As has been and will forever be apparent, I harbor an epic number of obsessions, fetishes, and curiosities that provide me nigh endless material for exploring and exposing to the public. Among the ones that have yet to be mentioned is a fondness for movies about the French Foreign Legion. Not the modern one, with their modern weapons and uniforms. I mean the old one, with the white pants, blue coats, and kepis, marching through the desert because that’s what the French Foreign Legion does. Desert Sands is a high-spirited desert adventure in that style they only seemed to do in the 1950s, with plenty of dashing heroes, daring-do, romance, fiendish locals, and a French Foreign Legion battalion that seems much more like a British officers’ club.
When Teleport City reviewed the French science fiction animated feature Gandahar, we delved into the history of French sci-fi in animated and comic form, including the birth of Metal Hurlant, the comic magazine that, when it was licensed for publication in America, became Heavy Metal. Tackling Luc “The Destroyer of French Cinema” Besson’s whimsical fantasy-adventure The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec allows us to continue our meandering history lesson on French comics and comics magazines. Adele Blanc-sec is an adaptation of a comic strip of the same name, which appeared in Pilote — coincidentally, the magazine that served as an incubator for the writers and artists (including Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, and Enki Bilal) who would leave it in the 1970s to launch Metal Hurlant. Pilote was founded by two writers, Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier, and two artist, Albert Uderzo and Jean Hebrard. The four of them worked previously on comics supplements to newspapers as well as providing strips for magazines. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix le Gaulois, a humorous strip about a village of Dark Ages Gauls was Pilote’s biggest hit in the early days and served as the foundation on which the magazine was built. The magazine boasted a number of other popular series, too, such as Blueberry, Barbe-Rouge, and Valerian et Laureline.
The years 1976 to 1986, roughly spanning ages four to fourteen for me, seem to be when I discovered the bulk of what I would end up liking for the rest of my life. At the time, my enthusiasm for entertainment that was sometimes, to be charitable, of dubious merit, could be chalked up to simple naivety — the juvenile tastes of a juvenile. Perfectly acceptable, even if it did mean that I was prone to celebrating things like Treasure of the Four Crowns and Gymkata. However, years — nay, decades — later, I find that when I go back and revisit these films so beloved in my youth, rather than having a quiet chuckle at how silly I was back then, I actually enjoy them just as much. And sometimes even more.
Time after time, I’ve sat down to be disillusioned, or to wonder how I could have liked such lowbrow fare when I could have spent my time brushing up on classic works of literature, only to find myself hooting with glee and running about the room in unabashed glee as I witnessed some fantastical orgy of ninja gore or oiled-up barbarians. Think of it as my childlike sense of wonder, if you are feeling generous, or shake your head in sorrow as you realize that I did indeed completely stop growing mentally at age fourteen.
Still, one must assume that even I have my limits, and there must be a film at there that I loved as a kid and would not still love as an adult. I was told countless times by many people I trust that the 1979 fantasy film Arabian Adventure would be that film. Because make no mistake about it — I loved this film when I was it in the theaters. Looking back on it, I could remember very little. I don’t think I ever saw it again after that first time. All I could recall about the film was a genie, something about Mickey Rooney inside a giant golden clockwork robot, and magic carpet dogfights. Heck, I didn’t even remember that it starred venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. I have no idea why I didn’t remember him but did remember Mickey Rooney. I don’t think I was a big Mickey Rooney fan in my youth. In fact, I think I’ve only ever seen two Mickey Rooney films in my entire life.
Anyway, for years I snooped around, hoping to discover that Arabian Adventure had suddenly appeared on home video in some format that wouldn’t require me to shell out $30 for someone’s crappy VHS bootleg with a label hand-written in pencil. But for one reason or another, it always seemed to be MIA, and so I was left celebrating the merits of the film while all those around me who had seen it more recently made with the ominous proclamations of, “You’re going to be disappointed with that one, chief.” Impossible! I mean — seriously: magic carpet dog fights!
Finally, after years of waiting outside a temple, seated in the lotus position and refusing both food and water, ignoring the rain, the snow, the scorching heat, the jackals, the police telling me to move along, after all of that, one day I performed my hopeful little search on Netflix, and low and behold, there it was. Arabian Adventure! Needless to say, I had to bump certain classics, like Kickboxer IV (oh, the things I’ll do for Michelle Krasnoo…the things I’d let her do to me…), a little lower on the list, but it was worth it to move this long-awaited gem from my youth to the top of the queue. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Would Arabian Adventure prove to be, as has been predicted by soothsayers and friends with my best interests at heart, a massive disappointment, forcing me to call into question everything I’ve ever held dear, permanently casting a gloomy shadow of resentment and melancholy over my childhood? Or would my seemingly indefatigable ability to pleased by damn near anything triumph, reinforcing the idea that I see the world through the rose-colored lenses of a child and also have the brain of a seven-year-old?
Well, I’ve rewatched the movie now, and let me say this: magic carpet dogfights.
Yes, it’s true; my bottomless lack of taste (I’m watching Navy SEALS as I write this) and sound judgment wins again! I enjoyed Arabian Adventure to no end, reveled in every clunky special effect, thrilled to scenes of guys gliding around on magic carpets suspended by wires, and looked with the kind eyes of an old friend upon the visage of Mickey Rooney running around inside not one, but three giant golden clockwork robots. And then there’s venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee as the evil caliph Alquazar, doing his usual shtick and sporting a big ol’ mustache. And then there’s a kid with a monkey, a beautiful princess, a dashing prince, a scheming fat guy, some chick who lives inside a sapphire, Peter Cushing as the world’s least convincing Arab, and did I mention that this movie has magic carpet dogfights? Yes, I did.
And what makes my adoration of this film all the more shameful is that it has all these things, but doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. The prince and princess are boring. Mickey Rooney is irritating and seems to have been bitten by a radioactive community theater performer and thus been imbued with all the proportional over-acting and hamming abilities that come with such a position in life. The special effects,while ambitious, are rarely any good. The entire movie plays like a fan-made “greatest hits of the Arabian Nights” highlight reel. And none of that seems to matter to me.
So here’s the deal. The film begins with young Majeed (Puneet Sira) and his pet monkey arriving in a matte painting of the ancient Arabian city of Jhador, populated primarily by second unit stock footage of camels and guys sitting around in doorways. Majeed has arrived in the middle of sweeping events. People are plotting the overthrow of the ruthless Caliph Dracula (venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee), while Caliph Dracula himself is plotting to recover the mystical Rose of Elil, a sacred artifact that will, in some vague way, grant him the ultimate power to rule over the world, or something to that effect. Artifacts that grant you the power to rule the world are rarely clear on exactly how they plan to go about it. They are, in that way, very much like your modern politician — all full of promises and rhetoric, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, the promises tend to fall apart. But that’s small potatoes to worry about for a guy who has somehow managed to imprison his own soul in a fire pit and spends his free time taunting it. For its part, the soul spends most of its time being sort of petulant and whiny and generally making you understand why Caliph Dracula imprisoned it in the first place.
Unable to retrieve the rose himself, for it must be plucked by a pure and righteous hand, Caliph Dracula enlists the aid of dashin’ Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias), who has fallen in love with Princess Zuliera (Emma Samms) despite having never actually seen or met her, and who seems completely oblivious to the fact that Caliph Dracula is evil and enjoys crushing his subjects beneath the iron fist of his mad tyranny. But he looks damn good in his swashbuckling Arabian prince outfit. Majeed ends up in possession of a magic gem that contains a trapped sorceress (Capucine) who, grateful for him releasing her, grants Majeed three life-saving wishes. Through typical movie convolution, this results in Majeed suddenly appearing on the back of a magic carpet piloted by dashin’ Prince Hasan and Khasim (Milo O’Shea), a spy assigned by Caliph Dracula to accompany dashin’ Prince Hasan and stab him in the back (literally) once he has the rose. Needless to say, Khasim is vexed that this half-naked young rascal has suddenly appeared out of nowhere on their magic carpet, and so he spends the bulk of their flight trying to knock him off.
Their quest for the magic rose leads them on a variety of adventures that involve a murderous genie (big Milton Reid, sporting weird googly eyes), a trio of fire-breathing monsters that end up being controlled by Mickey Rooney, and a lake of guys who try to grab your legs. As far as trials go, I have to admit, I’ve seen more challenging. I mean, Hercules had to clean stables that hadn’t been cleaned in dozens of years, and dashin’ Prince Hasan has to defeat Mickey Rooney? That hardly seems fair — especially when Majeed does all the work. I mean, maybe the psychotic laughing genie would have posed a threat if he had been able to hit the broadside of a mosque with his magic firebolts, but he proves incapable of hitting a squirming fat guy all of five feet away — and then he gets defeated when dashin’ Prince Hasan tips over a bottle! That’s Scooby Doo quality adventure right there. The quests get more challenging when Khasim pulls his power play. Before too long, dashin’ Prince Hasan and Majeed find themselves leading a revolution, rescuing a princess, fighting with Caliph Dracula in a lake of fire, and engaging in magic carpet dogfights with Caliph Dracula’s all-carpet air force of guy’s who primary skill seems to be to wave their swords awkwardly at dashin’ Prince Hasan, while he waves his sword awkwardly at them, causing hem to fall off their magic carpets. Someone should look into seat belts or something for those things.
Lyz at And You Call Yourself a Scientist — one of my absolute favorite movie sites on the web — said of Arabian Adventure, “It is hard to imagine any but the least discriminating of viewers — of any age — really enjoying this film.” And I can’t really debate her on this matter. Instead, about all I can do is admit that it has been my goal to live the sort of life and put forth the sort of opinions that would result in my eventual tombstone reading, “America’s Least Discerning Viewer.” My other choice for an epitaph was, “It Took a Dozen Texas Marshals to Finally Bring Him Down.” Anyway, I freely admit that pretty much all of the criticisms that someone could lay at the feet of Arabian Adventure stick with the tenacity of an extra-gooey Wacky Wall Walker fresh out of the gum machine capsule. None of these should come as any shock if you are familiar with the writer-director team who brought you this movie. Because the last couple of movies they brought you were just as bad or even worse (and yeah — I liked them, too).
Director Kevin Conner and screenwriter Brian Hayles are responsible for a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy adventure films: At the Earth’s Core, starring Doug McClure, Caroline Munro, and Peter Cushing (and featuring one of the single greatest lines and deliveries in movie history: “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!”), and the one-two punch of The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot, both starring just Doug McClure. Hayles and Conner (they toured with Seals and Croft, I think) also made Warlords of Atlantis, which stars Doug McClure but is not based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs story . It does often get me confused when I think it’s War Gods of the Deep, which featured Vincent Price and Tab Hunter — and buddy, Tab Hunter is no Doug McClure. Oliver Tobias, also, is no Doug McClure.
Anyway, the films of Conner and Hayles are almost universally reviled by everyone except, apparently, me. And I have loved every last one of them. Even The People that Time Forgot. Even Arabian Adventure, though it could have really used some Doug McClure. In fact, given that the wooden dullness of our prince and princess is one of Arabian Adventure‘s greatest weaknesses, the film could have been improved immensely if dashin’ Prince Hasan had been played by Doug McClure and Princess Zuleira played by Caroline Munro. But I guess Doug McClure was too rugged and Joe Don Baker-esque to play a dashing prince (since he specialized in playing cool Americans in British films), and Caroline Munro had already been an Arabian princess in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Still, man that would have been awesome, or at least more awesome than Oliver Tobias and Emma Samms — both of whom look the part but offer very little in the way of charisma.
As bad as Conner and Hayles’ previous movies may have been, at least each of them had something that could keep people from being totally cranky about watching them. Land that Time Forgot enjoyed the services of Doug McClure and features WWI German U-boat guys fighting dinosaurs, and that’s enough for me. People that Time Forgot enjoys the services of Doug McClure with a caveman beard and Sarah Douglas in expedition jodhpurs. And At the Earth’s Core? My Lord! It’s got Doug McClure fighting night immobile paper mache monsters, Caroline Munro in a loin cloth waving a knife around, and Peter Cushing in one of the most hilarious “absent-minded professor” roles ever. Plus, it has the line “You cannot mesmerize me! I’m British!” — which is bested only by Cushing’s line in Horror Express where, indignant at the suggestion that he could have been possessed by the monster stalking the train, exclaims, “Monsters?!?! We’re British!”
Arabian Adventure does not have the benefit of charismatic players like Munro, McClure, or Peter Cushing — which is an odd thing to say, since it features Peter Cushing. Cushing is one of a handful of “special guest stars,” which is a nice way of saying that they owed Conner some sort of a favor or something. Cushing appears in a bit role as a holy man imprisoned in Caliph Dracula’s dungeon, and as an Arab holy man, Peter Cushing is a very convincing 19th century British scientist. The other guest stars — Mickey Rooney and Milo O’Shea — have larger parts and even pass themselves off fairly believably as Arabs (by the standards of fat Irish guys pretending to be Arabs), but each one seems intent on outdoing the other in the field of hammy over-acting. I suppose that’s good, because no one else seemed all that interested in putting any effort into their parts. Actually, that’s not true. I firmly believe that Oliver Tobias tried really hard. But he’s the film’s Keanu Reeves. He’s earnest, good-looking,and really wants to do a good job; he just can’t. But at least the script gives him some chances to shine, even if he fails as an actor to rise tot he occasion. He gets to have badly executed sword fights, fly around on magic carpets, jump over stuff, and tip over a genie bottle. Poor Emma Samms is saddled with a character so thinly written that the poor actress was doomed to be boring before the first frame was ever shot. Her princess is a sheltered woman who has never left the confines of Caliph Dracula’s palace. She has nothing to do but walk from room to room, and eventually sit around and listen to Caliph Dracula’s imprisoned soul complain about being imprisoned. Eventually, dashin’ Prince Hasan rescues her. Or really, Majeed rescues her and dashin’ Prince Hasan happens to be int he same general area and of legal age, so what are you gonna do?
Speaking of which, although I apparently didn’t mind them as a kid, as an adult I usually hate movies starring children. I don’t care for children in general, so watching a movie about one just seems pointless to me. But young Indian actor Puneet Sira seems possessed of all the charisma and charm that is lacking in Samms and Tobias. It’s hard not to compare him to Sabu, the young Indian star of films like Arabian Nights and Thief of Baghdad. So let me compare him to Sabu. As a Sabu stand-in, he’s exceptional, and we should be thankful that Conner at least took the time to find a likable and talented child instead of just casting Sabu, then in his…oh. Umm, then in his grave. OK, backing away from whatever Old Man Sabu joke I was hoping to make…
Which leaves us with venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee. Although his character is called Alquazar in this film, I prefer to refer to him as Caliph Dracula for two reasons. First, I know doing stuff like that irritates venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee (who I’m sure reads this site all the time) to no end, and any chance I have to irritate venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee is a chance I can’t let pass me by. Second, he basically gives the exact same performance he gave in Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Dracula AD 1972, and the Fu Manchu movies (they apparently let him keep the mustache from those films, because he has it on here), and honestly — most of the movies he’s ever been in. Don’t get me wrong — he does it very well most of the time, but it does tend to get a tad familiar. His character here is given very little to do other than wait around in his lair while his minion does all the hard work (a la Dracula AD 1972), so venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee doesn’t really seem to be giving it his all.
Eventually, he gets in a really clumsy battle with dashin’ Prince Hasan, then chases Majeed up a rock, but that’s about it. Oh, and he turns a fat guy into a frog. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it very much, and once again, I can’t help but think how much better this film would have been if they’d cast someone else — Vincent Price, for example. Oh, now there’s a movie! Vincent Price, Doug McClure, and Caroline Munro! If I had myself a magic sapphire genie, that would be my first wish. My second wish would be that venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee wrote me an email about how my jokes hurt his feelings, and then he ends the email with a sad face emoticon. Of course, my third wish would be that George Clooney was my friend. We’re both Kentucky boys, after all. Since Doug McClure is, sadly, no longer with us, I’d let Clooney be in my remake of Arabian Adventure. I don’t know who I’d get for Alquazar. Luckily, Caroline Munro, now nearly 60, is every bit as hot and talented as she was in her 20s. Maybe I could cast Alec Baldwin as Alquazar. Or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee!
So you may be asking yourself how I can spend the bulk of a review talking about how crappy a film is, then use that as criteria for concluding that I love the movie. Hey, this is Teleport City, baby, and the scientific method simply does not apply. And yeah, Arabian Adventure fails on a lot of levels for a lot of people. But not for me, because I had as much fun watching it today as I had watching nigh those many years ago. The lack of charisma in the leads doesn’t bug me. The fact that venerated horror film icon is giving a “just collecting a paycheck until I can go on to better films like Howling II and An Eye For An Eye” performance doesn’t bother me. The weak effects don’t bother me. The film is childish and clunky, and I love it. I love the magic carpet dogfights. I love the crummy sword fights. I love all the opulent but obvious matte painting backgrounds.
Speaking of obviously painted backgrounds, now is as good a time as any to breach the subject of the special effects. In 1977, as you may have heard, Star Wars was released upon the unsuspecting masses, and whatever its merits as a film (and I’m not trying to seem edgy by being a Star Wars hater — I loved it then and I love it still today), there’s no real credible way to deny the profound impact it had on special effects. It represented a quantum leap forward, and while you can say that nothing was ever the same after that, the fact is that there were a few stragglers that came in post-Star Wars but with very pre-Star Wars effects. Sometimes this had to do with the effects supervisor. Sometimes it had to do with the budget. In the case of Arabian Adventure, I’m pretty sure it was both.
Like most sci-fi and fantasy films that came in the wake of Star Wars, Arabian Adventure billed itself as a Star Wars like special effects extravaganza. If Star Wars was like watching Harry Houdini make an elephant vanish, Arabian Adventure was like watching a clumsy kid try to pull off a trick from his Blackstone the Magician illusion set. It’s cute, even charming in its way, but also sort of awkward and embarrassing.
Special effects supervisor George Gibbs shoots for the moon and ends up a fair distance from his target. He was early in his career, having worked previously with director Kevin Conner on Warlords of Atlantis, and then doing some model work on Richard Donner’s Superman before moving on to this film. Hamstrung by a small budget and limited resources, I think he intended to rely heavily on the gee whiz quaintness of his approach and on the untrained eyes of young children. The most ambitious effects are the magic carpets, realized through a combination of rear-screen projection, hoisting guys around on wires, and then letting little plastic guys tear around scale models of the city. None of these work terribly well, but there is a charm to watching little action figures on flying carpets wobble about in between scale model minarets. The other big effects are the genie — which is simple superimposition and animation, and sahib Rooney’s giant monsters, which are miniatures that rely on forced perspective shots that are sometimes effective and sometimes make Majeed look like a giant.
Still, I always appreciate a crude effect, and Arabian Adventure is endearing in its unwillingness to live within its means. This film certainly didn’t kill Gibbs’ career, and he went on to create all sorts of wildly uneven visual or effects for everything from 1980′s Flash Gordon to Conan the Barbarian. Obviously, the got really good at his craft pretty quickly, and he went on to work on films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Brazil, Alien 3, and more recently, From Hell and Doom. His work in Arabian Adventure is without a doubt a throwback to effects that probably weren’t even considered all that good in 1969, let alone 1979, but like I said — they’re sort of cute. In fact, pretty much everyone who worked on the effects for this film went on to very successful, and in some cases award-winning, careers. It goes without saying that none of those awards were for Arabian Adventure.
I have a tremendous weakness (one of many) for fantastic romanticized visions of ancient Arabia, and as pedestrian as some may find it, Arabian Adventure manages to satisfy the kid in me. I mean, don’t misunderstand — this film is nowhere near the caliber of the old Arabian Nights film, or either the Douglas Fairbanks or Sabu versions of The Thief of Badhdad. And it’s not in the league of the 1960s Sinbad movies with effects by Ray Harryhausen. But as dumb Saturday matinee fare, I still enjoy Arabian Adventure despite the sundry flaws. It would make a perfect double bill with Sinbad of the Seven Seas starring Lou Ferrigno.
Release Year: 1979 | Country: England | Starring: Puneet Sira, Oliver Tobias, Christopher Lee, Milo O’Shea, Emma Samms, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Mickey Rooney, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Milton Reid | Screenplay: Brian Hayle | Director: Kevin Conner | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Ken Thorne | Producer: John Dark