The Horsemen


1h 40m 1971

Brief Synopsis

Afghan nomads compete in a brutal riding game.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Action
Release Date
Jun 1971
Premiere Information
World premiere in San Francisco: 25 Jun 1971
Production Company
Columbia Pictures; Edward Lewis Productions, Inc.; John Frankenheimer Productions
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures
Country
Spain and United States
Location
Afghanistan; Spain; Almeria,Spain; Gaudix,Spain; Granada,Spain; Kabul,Afghanistan; Kunduz,Afghanistan; Madrid,Spain
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Les cavaliers by Joseph Kessel (Paris, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 40m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

In rural Afghanistan, the venerable Tursen reigns as the finest chapandaz ever to play buzkashi , a brutal competition requiring a man on horseback to transport a headless calf over a goal line while the other players whip him in an attempt to overtake him. Tursen, now a wealthy stable owner, names five chapandaz , including Salih, to compete in the king's royal buzkashi competition in Kabul. Tursen then admires his beautiful purebred stallion, Jahil, and praises the horse's trainer, Mukhi. Meanwhile, Tursen's son Uraz is watching camel fights in town, where he enters into a bet with a nomad, Hayatal, impressing Hayatal with his nonchalance and keen eye for which animal will win. Tursen interrupts his son to announce to the townsmen that he has chosen Uraz to ride Jahil in the royal buzkashi , and will deed the horse to his son if he wins. Believing that his father cares for and trusts the horse more than him, Uraz responds with pride and displeasure. In the bustling city of Kabul, with Mukhi as his syce , or manservant, Uraz enters the tournament, featuring dozens of fierce men. Uraz pulls ahead of the competition, suffering vicious whip blows to grab the calf. Over the next long minutes, he maintains his lead despite ferocious opposition, but cannot reach the goal. At one point, the riders rush headlong into the spectator stands, trampling competitors and audience members. Although Uraz is pulled from his horse, he remounts and is near victory when he falls and is dragged by Jahil, after which the other players close in on him. He awakens in a local hospital and is crushed to learn that his leg is broken and that Salih leapt onto Jahil's back at the last minute to win the tournament. Although he has won Jahil, Uraz is inconsolable and orders Mukhi to help him flee the hospital that evening. On the trail home, he cuts off the cast so the sun, air and pages of the Koran can heal his leg. That night at a roadside inn, Uraz overhears a man discussing the old days of contest, and proclaiming Tursen the greatest of all chapandaz . Remembering playing buzkashi with his father, whose prowess was exhilarating to the young man, Uraz determines to head home right away, despite his pain and lack of sleep. As penance for losing the game and in the hopes of avoiding hearing any further comparisons to his father, he chooses the most difficult route home. After setting out, they rest at the first village they come to where Mukhi, who has heard the road ahead called a dead man's road, informs Uraz that he will not go with him. To convince him to stay, Uraz bequeaths Jahil to the boy, then orders a scribe to set the bequest in writing. Upon hearing the demand, the scribe describes how his master once left him in charge of his fortune, then blinded him after he used some of the gold to pay for prayers for his dying wife. After the scribe concludes that his master committed the greatest sin by putting such a temptation in hands of a poor man, Uraz determines to carry the will himself. Immediately, he and Mukhi's relationship becomes strained and wary under the pressure of the bequest. By the time they reach the next town, Uraz' leg is infected and he collapses with fever. The beautiful Zereh, an untouchable, tends to him and within days he regains consciousness. Upon reviving, Uraz realizes Zereh's status and insults her by ordering her away. Furious, she turns to Mukhi, who treats her kindly. When Uraz and Mukhi leave the town, Zereh begs Uraz to take her along, and he disdainfully "gives" her to Mukhi. Meanwhile, Tursen hears that Jahil has won, bringing great honor to their town, and that Uraz has broken his leg. Realizing that Uraz' stallion has not been exercised, Tursen takes the horse into the buzkashi fields, but finding himself unable to perform as he did years earlier, falls to the ground, despondent. On the trail, Zereh prevails on Mukhi to win Jahil by killing Uraz, reasoning that he will soon die of his wound anyway. Soon after, they reach a town in which Uraz watches the ram fights. When the town's prince names one of the animals the champion, one man challenges the claim, asserting that his ram is superior. Recognizing the man as Hayatal, Uraz is intrigued, and to Mukhi and Zereh's horror, bets Jahil against the champion ram. Hayatal's ram is revealed to be scrawny and one-horned, inspiring the townsmen to bet against it, but the scrappy fighter wins easily. As Hayatal leaves, he announces to Uraz that "what a one-horned ram can do, a one-legged chapandaz can do better." Back on the mountain road, the route turns snowy and treacherous. When the pack mule fails, Uraz refuses to allow Mukhi to help Zereh, fearing for his syce 's safety. During one cruel storm, Uraz collapses, prompting Zereh to approach him with her knife drawn. Realizing that the pair plans to kill him, Uraz begins throwing his cash to the wind, threatening to destroy it all unless they desist, and Zereh gives up. By the next day he is barely conscious when he sees a town over the mountain pass. Jahil carries him to the chief shepherd, who nurses him and keeps him safe from Mukhi and Zereh. When Uraz revives enough to talk, the shepherd informs him that his leg must be amputated if he is to survive. Reluctantly, Uraz agrees, cautioning the man to keep the operation a secret, and stoically endures the primitive and painful procedure. Later, he covers the stump with his stuffed boot and calls in Mukhi and Zereh. In his tent, he overcomes the pair and ties them up, then forces Zereh, to whom the cash represents a lifetime of labor, to burn the money as punishment. Uraz soon reaches home with his two prisoners. After greeting his son happily, Tursen questions Uraz about why Mukhi tried to kill him, then chastises his son for tempting the boy. Uraz responds with disdain, prompting Tursen to inform him that they share the same "darkness of the heart," as men bred to pursue death. When Tursen urges his son to pass judgment on Mukhi, a chastened Uraz exonerates the young man and frees Zereh. Tursen then gives Jahil to Mukhi. Zereh visits Uraz, and when she accidentally sees his stump, he demands her secrecy, then makes love to her. Afterward, she informs him that she has slept with him only for money, and reminds him that burning the cash meant destroying in a moment what she worked all her life for. Soon after, Uraz notifies Tursen that Mukhi plans to sell Jahil, and Tursen agrees to lend him the money to buy the horse. In thanks, Uraz reveals his amputation to his father. Two weeks later there is a feast in honor of Salih. Tursen is disturbed to find Uraz absent, but as the celebratory demonstrations begin, Uraz rides up on Jahil and performs daring equestrian acrobatics, thrilling the crowd with his new accomplishments. As Tursen applauds with great pride, Uraz removes his boot to show one and all his handicap. Tursen follows Uraz to the outskirts of the town, where Uraz bids his father goodbye, explaining that he will join Hayatal in forming a traveling buzkashi team. As they bid a fond farewell, Tursen hopes that Allah one day may grant his son peace.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Action
Release Date
Jun 1971
Premiere Information
World premiere in San Francisco: 25 Jun 1971
Production Company
Columbia Pictures; Edward Lewis Productions, Inc.; John Frankenheimer Productions
Distribution Company
Columbia Pictures
Country
Spain and United States
Location
Afghanistan; Spain; Almeria,Spain; Gaudix,Spain; Granada,Spain; Kabul,Afghanistan; Kunduz,Afghanistan; Madrid,Spain
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Les cavaliers by Joseph Kessel (Paris, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 40m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Eastmancolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

The Horsemen


In his 1971 review of The Horsemen, Roger Ebert noted that its central action sequence, a depiction of a "violent, bloody, and desperate" Afghani sport called Buzkashi (a kind of free-for-all polo played at full gallop with a headless goat carcass instead of a ball) was, in scale and sustained action, reminiscent of the chariot race in (1959). Ebert also noted that the film was not really about action or about Buzkashi itself but about the character of the men who play it. This is to be expected from John Frankenheimer, a director who up to this point had handled action sequences superbly in such films as Grand Prix (1966) and The Gypsy Moths (1969), but whose most notable works (among them Birdman of Alcatraz [1962]; The Manchurian Candidate [1962]; and a number of acclaimed television dramas) were essentially character studies which often centered on the behavior of people in extraordinary circumstances. The story of The Horsemen, about a 20th century man struggling to prove himself to his imposing father by taking part in the grueling, ancient game, is certainly about character under extreme pressure in an unusual situation.

This is exactly what attracted Frankenheimer to the idea of adapting Joseph Kessel's French novel to the screen, and he bought the rights immediately after reading it. "I think it has a modern theme to it about a man who's looking for his own identity," he said in a 1971 interview. "It's an adventure story between the father and the son that is very touching."

For the role of the son, Frankenheimer cast an actor he considered to be among his favorites, Egyptian born Omar Sharif. Frankenheimer praised Sharif's professionalism, dedication to the project, and willingness to push himself for authenticity. Already a good rider, Sharif went beyond what he thought he could do in the horseback sequences. He also endured the extra stress of working with one leg bent up behind him to simulate the character's loss of his lower leg after a severe infection (although Frankenheimer noted that in some shots you could see the shadow of the "missing" limb). "He's good, he works hard, he's an inspiration to the rest of the cast," the director said, comparing his lead actor favorably to other favorites, such as Alan Bates and Gene Hackman.

The father was played by Jack Palance, heavily made up for some scenes because he was only 13 years older than Sharif. Frankenheimer had directed Palance on television and admired his work on film. He needed someone who could play younger and more physically imposing than Sharif in flashback scenes and also thought the American-born actor of Ukrainian descent could convincingly play Asian because of "those marvelous high cheekbones." To get the feeling of the character in old age, Palance put weights around his arms and waist to make his movements more strained and difficult.

The project was actually begun as early as 1968, when the rights to Kessel's novel were purchased for $150,000 and Dalton Trumbo was brought in to adapt the screenplay. Production began in late spring 1969, but the shooting schedule had to be split to allow for Sharif's commitment to The Last Valley (1970). In the hiatus between September 1969 and April 1970, Frankenheimer made the low-key drama I Walk the Line (1970) with Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld.

The exterior scenes of The Horsemen were shot with much difficulty in Spain and Afghanistan. Frankenheimer took on the extra burden of shooting all the second-unit material himself. Usually on large-scale epics and action films done on location, a second-unit director will have the responsibility for crowd shots, action sequences, and the like, such as Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt did for the Ben-Hur chariot scene, but Frankenheimer preferred to do it himself. "I've always managed to cut out every shot a second unit ever made in a film of mine, and I would go out on Sundays and re-shoot it," he later explained. Highly respected and sought-after director of photography James Wong Howe was supposed to have been in charge of cinematography on The Horsemen, but either illness (according to Frankenheimer) or a falling out with the director (according to other sources) prevented him from completing it, so Frankenheimer said he went to Afghanistan himself with three camera operators whose work he trusted. They shot "endless" Buzkashi games and many landscapes, then returned to Spain where Claude Renoir took over as cinematographer. Renoir was the son of actor Pierre Renoir and nephew of director Jean Renoir, for whom Claude shot six films.

Pressures brought about by these changes in crew, a staggering budget, and working in a country like Afghanistan, with its language barriers, extreme heat, threat of military intervention and, at the time, lack of resources for filmmaking, were nothing to Frankenheimer compared to the blow dealt him by Columbia, the studio producing The Horsemen. The movie was originally intended as a three-hour road show (opening in a limited number of theaters in selected cities for advanced ticket prices). Midway through production in Spain, Columbia changed management and told the director they now wanted a shorter film for wider, normal distribution. Frankenheimer said that at the time they announced this decision he was engaged in an intricate sequence involving a caravan of trucks with about 1500 extras. "Does this change anything for you?" executives asked. Frankenheimer replied that they might as well dismiss everyone on set that day and scrap the scene, along with any others of large scope that conveyed a passage of time and a sweep of physical space. "It was a horrible experience because we had to re-edit the film and the script," he said. "It was a terrible blow, it really was. It altered everything about the movie, the look of it, the balance of the narrative. What we had planned, what we had visualized, we weren't allowed to do." Nevertheless, The Horsemen ended up costing $6 million (according to Frankenheimer, contradicting studio publicity claiming $4.5 million), and he praised the studio for getting behind the film and pushing it at the box office. Nevertheless, it received mixed reviews in America and did middling business. Typical of its assessment here was this New York Times review: "Wrong-headedness can occasionally be moving and tragic, but "The Horsemen" is a remote, choppy adventure, chiefly interesting as the work of a director who, though his strength is contemporary melodrama (The Young Savages [1961], The Manchurian Candidate), persists in pretending he's a romantic." The critical and commercial reception was much better overseas.

Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Edward Lewis
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
Cinematography: Claude Renoir, James Wong Howe, André Domage
Editing: Harold F. Kress
Art Direction: Gil Parrondo
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Omar Sharif (Uraz), Leigh Taylor-Young (Zareh), Jack Palance (Tursen), David de Keyser (Mukhi), Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal).
C-109m. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

Quotes from John Frankenheimer in this article are taken from The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film by Gerald Pratley (Lehigh University Press, 1998)
The Horsemen

The Horsemen

In his 1971 review of The Horsemen, Roger Ebert noted that its central action sequence, a depiction of a "violent, bloody, and desperate" Afghani sport called Buzkashi (a kind of free-for-all polo played at full gallop with a headless goat carcass instead of a ball) was, in scale and sustained action, reminiscent of the chariot race in

Quotes

What demon has possessed you to mock these good people with that piece of dog-bait?
- District Chief

Trivia

Notes

Although onscreen credits list the film's process as Panavision, several contemporary sources state that The Horsemen was shot in Super Panavision. The actor listed onscreen as Srinanda De is identified in some contemporary sources as David De. The actor credited in some sources as Sy Selvaratnam is identified in other sources as Sy Temple.
       In November 1968, Publishers Weekly announced that Joseph Kessel's novel The Horsemen had been sold to Columbia Pictures for $150,000. By April 1969, as noted in Daily Variety, director John Frankenheimer and producer Edward Lewis planned to begin shooting the film in the late spring as one of four films to be produced for Columbia. Daily Variety reported in June 1969 that the production would have a split schedule to accommodate star Omar Sharif's previous commitment to the 1971 film The Last Valley (see below).
       As a result, Frankenheimer shot all of the Afghanistan footage, as well as some in Spain, during June-September 1969, then finished filming in Spain from April-July 1970. During the hiatus, Frankenheimer and Edwards worked on the 1970 picture I Walk the Line (see below). Location sites for The Horsemen listed in contemporary news items included Kabul and Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Madrid, Granada, Gaudix and Almeria in Spain. According to a April 15, 1970 Variety news item, some interiors were shot at the Seville Studios in Madrid. The item added that some Afghanistan footage was shot by James Wong Howe, but only Claude Renoir receives onscreen credit for photography.
       Although a March 1970 New York Times news item declared that Frank Langella would "costar" in the film, he did not appear in The Horsemen. Actor Alan Webb is included in Hollywood Reporter production charts cast lists and a modern source, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. A modern source adds Tom Tryon to the cast. In a modern interview, Frankenheimer noted the difficulties of shooting in Afghanistan, including the extreme heat, the threat of military intervention and the language barriers. Because of religious injunctions against filming female nomads, the director stated that he cast his wife, Evans Evans, as an Afghani woman. He also remarked that he organized a car raffle to attract 5,000 extras for a crowd scene, but when 300,000 people showed up, the army had to be called to disperse them.
       As shown in the film, buzkashi is an ancient Afghani sport requiring an individual on horseback to transport a dead calf over a goal line while being whipped by the other competitors. Each game, which is often brutally violent, can last up to one week and requires specially trained horses.
       The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) made an hour-long documentary about the making of The Horsemen that, as noted in a September 1970 Hollywood Reporter article, was shown first in Britain and then in America. Frankenheimer remarked in a July 1971 Hollywood Reporter article that he spent two and a half years on the film, which cost $4.5 million, and stated his intention "to do my very best for [Columbia]." However, modern sources point out that the studio drastically cut the director's planned 3 1/2¿hour epic and canceled plans for roadshow exhibition, resulting in a severely edited and restructured final version of the picture. Some of the footage that was excised from the original version featured actress Despo, who was still listed in most reviews' cast lists. Frankenheimer discussed in a modern interview his disappointment with the film, stating that Norm Jackter, head of Columbia's distribution arm, disliked the picture.
       Despite mixed reviews in America, The Horsemen was successful in France and Frankenheimer won France's 1971 Triomphe Award for Best Director.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1971

James Wong Howe was replaced by Claude Renoir after a falling out with director John Frankenheimer. Released in USA in 35mm prints.

Director John Frankenheimer died July 6, 2002 of a stroke at the age of 72.

Released in United States 1971