Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s director, producer and writer, Esmail Kushan, was a driving figure behind escapist Iranian cinema, which enjoyed a golden age of sorts following the CIA backed coup d’état of 1953. During the enforced stability of the decades that followed, Kushan -- and then his sons -- churned out dozens of low budget entertainers under the banner of Kushan’s production company, Parsfilm. Today these films are frowned upon and derided by Iran’s post-revolutionary critics and intelligentsia, seen as part of the smokescreen of benignity in which the Shah’s corrupt regime hoped to envelop itself. And, hey, they’re not wrong. Suffice it to say that revivals of these films are unlikely to play to rapt crowds at Cannes.
Based on a popular Persian legend, Amir Arsalan-e Namdar tells the story of Arsalan (Mohamad Ali Fardin), a young Egyptian man of exceptional skill and apparently humble origins who learns that he is in fact the son of the deposed Ottoman ruler. Unfortunately, he learns this at the same time as does King Patras, the European despot whom his dad was dethroned and murdered by, who demands that Arsalan be returned to Constantinople to be murdered also. In order to spare his mother, adoptive father and adopted country from Patras’ wrath, Arsalan returns voluntarily. But rather than surrender himself, he uses his preternatural skills as a warrior and leader to seize back the throne and route the invaders, thus taking his rightful place as king.
Now, all of the above could make for a pretty thrilling screen adventure, but Kushan chooses instead to skim over this part of Arsalan’s tale via some hasty opening narration prattled over a series of illustrated title cards. This leaves us to pick up at a later point in the original narrative, with the triumphant Arsalan falling in love -- as per Laura's Dana Andrews -- with a young woman depicted in a portrait he’s found lying around the castle. This infatuation provides the impetus for the movie’s first song, a serenade that Mohamad Ali Fardin sings to the portrait -- because Amir Arsalan-e Namdar, like many Iranian pop films of its day, is also a musical. I should mention, however, that it is a very stripped down musical, with nothing that a film fan raised on Bollywood could advisably call an actual musical number; just one star or other (almost always Mohamad Ali Fardin) walking around singing with, at the most, a couple of extras shifting listlessly from foot to foot in the background. I should also mention that these songs might prove somewhat difficult musical terrain for those whose Western ears are unaccustomed to the glottal ululations of Farsi singing.
That enchanting woman in the portrait is soon revealed to be none other than Farrokh Lagha (Farzneh), the daughter of King Patras, a fact which in no way dampens Arsalan’s ardor for making her his main hang. In short order, he has stolen his way into Patras’ kingdom, where we see that, conveniently, Farrokh has also fallen in love with a portrait of him, which I guess just happened to be laying around. Less conveniently, we learn that Farrokh’s father has pledged her hand to Prince Hooshang (Jamshid Mehrdad), the son of a rival ruler. Undaunted, Arsalan seeks to insinuate himself into events via the adoption of a series of disguises, ranging from that of a humble servant to a masked swashbuckler after the example of Zorro. Meanwhile, the King’s Wazir, Ghamar (Hossein Mohsen), pretends to befriend Arsalan, but is in reality determined to thwart his efforts through the application of dark magic (or magicks, if you prefer).
Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s action sees Mohamad Ali Fardin -- a star who is something of a Persian legend in his own right -- scaling up and rappelling down castle walls, engaging in sword fights, and lustily laughing in the face of danger in a manner common to swashbuckling movie heroes of every era and nationality. The fact that his lusty laugh is braying and insistent to the point of being almost creepy should be factored in, but otherwise, Ali Fardin -- who looks like Farley Granger in one light and Dean Martin in another -- acquits himself well as the poor Iranian man’s answer to Douglas Fairbanks. At the same time, Amir Arsalan-e Namdar’s material limitations -- it’s obviously tiny, paint and clapboard sets, backyard locations, and tinny instrumental score executed on a lone organ -- reduce much of this pageantry to the level of anti-spectacle.
Things look up for us a bit during the film’s second half, when Arsalan -- presumably through some witchery of Ghamar’s -- finds himself in a desert wasteland inhabited by a menagerie of odd creatures. There is a giant demon to be vanquished, a hirsute dwarf thing, a talking dog, a town filled with people turned to stone, a hatchet faced crone who lives in a well, and people flying about as convincingly as crude process shots will allow. A giant dragon puppet even makes a heartbreakingly brief appearance. None of these are realized any more expertly than what I’ve previously described, but, as compared to the drearily prosaic sight of actors trying to pull off acrobatic sword fights in a set the size of a gas station bathroom, there’s just something much more intrinsically wonderful about phantasmagoria done on the cheap.
Mind you, if it’s cheapjack Asiatic visual wonders you want, much of what you see in Amir Arsalan-e Namdar can also be seen in the countless Arabian Nights-style stunt films produced during the same period by India’s B movie industry -- which, though perhaps not any more accomplished in their presentation, are at least without the unsavory political context that Kushan’s films carry. That is, of course, provided you’re even aware of that context. Pictures like Amir Arsalan-e Namdar were valued by the Shah’s regime more for their manifest lack of political content than for any propagandistic value, which may explain why Kushan seems to glance over the one aspect of the story -- it’s exceptionalism in depicting a character whose inborn superiority destines him to rule others -- that the Shah might have found most flattering. Without that, what we’re left with is a storybook fantasy that is no less casually diverting for being silly and manifestly low rent. Of course, being merely silly in times that cry out for revolution is, for some, as great a crime as any.