Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oh Islam! (Egypt/Italy, 1961)

One of the most lavish Egyptian productions of its day, Oh Islam! is a swoony mix of history, folklore and plain old Hollywood style hogwash. The Egyptians have proven themselves adept at this kind of thing, but in this case they turned to the real experts, hiring American director Andrew Marton, a television mainstay who also served as either an AD or 2nd unit director on such A-list epics as Ben-Hur, Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Italians were also involved in Oh Islam!, though to what extent is a little more difficult to say. The IMDB entry for the film is one of that site’s more Frankensteinian, and whether that’s more indicative of the basic nature of the IMDB or of Oh Islam! I will momentarily withhold judgment. What I can say is that the version of Oh Islam! that was eventually released in Italy, under the title La Spada dell’Islam (The Sword of Islam), was altered to the extent that some of its original Egyptian stars were replaced by Italian ones, most notably Italian screen siren Silvana Pampanini, who was substituted for famed belly dancer and actress Taheya Cariocca in the prominent role of Shagrat al-Durr.

Why look, here’s a photo of Cariocca in the role, followed by one of Pampanini, standing beside Egyptian actor Imad Hamdi, essaying the same role in a still from the Italian cut:

The primary credited director for La Spada dell’Islam was Enrico Bomba, who also has a production credit. The IMDB credits Marton and Bomba as co-directors of Oh Islam!, even though Marton alone is given onscreen credit as director in the original Arab language version. This is likewise the case for Italian cinematographer Marcello Masciocchi, whom the IMDB credits alongside Egyptian cinematographer Wahid Farid, despite the latter having sole screen credit in the original.

This above information is repeated on a number of other sites which obviously used the IMDB as their source. And while it’s certainly plausible that all of the named parties worked alongside one another on the original Arab language version of Oh Islam!, I nonetheless want to be cautious of becoming part of an ongoing misinformation loop where the film is concerned. Further undermining my confidence in the internet’s ability to supply me with solid, incontrovertible facts is Wikipedia’s assertion that the film was submitted as Egypt’s bid for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1961 under the title Love and Faith. This is contradicted by the IMDB’s listing of Egypt’s Oscar submissions, which claims that the country’s 1961 entry was something called Teenagers, while also erroneously including on the list a 1973 film called Love and Faith which was actually Japanese. FFFUUU…

Thankfully, a much clearer picture is yielded by watching Oh Islam! itself. And what becomes most immediately apparent is that it boasts a dazzling constellation of Egyptian star power well worthy of its monumental subject. On hand are such familiar faces as Lobna Adel Aziz and Roushdy Abaza -- both stars of the previously reviewed Bride of the Nile -- as well as “The Beast” himself, Farid Chawki, who here gets to truly unleash his trademark ferocity in the role of an irredeemable villain. Shoring up the frontline, along with Cariocca, is Egyptian screen heartthrob Ahmed Mazhar, who plays the male romantic lead opposite the radiant Aziz.

At the center of Oh Islam! is the Battle of Ain Jaloot, a decisive confrontation in 1260 AD that saw the Egyptian military successfully drive back the invading Mongol forces, thus beginning the reversal of a tide of Mongol conquest that had swept the majority of the Islamic Middle East. At the same time, the film dramatizes the rise and fall of Egypt’s first female ruler, the Sultana Shagrat al-Durr, a role that offers the diva-ish Taheya Cariocca ample opportunity for lusty scenery chewing. And if this wasn’t already enough to fill your narrative plate to overflowing, we’re also offered a romance that takes a pinch of historic detail and mixes it with a generous helping of Bollywood-style “lost and found” drama -- as well as a fistful of jackhammer-subtle patriotic symbolism.

The film begins with the fall of Afghanistan to Mongol forces, in this case lead by Farid Chawki as the wild-eyed Boltai. Because Boltai cannot claim the country’s throne until every other heir to it has been killed (because invading barbarians always respect the order of ascension of the countries they conquer, I guess), the Sultan has his counselor Salama steal away with his young daughter Jihad and her cousin Mahmoud. Before she escapes, he tells Jihad that hers is not a name, but a “duty… a destiny”, and that one day she will unite the Muslim peoples against their common enemy. From this point on, Boltai continues popping up in the path of the fleeing children like an armor clad, medieval version of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, necessitating that they disguise themselves and blend in with a procession of slaves being lead to market by their Mongol captors. Jihad is ultimately sold off to serve in the harem of Shagrat al-Durr, while the feisty Mahmoud is bought by Prince Ezz El Din Aibak (Imad Hamdi) to serve in his military forces.

Mahmoud, who in his adult form is played by Ahmed Mazhar, turns out to be a fictionalized version of Saif Ad-Din Qutuz, the man who, as Sultan, would lead Egypt to victory at Ain Jaloot. In Oh Islam!’s climactic portrayal of that battle, it is Jihad, played in her adult form by Lobna Adel Aziz, who urges the forces onward by seizing a trampled flag and repeatedly shouting “Oh Islam” while perched atop a rock -- a feat which actual history argues was performed by Qutuz himself. In this sense, Jihad is as much of a phantom as the character played by Aziz in the fanciful Bride of the Nile, albeit of a different sort. It wouldn’t be much less subtle if this completely invented character were simply perched upon Mahmoud’s soldier with a tiny sword and a set of wings.

Meanwhile, Shagrat al-Durr -- who’s governing philosophy could be succinctly summed up by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Batman Returns bon mot “life’s a bitch now so am I” -- is fighting to maintain power against those many powerful men who’d rather not see Egypt ruled over by a woman. Once Mahmoud and Jihad are tracked down by the now blind Salama and reunited as kissing cousins, the Sultana uses her ownership of Jihad as leverage to force Mahmoud to do her political dirty work, which mostly involves killing folks. Somehow this all leads to the final battle at Ain Jaloot, which sees further complications arise when an army of Spanish Crusaders arrives on the scene (something that apparently actually happened).

Whoever the hell directed and shot Oh Islam!, they did a fine job, seeing as the mandate was obviously to create a Hollywood caliber period spectacle as seductive to the eye and spirit as it is historically dubious. The climactic battle sequence is indeed as spectacular and rousing as one could hope for, employing an awe inspiring legion of extras and an abundance of credible looking costumes and weaponry. Panoramic widescreen compositions are employed to full breath-capturing capacity, as is the intensely vibrant color palette typical of Egyptian epics of the period. Truthfully, this work is as credibly that of Marton and Wahid Farid as it is of any Italian genre veterans of the day granted the appropriate generous budget; Bomba, after all, was no stranger to Peplums, as he also had a hand in producing Romulus and the Sabines, and Maciocchi lensed everything from sword-and-sandal flicks to Antonio Margheriti space operas to Yor, Hunter from the God Damned Future. Hopefully some day I will have the answers to just who did what on Oh Islam! and when, but now I am tired.

Honestly, being a human of middling age, if you had told me twenty years ago that there would one day be a resource as wondrous as the Internet Movie Database, I might not have believed you. And if you had further told me that a large portion of that technological gift-from-god’s most habitual users would end up doing nothing but complaining about it, I would have dismissed you altogether. Yet I have to admit that it’s difficult not to resent the perilous rabbit holes one often gets sent down thanks to a healthy skepticism regarding the IMDB’s version of the facts. Indeed, a couple of the sites I landed upon as a result of Googling the title of Oh Islam! in the original Arabic likely got me added to some kind of FBI watch list. Come to think of it, given the current sad climate, merely reproducing that title in English might be enough to raise some hackles.

And on that note, I must say that it might serve the average Islamophobe well to watch Oh Islam!, as it would allow him or her to thrill along to what is an understandably proud moment in the history of Islam while offering the comfort of being as corny and overblown in its celebration of same as anything John Wayne ever put his name on. By the end, it’s stirring enough to have even the most dedicated yahoo jumping up and down on his chair and shouting “Allahu Akbar!”


memsaab said...

It is verrrrrrrrry pretty indeed :)

Todd said...

Memsaab, you must get into the Egyptian movies. Have you watched Afrita Hanem yet?

memsaab said...

No, but it is creeping up to the top of the pile. Maybe this weekend I will make it happen!

Anonymous said...

Any one have a copy of the movie la spada dell'islam