Friday, August 31, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
ARABIAN NIGHTS is one of many naturalistic sword-and-sandal pictures produced by Hollywood in the 1940s, no better or worse than most.  For fantasy-fans it may sustain a little more than average curio interest because it derives a substantial part of its plot from one of the decade's great fantasy-movies, Alexander Korda's 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD.
The 1940 film, more a rethinking than a remake of the 1924 silent original, places its royal protagonist King Ahmad in jeopardy when his evil vizier convinces him to go among the people in secret-- thus emulating his ancestor Haroun-al-Raschid, a real-life Islamic ruler prominently fictionalized in the tales of the 1001 Nights.  Ahmad, having willingly divested himself of his royal identification, is hurled into a dungeon by the vizier's agents and condemned to die, only to be rescued by Abu, the young Thief of Bagdad who protects him and eventually makes it possible for Ahmad to wed a beautiful princess.
Similar events come about in 1942's NIGHTS, albeit by accident.  This time it is a very fictionalized version of Haroun al-Raschid, the Caliph of Bagdad (Jon Hall), who takes the Ahmad role from THIEF OF BAGDAD.  As the film begins, Haroun has just put down an uprising by his bastard brother Kamar (Leif Erickson).  Kamar is being slowly executed by being hung in the sun.  Haroun feels guilty and looks as though he might spare his envious brother.  However, adherents of Kamar attack the execution-site. Haroun is forced to flee, but a thrown knife by an enemy soldier wounds him.  Ali Ben Ali, an acrobatic performer in a traveling circus, witnesses Haroun's wounding and takes the injured ruler into the circus while concealing his identity.  Throughout the film Ali-- played by the actor Sabu, the same actor who essayed Abu in THIEF-- becomes Haroun's faithful protector.  In contrast to THIEF, where the low-born thief rescues the king because he forms a personal liking for Ahmad, Ali risks his life for this king without much motivation beyond "that's what faithful retainers do." 
Meanwhile Kamar's forces take over the city (wonder where all these soldiers were, during the earlier uprising?)  Kamar and his flunkies believe Haroun has been slain, but Kamar has another ambition beyond ruling Bagdad.  He's fallen in love with a famous dancer, Scheherazade (Maria Montez), and so he wishes to present her with the throne despite her common birth (which mirrors his bastard status, though this never comes up again after the opening).
Dancer Scheherazade happens to be with the very circus into which Ali has smuggled the wounded Haroun.  From her opening dialogue, she's something less than appealing: she tongue-lashes the circus-manager (Thomas Gomez) like a modern-day diva.  She bears no love for Kamar, she merely wants him to rescue her from her low status.  However, she softens when Ali shows her his unconscious prize, and persuades the circus-manager to take Haroun along, both of them ignorant of Haroun's true status.  Later, when Haroun comes to, he and Scheherazade rapidly fall in love.
Once Kamar sends for Scheherazade to join him on the throne of Badgad, the plot has to use a number of contrivances to keep the dancer and the hidden king out of his hands for a while.  The main contrivance consists of the circus-troupe being sold into slavery, though in due time Scheherazade is separated from the group and brought to Kamar.
The tribulations of Haroun and his fellows are played with a light touch; they break free from the slave-pens with ridiculous ease and have various near encounters with Kamar's soldiers.  Eventually Ali reveals Haroun's identity to his fellow performers, who also selflessly risk their lives in an attack on Kamar's camp, conveniently far from the armies with which he conquered Bagdad.  The assault results in the death of Kamar and Haroun's reunion with Scheherazade.
I'll argue that the romantic battle of Haroun and Kamar over Scheherazade owes something to THIEF's model as well.  In the 1940 film, Ahmad and the evil vizier Jaffar will come into conflict over the aforementioned beautiful princess, but it's actually Jaffar who sees her first in his magic crystal. It's implicit that one of Jaffar's main motives for unseating Ahmad is to become a ruler worthy of approaching the princess' father for the lovely lady's hand in marriage, though she never sees him until the day of said proposal.  In NIGHTS, Kamar sees and falls in love with the ambitious Scheherazade long before Haroun knows her as anything but a name, if that.  In both cases, the villains' plots backfire, causing the respective heroes to encounter their respective heroines and to win the heroines' hearts. 
This was the first Arabic-flavored archaic adventure in which either Hall or Montez starred.  Hall is adequate.  In this film at least I found Montez's beauty rather cold and unappealing, even after she's supposed to have lost her ambitious desires in favor of true love.
In comparison with the strong comic touches of THIEF, Sabu's role as Ali is played straight, aside from one humorous moment where he's dunked in a pool by several harem-girls.  Most of the comedy is supplied by two circus-performers playing versions of "Sinbad" (Shemp Howard) and "Aladdin" (John Qualen); the former won't stop yakking about his fabulous adventures while the latter keeps thinking that every lamp he comes across ought to contain a genie.  These routines aren't very funny, but toward the end Qualen's Aladdin has a good comic dialogue with one of Kamar's soldiers, whom he torments with lines like, "Why come back later?  Why don't you come back now?"
Oddly, this reverse-logic may be the closest thing in ARABIAN NIGHTS to anything from Islamic lands, as it reminded me of a similar reverse-logic joke from the legendary storyteller Nasrudin:
 Nasrudin walked into a shop one day.
The owner came forward to serve him.
"First things first," said Nasrudin; "did you see me walk into your shop?"
"Of course."
"Have you ever seen me before?"
"Never in my life."
"Then how do you know it is me?"


No comments:

Post a Comment