harsh judicial penalties.

Focusing on issues that today concern not only Iran but also the West, ever since the tragic incidents of September 11th (also a subject of the film essay by directors worldwide) and the War on Iraq.

Bahman Ghobadi's "Time for Drunken Horses" , and Samira Makmalbaf's "Five in the Afternoon", draw attention on the predicament of the Afghans after the Taliban rule. Her father Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar" was one of the first to draw attention on Taliban rule (even if the film is also controversial for having used a non-professional actor in a small role who has since been recognized as an assassin of a political opponent to the IRI, Makhbalbaf denies he knew about it). They are among the new generation of filmakers who certainly are contributing to a better understanding of the plight of the kurds, Afghans or Iranians.

Hopefully this positive trend will continue in a near future, for it is in the interest of cinema both as an industry and as an Artform to contribute to the "Dialogue between Civilizations" that is so essential in our turbulent and violent era.

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