November 20, 2019

Movie Review: "Escape from Zahrain" (Paramount,1962)

Escape from Zahrain is a 1962 American action film directed by Ronald Neame. It starred Yul Brynner, Sal Mineo, Jack Warden, Madlyn Rhue and Anthony Caruso. The film is based on the 1960 novel Appointment in Zahrain by Michael Barrett.

I remember watching this movie shortly after it was released, and it was oddly interesting. Around that time, I had been given a book by my grandfather to read - it piqued my interest in the Middle East, and the movie just added to my fascination with the area. The book was With Lawrence in Arabia by Lowell Thomas.

Okay, it was a B movie, never intended to be a major motion picture - but it clicked with audiences. Of course, names like Yul Brynner and Sal Mineo were sure to attract viewers, but in 1962, the Middle East was hardly a venue of interest. The Arabs, mostly stereotyped as oil-rich desert sheikhs, were normally portrayed as backward, uneducated, and corrupt, driving expensive vehicles and basically squandering the wealth available to them.

This movie, produced in 1961 and released in 1962, was different. Although it takes place in the oil-rich fictional state of Zahrain - which could be construed as many of the Gulf Arab countries - it was the first movie to address the conflict between the autocratic or monarchical rulers of the oil-rich states and the people who believe that the wealth actually belonged to the people of those states. The film was ahead of its time.

As far as the cinematography goes, and I am not an expert, it has its weaknesses. The Jack Warden character adds nothing to the film, and the cameo appearance of James Mason actually detracted from the story. However, with stars like Yul Brynner and Sal Mineo, you know it will be well-acted. Madlyn Rhue did a nice job on the Arab/Muslim female angle. To those of us who have served in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the scenery of the Bakersfield (California) desert works pretty well.

I can't not remark on the Arabic language aspects of the movie. Most of the minimal Arabic dialogue was by native Arabic speakers using Modern Standard Arabic. The non-Arab actors' efforts were mediocre at best. That is not a criticism of the movie, just my observation as an Arabist.

Unfortunately, the movie is not free, but is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video for $3.99. Pay the four bucks and watch - it's 92 minutes of how the world should have viewed the Middle East (specifically the Arabian peninsula) 57 years ago. If more people had seen it, it may have prevented a lot of misunderstandings about oil wealth.