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This is one of my little stock of Christopher-Lee-films-taped-off-the-telly, which I watched on Sunday night as a treat after a weekend spent delivering leaflets. It is in fact also one of the 22 films in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing, although Cushing is criminally under-used, appearing for all of about three minutes of screen time, and never on screen at the same time at Christopher Lee. It seems strange in retrospect, now that they are so widely recognised as an iconic pairing, that anyone producing a film after about 1965 could cast the two of them and not put them in lots of scenes where they could bounce off each other to their hearts' content, but this isn't the only film which does this - Scream and Scream Again (1969) is just the same, for example. I guess the truth is that it takes a while for any creative formula to move through being viewed as old hat and acquire iconic status, and by the time that really happened for the formula of Cushing + Lee, Cushing was nearing the end of his working career. As far as I can see, the only films which really self-consciously treat them as an iconic pairing (rather than simply the box-office draws of the moment) are One More Time (1970), Horror Express (1973) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). Then again, though, maybe too much knowing, self-referential usage of them would have become tiresome in itself, casting a pallor over their earlier and more serious encounters which merely failing to make good use of them doesn't do.

Anyway, while we don't get much of Peter Cushing in this film, we certainly get lots of Christopher Lee, who plays an evil Caliph with magical powers ruling over a fantastical Arabian kingdom. The main plot involves a dashing young prince from Baghdad who hopes to marry the Caliph's step-daughter, but is sent to prove himself worthy first by bringing back a Magic MacGuffin known as the Rose of Elil. This is supposed to be a Hopeless Quest At Which Countless Others Have Failed, but TBH I have seen a lot of fantasy films, and the barriers between prince and rose in this film are no great shakes. In fact, I'm pretty sure Dorothy works her way through worse in order to bring the Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch of the West's broom. In any case, obviously the prince succeeds, with help from two sidekicks - one a simple boy with a magical gem and a cute monkey on a lead, and the other one of the Caliph's more incompetent guards who is sent to undermine the mission, but of course ends up helping in spite of himself. And although the Caliph was planning to use the Rose to make himself invincibly powerful while reneging on his promise to the prince, they naturally manage to defeat him, while freeing the city and the people into the bargain. In other words, it could not be more tropish if it tried.

This is great news for Christopher Lee, who gets to ham it up to the nines in a fantasy villain role complete with a floor-length black robed costume with red accents (but obviously he'd moved well beyond Dracula by this time, you understand). Perhaps not such great news for the film as a whole, though, which looks more or less indistinguishable from a load of other fantasy films of the late '70s and early '80s as a result. It reminded me in particular of a number of Ray Harryhausen films, to the extent that it almost seems like a missing link between his two mid-'70s Sinbad films and 1981's Clash of the Titans. Certainly, I'd be astonished if Arabian Adventure wasn't designed as a conscious attempt to capitalise on the popularity of the Sinbad films. Apart from the obvious matter of the setting, it shares with them motifs such as quests for magical items, princes seeking the hands of princesses, cities under curfews, evil magicians, people being turned into animals, battles with giant creatures, genies in bottles and so forth. Of course all of these are standard tropes in a story-telling tradition ultimately rooted in the One Thousand and One Nights, and here encompassing especially The Thief of Bagdad (1940), but it was very definitely Harryhausen's Sinbad films that were bearing the popular torch for them when this film was made. The cycle of influence seemed to me to travel in two directions rather than just one, though, as there are motifs from this film which appear in turn in Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans - for example, in the resemblance between the dank and terrible swamp where the Rose of Elil grows and Calibos' very similar lair in Clash.

Speaking of the One Thousand and One Nights, I am never quite sure where I stand when faced with a film like this on the issue of whether westerners re-telling and re-working its stories are inevitably engaging in Orientalising cultural appropriation, or simply drawing on a rich and interesting story tradition in the same way as we have (for example) drawn on those of the ancient world. Those examples obviously aren't equivalent, since western European culture views itself as the inheritor of ancient stories, and tends to express both a right to use them and an admiration for them in its retellings, whereas the relation between western and Islamic culture has centuries of hostility, othering and aggressive imperialism behind it. But the difficulty is that we can't separate out our engagement with its stories from that context - i.e. we can't tell what sort of reception the One Thousand and One Nights would have had in the west if the culture they came from was viewed differently in relation to ours. Would people in Britain still have lapped them up anyway, in the same way as we have the Germanic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm or the Danish ones of Hans Christian Andersen? Or has their appeal traditionally stemmed from their perceived status as the product of an exoticised Other? We can't tell (and it's a false dichotomy anyway).

What we can do, though, is look at culture dynamics of individual takes on the stories. This one scores pretty badly in its casting, which fills most of its the main roles with western people made to look a bit swarthy, while putting actual middle eastern actors (of whom there are a few) in minor secondary roles. In fairness, the innocent boy with the monkey, who is the film's main point-of-view character, is played by an actor of Indian descent (though even he was actually born in London), but I don't think that actually helps. It pretty much seems to amount to saying "Oh, brown people - they're all the same, aren't they?" All of this is of course still a problem in 2014, but that doesn't make it any less of one in 1979. On the other hand, where the story could have stuck at portraying middle eastern society as inherently characterised by autocratic tyrannies (as personified in Christopher Lee's character), there is actually a sub-plot in which a heroic band of local freedom fighters are working to overthrow him and reinstate Peter Cushing's character, a political prisoner of the Caliph who was once the enlightened and democratically-elected leader of their city. That said, even that may well just be an attempt to reproduce the role of the rebel alliance seeking to overthrow the Empire in Star Wars (released two years earlier), rather than to than reflect the political complexities of the Islamic world.

In short, tropish, unoriginal and politically unreconstructed, but it does have a minor role to play in the history of cinematic fantasy stories, and Christopher Lee is definitely good value in it.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 17th, 2014 02:05 pm (UTC)
Am glad I gave it a miss then - if Mr Cushing isn't really in it much and it's mostly magical, I can suspend my disbelief for zombies, werewolves,vampires and suchlike but I draw the line at genies in bottles.
Dec. 17th, 2014 02:48 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I don't think this would be very much up your street. It is OK, but definitely a fantasy film rather than a macabre / Gothic film. That said, the genie was evil!
Dec. 17th, 2014 02:52 pm (UTC)
I do like Harryheausen stuff though - but mostly his fighting skeletons :-)
Dec. 17th, 2014 04:01 pm (UTC)
The issue of appropriation and orientalising with regard to the 1001 Nights is a difficult one anyway, because the Nights in many ways *is* a modern Western creation anyway. While there was a book, in Arabic, about Shahrazad and her stories, most of the stories we know as "Arabian Nights stories" weren't in it, and were introduced by the French translator Antoine Galland, either from other Arabic sources (Sindbad), from stories allegedly told him by a Syrian monk (about fourteen of the minor stories) or, in the case of Aladdin and Ali Baba, apparently made up by Galland himself -- no Arabic manuscript of those two stories predating Galland has ever been found, and versions of it in Arabic copies seem to be translations from the French.

Meanwhile, those stories which *are* part of the original Arabic manuscripts often seem to have strong similarities to classical Greek plays, or in some cases to stories in the Canterbury Tales, suggesting they were either based on them or share a common oral source with them.

The history of the Nights is actually quite fascinating, and if you ever have a spare moment you should read The Arabian Nights:A Companion by Robert Irwin, one of the best books on both history and the art of storytelling I've ever read.

(This comment brought to you by a year of researching for a novel involving the story of the thousand and second night...)
Dec. 19th, 2014 08:33 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this very interesting comment - and sorry for the slow reply. It was my Dad's birthday yesterday, so I went down to Birmingham on Wednesday evening equipped only with my phone, and thus could see this comment when I arrived, but wasn't very easily able to type a proper reply.

I did know about Galland adding to the canon, but not about the connections between the original Arabic stories and Greek drama or the Canterbury tales. That in itself underlines my basic niggling worry over cultural appropriation, though, which is that people just do borrow each other's cultural traditions - indeed, that habit has been essential to human evolution. So it's very difficult to strike a sound moral stance over cultural appropriation without running the risk of losing valuable things in the process.

I completely see the point which (for example) native American Indians have when they say that it's insulting for the white people who colonised America and took their land to wear dream-catchers round their necks as a way of demonstrating how 'spiritual' they are. But at the other extreme, it would be nonsensical and hugely impoverishing to suggest that no-one can ever borrow stories, customs, clothing or language from another culture. Indeed, I think it may even run the risk of killing off potential avenues for identification and rapprochement which could ultimately help people from different cultures get along a little better.

Obviously there are rules of thumb which can be applied when negotiating the murky grey areas in between those two extremes, such as looking at the nature of the relationship between the borrowing and lending cultures, and at how the lending culture is portrayed by the borrowing culture in the process. But it is always going to be a tricky task.
Dec. 19th, 2014 08:40 pm (UTC)
I absolutely agree. I think part of the difference comes from whether it's an idea or a symbol that's being reused -- I don't think I've ever seen anyone call The Magnificent Seven or Star Wars cultural appropriation, for example, even though they're very obviously "influenced" by Kurosawa... I think taking ideas and applying them to one's own context is a positive thing, while taking symbols away from their context is very dodgy...
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