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How film fell for caliphs and slave girls

The Arabian Nights has inspired more than 70 movies, from silent ballet and Scooby Doo to Pasolini’s picaresque eroticism

Most of Hollywood’s Arabian Nights fantasies are, of course, unadulterated tosh. The Middle East, wrote the American film critic William Zinssner, is transformed into ‘a place where lovely young slave girls lie about on soft couches, stretching their slender legs… Amid all this décolletage sits the jolly old Caliph, miraculously cool to the wondrous sights around him, puffing his water pipe.’

It is box-office commercialization at its worst. As a cinematic franchise, however, Arabian Nights is the gift that keeps on giving, which goes a long way to explaining why Wikipedia has a list of 72 films (nowhere near complete) based on One Thousand and One Nights, starring everyone from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Scooby Doo.

Film fell for the caliphs and slave girls early. Thomas Edison kicked things off in 1902, producing an Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves that included dancers from the Paris Opera. These first film-makers loved the challenge of conjuring up the fantastical elements, especially the French technical virtuoso George Méliès. In his hand-colored Palace of the Arabian Nights of 1905 we hack through fluorescent forests, greet giant lizards, fight dancing skeletons, Méliès throwing all manner of early cinematic chicanery at the story.

It was in animation, however, that the Arabian Nights would find its most abiding home. In fact, the world’s oldest-surviving animated feature was Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, an exquisite silent ballet made out of hand-cut silhouettes, an early high point for adaptations.

One more will be added to the list later this month, when Disney releases Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie and reported to be ‘very muscular and action-packed’. Disney’s latest foray into one of the Arabian Nights’ best-loved tales is a live-action remake of its 1992 hit Aladdin, the then highest-grossing animated film of all time, in which Robin Williams stole the show with his charismatic, shapeshifting genie. This time Will Smith plays the genie alongside Mena Massoud’s love-smitten Aladdin, Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, the nefarious sorcerer and grand vizier, Navid Negahban, ‘TV’s favorite terrorist’, as the sultan and Nasim Pedrad as Dalia.

You might think that such a multicultural cast would spare Hollywood’s blushes these days, but you’d be wrong. That would be far too easy. Cue howls of outrage at the ‘all-white’ writing and directing team, together with multiple accusations of racism and ‘colorism’. The casting of the Anglo-Indian actress Scott as Princess Jasmine was said to send the message that ‘brown people are interchangeable’. Then, last year, Disney admitted that some extras were ‘browning up’ with darker make-up to ‘blend in’ with crowd scenes. More online anger and vitriol.

At least this time round, the opening song is less likely to give offense. In 1992, following complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the original lyrics (‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face./ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home’) were changed to something more anodyne. Let us skip the recent beheading of 37 men in Saudi Arabia, where the original lyrics serve rather well if you substitute ear with head.

As for Jafar, there is no shortage of real-life brutality for those who like to ponder the hoary issue of Hollywood and historical accuracy. Jafar the Barmakid was the vizier, wine-drinking companion and closest friend of Harun al-Rashid, the 8th-century Abbasid caliph scandalously memorialized in the Arabian Nights. In real life Jafar went overnight from being the second most powerful man in the Islamic Empire to three hacked pieces of corpse gibbeted on the bridges of Baghdad. Like the mostly Shia prisoners executed in Saudi Arabia, he had fallen foul of an autocratic head of state.

If Hollywood’s Arabian Nights tend towards the spectacular, entertaining and ridiculous, then Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1974 film, Il Fiore delle Mille e Una Notte, came closer to the sublime. For Robert Irwin, the English historian and expert on the Arabian Nights, it is ‘perhaps the best and certainly the most intelligent’ of the many adaptations. For a start, it is truer to the original bewitchingly layered text, in which stories are stacked within stories stacked within stories like Russian matryoshka dolls.

It is freewheelingly true, too, to the unashamed and gloriously unprudish eroticism of the Arabian Nights. Take Harun’s three- and four-in-a-bed romps celebrated in the 387th Night, where in one incident an Arabian and Iraqi slave girl compete to control the caliph’s erection while brazenly quoting the Prophet Mohammed. ‘If someone brings uncultivated ground to life, it belongs to him and his descendants,’ says the Arabian. The Iraqi concubine is having none of it. She shoves her rival to one side, ‘takes Harun’s member in both hands’ and, not to be outdone on questions of Islamic theology, shoots back with the Prophet’s observation: ‘Game belongs to the hunter and not to the beater.’

Pasolini pays homage to this tradition from the get-go. In the original Italian film poster a naked young man draws back his bowstring, poised to unleash a phallus-topped arrow between the open legs of a naked young woman. Pasolini’s interpretation is one of picaresque eroticism. Before he can find his abducted slave-girl lover Zumurrud, the protagonist Nur-e-din must first endure a series of largely erotic adventures. The film, which was garlanded at Cannes, was the final installment in Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’ after The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. He considered them ‘the most ideological films I have ever made’, a blast against ‘the repression of the tolerant power, which, of all repressions, is the most atrocious’.

Does it make any difference whether directors focus on a single tale, or the Arabian Nights writ large? Probably not. We are, after all, deep in fantastical territory. Magic carpets get you most places. What matters more is that there is such a vast chest of tales to mine. For auteurs such as Pasolini this offered the chance to experiment, reshaping the medium, creating cinematic millefeuille; for Hollywood it meant something quite different. Never-ending tales could lead to never-ending spin-offs. The Arabian Nights was Marvel before Marvel: an encyclopedia of exotic fantasies, in which Hollywood could roll out its biggest stars with just a simple change of tights.

Swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks starred in 1924’s Thief of Bagdad — his crowning performance in one of the great silent films — and was duly followed by his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who appeared in Sinbad the Sailor of 1947 alongside Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara. In some ways the Arabian Nights allowed Hollywood to coast, to cruise along in autopilot orientalism. In conjuring up the fantasy, however, it was forced to invent. And invent big. To make horses fly, create multi-limbed goddesses and giant spiders. One of the most inventive — and influential — adaptations was Alexander Korda’s 1940 Technicolor production of The Thief of Bagdad, which used blue-screen technology. ‘The film was a breakthrough in technique and vision,’ writes critic Roger Ebert. ‘There are few effects in Star Wars (1977) that cannot be found in Thief.’ Ebert puts the film on a par with The Wizard of Oz.

Even the best Hollywood adaptations, however, have, as Robert Irwin put it, ringfenced the Nights as something specifically for children and a vehicle for stars. Not Pasolini. He preferred to use unknown actors for his Arabian Nights. It was, he wrote, ‘a realistic film full of dust and the faces of the poor’. In fact, the locations were the real star. Shot in Safavid Iran’s blue-tiled capital of Isfahan, as well as in the deserts, wilderness and cityscapes of Yemen, Eritrea and Nepal, they brought wide-horizon grandeur to the screen.

A forthcoming talk at Asia House pays tribute to the film’s sumptuous cinematography. L’Oriente di Pasolini: The Arabian Nights Through the Photographs of Roberto Villa showcases some of the most compelling behind-the-scenes shots: assorted nudes, slack-lipped camels, architectural studies, turbaned tribesmen, actor-worshippers at prayer, portraits of people and places. Villa says he was trying to understand how Pasolini, a controversial Marxist intellectual who was murdered in mysterious circumstances a year after the film’s release, approached his craft. In capturing the fruitful interaction between Europeans, Arabs and Africans, his photographs provide perhaps the most eloquent answer to the question he set himself: as a dialogue between West and East.

This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.


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