Monday, June 28, 2010

Antar The Black Prince (Egypt, 1961)

Antar The Black Prince comes to us in searing Eastmancolor, as befits a swashbuckling adventure of such epic scope. The film is based on the life and legend of Antarah ibn Shaddad, a 6th century poet and hero whose poetic works have come to be considered among the greatest in the Arab language. As the title indicates, Antar was indeed black, the son of an Arab tribal leader and a female Ethiopian slave. However, he is here played by a light-skinned Arab actor in black face. Given the movie's frequent admonishments about not judging men by the color of their skin, this makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance; it's sort of like watching Al Jolson sing "Fight The Power".

The aforementioned actor is Farid Chawki, a popular star of Egyptian action films during the 50s and 60s who crowned himself with the title "The King of the Terzos". The term "Terzos" refers to Egypt's third class movie theaters, the lowest level in the Egyptian cinematic food chain. From what I can tell, these were essentially the same as America's grindhouses, being somewhat disreputable urban movie houses running a constant program of second and third run films for the benefit of a largely male, working class audience.

That largely male, working class audience had their own name for Chawki: "The Beast". And any mystery surrounding that moniker can be easily dispelled by watching a film like Antar The Black Prince. The young Chawki is gifted with both imposing physical stature and brute intensity, as well as a seething, street level machismo that makes him quite the credible screen brawler -- though less so when he is trying to portray a mastery of the sword than when he is simply tossing people around with his bare hands like Dara Singh. When angered or cornered in Antar, he frequently lets out a loud, guttural roar, making for quite a contrast to those moments in the film when he spontaneously gives voice to florid romantic verse.

As depicted in the film, Antar's struggle to free himself from slavery, win the acknowledgment of his nobleman father, and the hand of his highborn cousin, A'abla (Kouka, wife of Antar director Niazi Mostafa, who cast her as a series of Bedouin heroines in his films) is a tough row to hoe. It is only after he saves A'abla from a gang of rapacious bandits that his father, Shaddad, deigns to relieve him of his lowly sheep herding duties and make him a knight in his army. Even so, it takes yet more instances of Antar single-handedly saving the collective asses of his tribe before Shaddad will agree to publicly admit to being his father, and then more acts of selfless heroism before the tribe will recognize him as a suitable mate for A'abla.

And even then the battle isn't over, as the romantic designs of the foppish Prince O'Mara -- smitten with A'abla -- and Shaddad's adulterous wife Somaiyah -- likewise with Antar -- lead the two to resort to every kind of chicanery imaginable in order to derail the relationship between Antar and A'abla. Finally, A'abla's father schemes with O'Mara to get rid of Antar once and for all by demanding that Antar supply for A'abla a dowry of one thousand red camels, which can only be obtained after a lengthy journey into hostile territory via a particularly treacherous stretch of desert. Honestly, it's a wonder that Antar didn't just tell everyone to get stuffed and go off to form a tribe of his own.

In short, being the lover of a woman of legendary beauty like A'abla proves to be nothing but trouble for Antar, as she is relentlessly being carted off by one lustful bandit, unscrupulous nobleman or another -- invariably screaming "Antar! Antar!" as she goes -- throughout the film. This has the potential to give the story a sort of Perils of Pauline repetitiveness. But, despite being limited by an obviously modest budget, the filmmakers manage to keep thing lively through the use of lots of aggressive color, frequent fight scenes, rousing Bollywood-style musical numbers, and the occasional jolt of surprising gore. The film may not provide a lesson in tolerance for those who are otherwise inclined, but it at least might demonstrate to them the inadvisable nature of keeping down a black man who could easily snap their necks with his bare hands.


memsaab said...

I am more tempted by Egyptian cinema (in addition to my addiction to Hindi cinema) than any other kind, and I only know this thanks to you Todd :) (although I'm a-feared Polly Shang Kwan may add her own siren song to the mix...)


Todd said...

And how could you not be tempted? These films are really wonderful. Give in!

memsaab said...

Perhaps I will spend the weekend caving :) Besides the ones you sent I did get Afrita Hanem and need to watch it!

Todd said...

Oh, yes. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

Rana Samiya said...

Now to find where I can watch a copy of the movie. Lovely review.

Todd said...

Thanks, Rana. Enjoy!

TheCaroVan said...

This is showing on tv in Qatar as we speak. Despite the somewhat lurid colours of both actors and scenery its great to watch.
Love your reviews.

Todd said...

Thank you, CaroVan. Yes, lurid is the word, isn't it?