Tuesday, September 22, 2009


"Children of camels! Offsprings of Donkeys! Paint your foolish faces! Dress your ugly bodies to deceive the Mongols! This time we enter the palace!"
-Andy Devine

n history, the Mongols ruled the region today known as Iraq for close to 200 years from the time that Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258. Arthur Lubin's film for Universal Pictures asserts to the contrary, however, that the Mongol occupation lasted for approximately ten years. This follow-up to the Technicolor smash Arabian Nights, reuniting romantic leads Jon Hall and Maria Montez, views the Mongol regime through the lens of similarly set fantasy films, and its style and structure are also influenced by heroic bandit films from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Jesse James, not to mention operetta films of the sort that sometimes featured romantic bandit heroes, as well as World War II resistance stories. Seen that way, it could be called the Inglourious Basterds of its time. It even has a rather theatrical climax with a Busby Berkeley style number with sword-dancing Mongol warriors and the ahistorical assassination of the head of state.

The film starts in that fateful year, 1258, when the heroic Caliph prepared to make his escape from Baghdad and start a resistance to the Mongol invader. But he is betrayed by Prince Cassim and killed. His son Ali, not yet a teenager, escapes in the confusion, but is believed to be drowned. He wanders into the mountainous dessert only to stumble across the secret entrance to the cave of "the Thieves" (so called, I suppose, because no one else dares steal in Mesopotamia) just as the famous phrase of command "Open Oh Sesame!" (get it right, people!) unleashes the gang for another raid. Ali quickly memorizes the magic words and settles into the Thieves' lair, only to be found asleep by the mob, who pretty much adopt him.

Jon Hall (left) and Turhan Bey (right); below, the Thieves.

By the time he reaches burly manhood, "Ali Baba" (Hall), the surrogate son of head thief Baba, is for all intents and purposes head of the Thieves, who have become the only effective resistance force in the region despite their all-too-obvious red turbans and other distinctive costumes. He sneaks into Baghdad one fine day and meets cute with the Princess Amara (Montez), daughter of the traitor Cassim, neither realizing that this is the second time they've met cute in the picture. As kids, in the opening scene, they had swapped bodily fluids (just blood, folks) and pledged faith to each other, but neither recognizes the other as adults. Cassim is trying to marry Amara off to Hulagu Khan to secure his position in the Mongol court, but even before she realizes his true identity, Amara finds herself attracted to the Hollywood handsome brigand. I think you can take the plot from there....

For years the Hall-Montez films were seen as the epitome of cinematic camp. I suppose that results from their guileless indifference to either history or plausibility and the staggering oddities of casting. In Arabian Nights, for instance, Sindbad the Sailor, admittedly a supporting character, was played by Shemp Howard. Here, Ali Baba's right-hand man is portrayed by Andy Devine, usually a comic-relief Western type. The casting is so indiscriminate when it comes to ethnicity that we have two characters who grew up together as small tykes and still live in the same country, yet speak either with a thick Latin accent (Montez) or not (Hall). The closest we get to authentic casting that I know of is the half-Turkish Turhan Bey as a juvenile servant of Amara and ally of Ali Baba. But as I understand it the true locus of camp in these films is Montez, and hers is a camp performance both in her frequent resort to outlandishly inauthentic fashions (check out her Forties-vintage shoulder pads) and her ability to read her often-ridiculous lines straightfacedly, perhaps without fully understanding what they mean. To be honest, I don't get it about her. She's attractive enough, but not the dazzling goddess some hype might suggest, and she is overall a little too modestly clothed in this particular picture to make the impression I expected.

Andy Devine (or is that Divine?) in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

But Ali Baba is a fun picture exactly because it is only concerned with entertainment. It has nothing at all on its pretty, empty little mind except what you project on it. It must have appealed to all the pulp readers out there who still dug "Arabian Nights" style fantasies of sultans and harems, and for whom the closing scene of a hero raising the banner of Islam over Baghdad caused no anxiety whatsoever. I suppose it's a racist film in the sense of excluding true Arabs or Asians from the cast, but at the same time it has that paradoxical effect of making you think of Arabs, at least, as just like you and me, only much more exotically attired. Movies with such settings used to be a commonplace of Hollywood, as were films from all sorts of adventurous periods of history, They are less common now, either because modern standards of authenticity impose prohibitive costs, or because studios are convinced that no one cares anymore about most of the past. I miss the diversity of subject matter that existed even when you could still watch movies like this on TV on a random day. Seeing Universal release these films on brilliantly garish DVDs inspires nearly as much nostalgia in me as they might in people who first saw these movies 65 years ago.

And here's the trailer you won't see on the DVD, uploaded to YouTube by BluDirect:

1 comment:

J. Astro said...

Pretty hilarious when the pompous announcer goes "Yes! Open, O Sesame!" in the trailer voice-over. And I love how the 40 Thieves are basically credited as themselves. :)

Cool write-up, man.