Raiders of black gold
Hollywood and oil
By Darius Kadivar
May 29, 2003
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
IS ALSO A FLOWER" (1966)
aka "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
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
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.
aka "Tehran Incident"
aka "Missile X - Geheimauftrag Neutronenbombe"
(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
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.
Kings", starring George Clooney and
Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), who parodies Christiane Amanpour.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube star in
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
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.
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?
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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