Zahrain is a fictional Arab country ruled by a tyrannical monarch and operated, for all intents and purposes, by the American experts who run the Zahrain Oil company. The government has recently captured Sharif, a prominent resistance leader (Yul Brynner) and would like to dispose of him without the publicity of a trial. They want to disappear him en route to prison, but the prison convoy doesn't make it far past the holding facility when it's attacked and cracked open by rebels led by Ahmed (Sal Mineo). The raid liberates non-political prisoners as well, including an American, Mr. Houston (Jack Warden). In a place like this and a time like this, Houston would most likely not be in prison for crimes against Zahrain. In fact, he's a Zahrain Oil executive who was caught embezzling $200,000. For that, he's left to the mercy of the Zahraini justice system. He decides to hang with Sharif, hoping to cross the border with him and find a place to access his Egyptian bank account. He ingratiates himself by helping the rebels hijack an ambulance with Laila (Madlyn Rhue), a European-educated Arab employee of Zahrain Oil, on board. Also along for the ride after the breakout is Tahar (Anthony Caruso), aka "Frankenstein" or "Frankie," so called by Houston because he's the only Arab in the picture to talk pidgin English, and because he's a slovenly brute. The common objective is simple: make it to the border.
Yul Brynner is Sharif
Jack Warden is Houston
Anthony Caruso is "Frankenstein"
Neame's film evolved from an adapted screenplay by Richard Matheson designed as a vehicle for Clark Gable in the Houston role. Gable's death in 1960, or his earlier departure from the project, led the producers to scrap Matheson's script and start over, diminishing Houston's role accordingly and turning Escape From Zahrain into more of an ensemble piece. It seems that way in part because Yul Brynner gives an unusually low-key, literally hooded performance, as if Sharif's part had not been built up to compensate for Houston's diminution. No one character dominates the story, and the plot often defies generic expectations, except for the obligatory killing of Sal Mineo.
Sal Mineo is Doomed.
The remarkable thing about this film made near the solstice of the Cold War is the complete absence of Cold War politics. You might expect the question at least to arise of whether Sharif is a Communist or is being supported or duped by Commies, but it never does. We're presumably meant to take Sharif at face value as a freedom fighter, and that forces us to take seriously some tense exchanges between Houston and Ahmed regarding America's role in the fictional country.
Ahmed: The trouble with you Americans is that you have it too good. You're too rich.
Houston: Ah, sure, we're lousy people. Until someone wants our lousy money or wants to use our lousy brains to develop their country. Look, kid, if it wasn't for us there wouldn't be oil in Zahrain. It'd still be down there. This little operation cost us 50 million American dollars.
Ahmed: Why, the fact that you have a lot of money doesn't automatically put you in the right. This is our oil! We should be employing you, not you us.
Houston: And the champion of the people [indicating Sharif] is gonna get it all straight, huh?
Ahmed: The people. The people are going to set it straight.
Houston: Well, that I'll have to see, kid. If somebody didn't step in to help you, you'd still be rubbing two sticks together to make a fire.
Ahmed: If you dislike us so much, why don't you go? Then go see how long you last in this country without us.
Houston: Fine. See how long you last without me.
Sharif [pointing machine gun at Houston]: I think you'll stay with us, Mr. Houston. We 'backward' people learn from you 'civilized' ones very quickly.
Houston, however, is in no position to be a credible patriotic spokesman for American values. We learn along the way that he has a failed marriage and that he feels that the money he embezzled is the only money he's ever really earned. The character has an obvious redemption arc, but it's not as sweeping as it might have been had the film remained a Clark Gable vehicle. There's a realistic modesty to the drama throughout the picture. Houston enjoys some theoretical redemption by helping Sharif, but he ends the film still a fugitive, his ultimate fate uncertain. Sharif makes it across the border, but his real battle is presumably just beginning. Laila experiences some consciousness-raising and flirts with several male characters, but ends the film unattached, except presumably to the cause of liberating her country. The ambivalence of the ending is consistent with the film's overall evenhandedness toward the main characters. The final script by Robin Estridge lets each speak his or her piece, but doesn't judge anyone except for the greedy and selfish "Frankie." Estridge and Neame don't moralize and the film is better off for that.
Neame directs a sometimes uneasy mix of effective Mojave Desert locations and blatantly fake Paramount studio sets, but gets good second-unit use of airplanes and armored cars during the long chase. He milks the tribulations of the damaged ambulance for as much tension as he can, and he climaxes the movie with a furious little chase and battle with Molotov cocktails and machine guns in the middle of a sandstorm. He also finds time for a gratuitous unbilled appearance by James Mason, whose presence really adds nothing to the film and actually stalls its momentum for a reel. Once he's gone, however, the movie quickly rights itself and is on its way again.
The dialogue I quote so extensively above may have made the film seem talky or preachy to its original audiences, but they add to the movie's historical value today. Its lack of any romantic payoff or definitive triumph for freedom over tyranny may have made it seem dull or incomplete in 1962, but its narrative approach may just have been ahead of its time. But what makes Escape From Zahrain most valuable as a historical document is its portrayal of an Arab liberation movement that is no more "Islamist" than it is Communist. Laila is so Westernized an Arab that I at first thought that the character was European, and the male Arabs hold that against her only insofar as they question her commitment to the Arab nationalist cause. Islam figures in the story only to the extent that it forbids the Arab characters from sharing a bottle of Scotch with Houston, though Laila takes a sip to be friendly and Ahmed takes a swig out of jealousy. The fact is that, while early Islamists like Sayyid Qutb were active in the 1960s, the dominant political trend of the era in the region was secular socialist nationalism, and Escape From Zahrain reflects that reality. It seems almost utopian in retrospect, yet there might be real-life Sharifs fighting for freedom and justice, and not for theocracy, throughout the Middle East today. In many ways, this remains a very contemporary film.