Raiders of black gold
By Darius Kadivar
Fools, bureaucratic fools. They don't know what they've
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 nations in ruin.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
"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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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, probabaly criminal.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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 "The 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.