ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1979)

Synopsis: In Jahdor, rebels plot the overthrow of the evil Caliph Alquazar (Christopher Lee). News of the revolt reaches Alquazar via his Captain of the Guards, Bahloul (John Wyman), and a spy, Khasim (Milo O’Shea). The Caliph says that he will deal with the rebels himself. Inside a hidden cavern, Alquazar watches in his Magic Mirror as the rebels prepare to attack the curfew guard. He also sees a stranger on a horse (Oliver Tobias) ride through the city gates just before they are closed for the night. The Caliph casts a spell: a cyclonic wind tears through the city, and the rebels are caught in its devastating wake. After the storm passes, a small boy, Marjeeb (Puneet Sira), finds the stranger lying unconscious and brings him water. Meanwhile, Alquazar gloats over the extent of his power until a voice speaks from the Mirror. It is the voice of Alquazar’s own soul, kept in bondage by an evil spell. The soul tells Alquazar he will never have supreme power without holding a talisman known as the Rose of Elil. Alquazar promises that he will free his soul if it will help him obtain the talisman. The soul agrees, saying that the one who can capture the flower is already in the city. Alquazar sees a vision of the stranger, who is being tended by the boy. Bahloul and his men ride out seeking any curfew-breakers. The stranger hides Marjeeb, but is himself beaten and arrested. As he is thrown into a dungeon and told he faces execution, he shouts unavailingly that he is Prince Hassan of Baghdad. Inside the cell, Wazir Al Wuzara (Peter Cushing) tells Hassan that Alquazar poisoned the previous Caliph in order to marry his wife and seize power; and that the beautiful Princess Zuleira (Emma Samms), Alquazar’s step-daughter, has never set foot outside the palace. As Alquazar watches in his Mirror, Hassan escapes when food is brought to the cell. Fighting desperately, he flees through the palace, eventually finding himself in the room of the princess. The two exchange an enraptured look before more guards arrive and Hassan must fight again. Eventually, in the throne-room, he is cornered. As Bahloul moves to strike a fatal blow, Alquazar stops him. Zuleira rushes in, and insists that the injured man be cared for. To Hassan’s astonishment and suspicion, Alquazar begins to treat him as an honoured guest. In the city, Marjeeb helps a street vendor and is given a peach as a reward. An old blind woman begs Marjeeb for charity, and after a moment’s hesitation, the hungry boy gives her the peach. The woman throws it down: inside is a jewel. As the astonished boy holds the gem out, the woman vanishes, only to reappear, young and beautiful, inside the jewel. Vahishta (Capucine) tells Marjeeb that he will henceforth be under her protection. At the palace, Hassan asks for Zuleira’s hand. A strangely compliant Alquazar agrees, but first sets Hassan a task: he must find and capture the Rose of Elil….

Comments: There is a difference between a film for children and a childish film, and unfortunately this distinction seems to have been lost upon the makers of Arabian Adventure. It is hard to imagine any but least discriminating of viewers – of any age – really enjoying this film; it fails upon just about every level you can think of. The story is very weak, but that’s almost to be expected. "Story", per se, is rarely very important in these types of films; and this is true of "character" as well. Still, even by the undemanding standards of the genre, Arabian Adventure is particularly lame, featuring some of the least exciting "adventures" and "challenges" I’ve ever seen, and a "hero’ and a "heroine" so bland, so wooden, so thoroughly boring that they make the good guys in any given Harryhausen fantasy seem like complex, well-developed individuals in comparison – and witty conversationalists, to boot. Oliver Tobias looks the part as Hassan, but that’s it. There isn’t an ounce of style or dash in his performance, and his fight scenes are so clumsy and so laboriously executed that you really have to feel sorry for the poor extras forced to "die" at his hands. Tobias is matched all the way by Emma Samms, who as Zuleira is "beautiful". That’s it, "beautiful". Now, okay, I know that the women in these things aren’t supposed to do anything much beyond being captured and rescued and eventually dropping into the hero’s lap like the prize out of a Christmas cracker, but Zuleira doesn’t even get to do any of that. She’s never been outside the palace in her life, we learn; barely been outside her own room; and she has precisely the kind of sparkling personality that, under the circumstances, you would expect. Typical of the film’s thoughtless and undeveloped writing is that we never learn the reason for Zuleira’s virtual imprisonment, nor why every prospective suitor before Hassan was slaughtered by the palace guards before even getting the chance to ask for her hand. I’d initially supposed that Alquazar had designs on the girl himself, but no. (My assumption was partially based on a creepy little scene at the beginning of the film. Zuleira is first seen clinging to Alquazar, begging for more of his time. Based on her behaviour, I initially had her pegged as the Caliph’s neglected mistress. When we find out she’s his step-daughter - actually, since she was raised by him since she was a baby, effectively his daughter – the whole thing suddenly seemed really, really….icky.) I guess Alquazar just does all that ‘cos he’s bad. The third and last of the film’s good guys is the boy, Marjeeb. His character may be just too movie-cutesy for words, but Puneet Sira’s performance, although no more than competent, is much more lively and enthusiastic than any of those given by his adult co-stars. Unfortunately, as part of his alleged "cuteness", the kid has a pet monkey. It’s supposed to be devoted to its "master", of course, but understandably spends the whole film trying to escape. To prevent this, the poor creature is kept on a leash, and ends up being tossed around like a rag-doll. At one point, there’s a shot of it tugging helplessly at its stranglingly tight collar that made me want to strangle someone myself. It’s hard to take any pleasure in a performance that comes accessorised with an act of animal cruelty.

Well, you don’t expect much from the Good Guys in this kind of film, I guess; but sadly for all concerned, the Bad Guys are just as uninteresting. Even Christopher Lee’s presence can’t lift Arabian Adventure. Whether Kevin Connor felt that merely having Chris in his film was enough, or whether Chris himself found the proceedings just too dispiriting, it’s hard to decide; but the fact is, he barely does any acting at all. Rather, he goes through the entire thing with minimal effort and a mournful, someone-please-get-me-out-of-here look in his eyes. Of course, it’s not as if he were given anything he could really sink his teeth into: his Alquazar isn’t even conceptually interesting. Since 1940’s Thief Of Bagdad, most of the Bad Guys in these kinds of fantasy films have been modelled after Conrad Veidt’s majestically doomed Jaffar. There was usually at least an attempt at "anti-hero-dom"; a suggestion of tragedy, or even just of hubris. There’s none of that in Alquazar. We’re given no hint as to why he does anything he does; everything about his character (and by extension, the film itself) reeks of "Just ‘Cos". As if to compensate for the lacklustre showing from Alquazar/Chris, all of Arabian Adventure’s subsidiary Bad Guys turn in displays of unbearable overacting. Worst of all is Milo O’Shea as Khasim (naturally - he’s the film’s Odious Comedy Relief); but he is run a close second by John Wyman as Bahloul, whose entire notion of "acting" seems to consist of glowering and baring his teeth; and by John Ratzenberger as Achmed, a street ruffian much given to acts of petty cruelty. Achmed may come in third in the Hamming-It-Up stakes, but he wins the Annoyance Derby hands down, as he comes equipped with a gang of hangers-on that divides its time equally between roaring with laughter ("AAAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!!") for about five minutes every time Achmed does something mean or says something witty (like calling Marjeeb a cockroach; what a gut-buster, hey?), and mugging directly into the camera….

There are perhaps two genuinely good ideas in Arabian Adventure, and the film makes precious little of either of them. The first is that of Alquazar’s soul, placed in bondage after being sold to "the Evil One". This could have been an interesting plot thread, with Alquazar’s deliberately imprisoned "goodness" battling with his lust for power; but the soul is so whiny and ineffectual that you end up sympathising with Alquazar’s desire to be rid of it. Matters are not helped by the fact that the soul is, to put it mildly, not very bright. When Alquazar offers to give the soul its freedom in exchange for help obtaining the Rose of Elil, which will make him all-powerful, the soul agrees – then later on is shocked when Alquazar reneges on the deal. What the - !? How could Alquazar’s own soul possibly be taken in by anything Alquazar says!? Yeesh! Still, it’s quite possible that the casual viewer of Arabian Adventure won’t be thinking about that little detail. It’s more probable that instead - as I was on the first run through - they’ll be shaking their heads in disbelief at the absolutely blatant thievery involved in the whole "Magic Mirror" thing, and wondering where the heck the Disney lawyers were. And just to make sure that absolutely no-one overlooks the origin of this device, they actually have Alquazar demanding to know whether or not he’s "the mightiest of them all" (which I guess is the masculine version of the ritual). Like his predecessor, Alquazar doesn’t like his Magic Mirror’s reply – which in this instance is that he will never be "the mightiest of them all" until he holds the Rose of Elil, "the greatest talisman for good that ever existed". But, the Mirror warns the already-plotting Caliph, he will not be able to capture the Rose himself, because he is too evil: someone else will have to do it for him. (How Alquazar will be able to wield this talisman if he’s too evil to capture it is left to our imagination.)

This leads to the film’s second clever, and only subtle, idea. The Mirror summons up a vision of he who can capture the Rose, and Alquazar, seeing Hassan and Marjeeb together, leaps to the conclusion – as perhaps the viewer does also – that Hassan is the man for the job. Having sent his cats-paw on his mission with the promise of Zuleira’s hand, Alquazar instigates several attempts on Marjeeb’s life (why? - just ‘cos) - only to realise when it is almost too late that it is the boy, not the Prince, to whom the Rose will fall. And this, in story terms, leads us to the single most insufferable aspect of Arabian Adventure. It is indeed Marjeeb who turns out to be the story’s hero – only no-one, including the film-makers, ever seems to realise it. It is Marjeeb who captures the Rose in the first place, Marjeeb who later rescues the Rose from the Bad Guys’ clutches, Marjeeb who defeats Alquazar, and Marjeeb who sacrifices his own magical protection in order to save Hassan’s life, when he has been literally stabbed in the back by the treacherous Khasim. When Vahishta, the Genie of the Jewel, warns Marjeeb that if she saves Hassan’s life, it will be the end of her protection of him, Marjeeb accepts the terms, because he is just a peasant boy, and Hassan is a prince – and therefore, automatically more worthy to live than he. What’s disturbing is that this is precisely the film’s attitude, too. There should, of course, have been a "Pinocchio-moment" here, if I can call it that; a scene when someone, preferably Hassan himself, convinced Marjeeb that worth has nothing to do with rank; that his courage, his generosity, and his resourcefulness make him just as important a person as any prince. But no, not in this world. Marjeeb might do all the work, but it is Prince Hassan who gets all the rewards: the kingdom, the princess, all of Alquazar’s wealth. As for Marjeeb---well, he gets to watch Hassan triumph. And what more could any peasant boy want?

Well, I’ve spent three pages complaining about Arabian Adventure’s story, its characters, and its moral – so what does that tell you about the quality of its fantasy elements? Yup, ‘fraid so. The fact is, of course, that when it comes to this kind of film, the story, characters and moral can suck as much as they want, just so long as the viewer is compensated with lots of fights and chase scenes, not to mention monsters, demons, genies, and sundry other members of the family fantastique. There’s an attempt at that here, but not much of one. The problem isn’t just that the effects are so poor, although they are. You could forgive that, if they were at least executed with enthusiasm, or imagination; but instead, everything here is sloppy, half-hearted. You get the distinct impression that since the target audience was children, the producers figured any old thing would do. Well, I hate to break it to them, but children know just as well as adults when they’re being stiffed; and I doubt that there are many children around who could watch what’s dished up here and not be sorely disappointed.

Anyway, the effects, such as they are, kick in when Hassan is sent in search of the Rose of Elil. The Prince, Khasim and (for a while – Khasim pushes him off) Marjeeb travel by flying carpet to the land of their quest, where Khasim accidentally releases a genie ("comically", of course; everything Khasim does is "comical"), who instead of the traditional three wishes, offers Hassan and Khasim the "favour" of a swift death. This genie has to seen to be disbelieved: he’s a fat guy with his face painted blue, and eyes like the aliens in Killers From Space. He’s also transparent. Imagine a Bert I. Gordon film about a Mexican wrestler on the rampage, and you’ll have some notion of the standard of the effects work here. Disposing of this first threat, Hassan and Khasim head for a ring of volcanos which periodically erupt, bringing forth roaring, fire-breathing dragons. Our hero cringes in terror, while the audience cringes with embarrassment; for, not content with ripping off Snow White, the film-makers also stole a chunk from The Wizard Of Oz: the "dragons" are mechanical, operated by a man inside, whose job it is to scare off anyone who might be trying to find the mythical Rose. Now, these dragons, in and of themselves, really are the best thing about the film. They’re nicely done, and very cute (provoking a "I want one! I want one!" from me). Trouble is – they’re meant to be scary. Anyway, fortunately for Hassan, Marjeeb has already sussed out the artificial nature of this "danger" (the more we see of the defences it puts up, the less and less impressed we become with the powers of this almighty Rose). The guardian of the dragons is forced to reveal the whereabouts of the Rose, which is at the centre of a swamp, guarded by the dead – those who previously attempted its capture. Hassan tries, and is nearly dragged to his death; and once again, it is left to Marjeeb to save the day. And what of this mighty talisman, this all-powerful weapon for good? – it looks just as, by this stage, you might expect: like a plastic flower dipped in a bit of gilt. Pathetic. The climax of the film takes place back in Jahdor, with Hassan leading the rebels (remember them?) in a battle against Bahloul and his men; a battle which takes the form of an aerial dog-fight on flying carpets. This could have been exciting, but again it’s so limply executed that it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm. Meanwhile, it is Marjeeb, of course, who disposes of Alquazar; and the film ends with Hassan being proclaimed the new Caliph (well, I’m thrilled, aren’t you?), and he and Zuleira heading off on their honeymoon on a flying carpet. Somewhat disturbingly, they are accompanied by Marjeeb. I suppose it’s meant to be his "reward", that he gets to hang out with royalty; but personally I suspect that the newlyweds just wanted a servant….

If you read the cast list up above, you will notice some names there that I haven’t gotten around to mentioning in this review yet. Arabian Adventure’s opening credits announce, rather ominously, a trio of "Special Guest Appearances". One of those is from the French actress Capucine, who plays the Genie of the Jewel, Vahishta. Vahishta appoints herself Marjeeb’s guardian after – in what’s actually a nicely done fairy-tale moment – he proves his generosity by giving his last meal to a blind beggar woman. I’m indebted to the actress for her appearance here, since my only genuine laugh of the whole film came via the malapropos superimposition of the name "Capucine" over the scene that introduces Marjeeb’s monkey. (Hey, it’s that kind of film – ya gotta take your laughs where you can get them.) "Special Guest" Number Two is Mickey Rooney, who plays the guardian of the mechanical dragons. It speaks volumes for the acting in this film in general that Rooney’s performance doesn’t seem all that over-the-top, because taken on its own terms, it’s just as hammy as you might expect. And the third "Special Guest"--- Well, this is where it gets painful: it’s Peter Cushing, utterly wasted in a role consisting of one and a bit scenes. That’s not to say that he doesn’t make the most of his screentime - always the pro, he absolutely does; and sure, he probably just took the part just to hang out with his old friend, Chris, again; but still, his casting borders on the insulting. And in fact, I’m going to close here by saying something about Arabian Adventure that I never thought I’d say about any film: it is not worth watching just for Peter Cushing’s presence. I can’t warn you away from it more strongly than that….