Race & Hollywood: Arab Images in Film
Tuesdays & Thursdays in July
More than half of the movies are TCM premieres, and the astonishing range of programming is demonstrated by two of these. The 1921 silent The Sheik shows Rudolph Valentino at the peak of his notor- iety as a flashing-eyed, hot-blooded exotic who declares in a subtitle that "When an Arab sees a woman he likes, he takes her!" Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube as American soldiers in Iraq at the close of the first Gulf War, breaks through such stereotypes to show its Arab characters as believable human beings-- or, as Shaheen puts it in his book, "regular folks, with affections and aspirations."
The films are categorized by themes beginning with Early Images, also represented by the silent fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks in a romanticized portrait of a prancing Arabian Nights hero. Arabs as Villains have been in abundant supply in films over the decades including 1943's Adventure in Iraq, with Paul Cavanagh as a suave yet lethal WWII-era sheik; and 1966's Sirocco (1951), featuring Egyptian characters that are, in Shaheen's words, "nuclear-crazed and pro-Nazi."
Epics, of course, must include Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean's sweeping, literate account of the adventures of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) during the Great Arab Revolt, with a commanding performance by Omar Shariff as the Arab chieftain Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish. Lion of the Desert (1981), in its TCM premiere, stars Anthony Quinn as WWI Arab Muslim rebel Omar Mukhtar and features sympathetic, righteous Arabs who bring down invading fascists.
Arabs as a Subject of Ridicule, also in embarrassingly plentiful numbers, include those in Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), an Eddie Cantor vehicle about a man who dreams of Arabian Nights adventures involving a sultan given to boiling people in oil; and The Sad Sack (1957), in which Jerry Lewis as cartoonist George Baker's GI misfit is kidnapped in Morocco by a band of caricatured Arabs including one played by Peter Lorre. Each film in this category is followed by a cartoon short also featuring outlandish Arab characters.
Among Even-Handed Portrayals, in addition to those in Three Kings, are the courageous Egyptian innkeeper Farid (Akim Tamiroff) in Five Graves to Cairo (1943); and Saladin, the dignified, humane Muslim leader played by a heavily made-up Rex Harrison in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954). Other categories include Arab Maidens, Arabs as Sheiks and Images from Outside Hollywood.