strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
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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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and [livejournal.com profile] gillywoo.

This was part one of a double-bill film evening we had last night, which somehow worked itself out so that it centred around the theme of people with severe physical deformities: Freaks followed by The Elephant Man. I'm not sure how that happened, because we'd collectively decided to watch these two films together ages ago, and I can't remember our reasoning now - but I suppose we decided on one and were reminded by it of the other. It made for quite a harrowing evening - but well worth it.

Freaks is mainly famous for being banned in the UK for 30 years after its release. I expected it to be pretty morally repugnant for that reason, but actually it's not. The story in fact has a quite straightforward and uncontroversial moral line, which I think ought to have gone down palatably enough in 1930s Britain. Prejudice against the 'freaks' is portrayed as unenlightened, they themselves are shown as having both very human feelings and a strong moral code, and the true villains of the piece turn out to be a trapeze artist and strongman, who have no physical deformities, but are morally corrupt. I presume that the reason for the ban, then, was less that the film was considered actually unethical and more that it simply turned over too many stones, and brought audiences face to face with things (the censors thought) they preferred not to know about.

Meanwhile, for the modern viewer, there are definitely some uncomfortable aspects. Despite the "good looks != good morals" message, the deformed characters are still very much portrayed as Others, and with an associated underlying malevolence. Their being called 'freaks' is obviously part of that - but they're also shown as having their own very close-knit and generally exclusive community, and as being very ready to take violent vengeance on anyone who hurts a member of that community. It's the sort of tale that's been told a thousand times about gypsies, Jews, slaves, aborigines, immigrants, barbarians, etc. etc., ever since human beings learnt to write - but something we're more consciously aware of as unhelpful today.

It does have to be added, too, that the acting throughout is abysmal. Obviously, for most of the deformed characters, this was their first and often only film, so some haltingly-delivered lines can be forgiven. But the four lead able-bodied characters (two nice, two nasty) don't have that excuse. They just suck. So it's always going to be a film that's watched for its historical interest and the issues it touches upon - not because it's actually a cinematic masterpiece (despite claims to the contrary on the back of the video box).

Finally, I was really struck by how much the heroine, Venus, and / or the young lady who played her, Leila Hyams reminded me of the character of Tallulah in Daleks in Manhattan. I mean, I'm not saying Tallulah was consciously based on her, because I think what's really going on is simply that actresses of that kind were ten-a-penny in this era, being churned out by the dozen from acting academies. (I read a short story to that effect once, although I can't remember who it was by or what it was called). But it's another testament to how right the Doctor Who team got that character, anyway.

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