Saturday, June 15, 2019

Retro Review: ARABIAN ADVENTURE (1979)

(UK - 1979)

Directed by Kevin Connor. Written by Brian Hayles. Cast: Christopher Lee, Milo O'Shea, Oliver Tobias, Mickey Rooney, Peter Cushing, Capucine, Emma Samms, Puneet Sira, John Wyman, John Ratzenberger, Shane Rimmer, Suzanne Danielle, Elizabeth Welch, Hal Galili, Art Malik, Milton Reid, Jacob Witkin. (G, 98 mins)

Variety called it "STAR WARS with flying carpets," which should give you an idea of what ARABIAN ADVENTURE is all about. A huge Thanksgiving flop in 1979 for the doomed Associated Film Distributors (CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, RAISE THE TITANIC!), ARABIAN ADVENTURE was the last of a quintet of British adventure sagas from the team of producer John Dark and director Kevin Connor. The initial four--a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations with 1975's THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, 1976's AT THE EARTH'S CORE, and 1977's THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, followed by 1978's WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS--all starred Doug McClure and were modest hits in theaters and drive-ins. Kicking off a busy holiday movie season that featured the likes of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, 1941, THE JERK, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE BLACK HOLE, and ALL THAT JAZZ, ARABIAN ADVENTURE didn't generate much interest, even with its family-friendly G-rating, and its visual effects could be charitably deemed "antiquated" in the post-STAR WARS era. Written by veteran DOCTOR WHO scribe Brian Hayles (who died unexpectedly during production in 1978 at just 48), ARABIAN ADVENTURE has the spirit of classic adventures of old, borrowing extensively from the Arabian Nights tales and likely conjured up on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) to take advantage of the live-action ALADDIN with Will Smith.

Evil wizard Caliph Alquazar (Christopher Lee) will stop at nothing to obtain the magical Rose of Elil, a talisman that will grant him immortality and power over the entire world. That includes duping Prince Hasan (Oliver Tobias) by promising him his stepdaughter Princess Zuleira's (18-year-old Emma Samms in her debut, several years before breaking out on DYNASTY and its spinoff THE COLBYS) hand in marriage. Of course, he has no intention of following through, sending his cowardly flunky Khasim (Milo O'Shea) along as a "bodyguard" for the sole purpose of killing Hasan once the Rose is acquired. Khasim finds an unexpected obstacle when mischievous street urchin Majeed (future Bollywood producer Puneet Sira) and his capuchin monkey sidekick Chetti are drawn to Hasan's quest when they end up in the possession of a magical jewel gifted to them by the spirit of Vahishta (Capucine). Along the way and traveling on a magic carpet, they encounter mechanical fire-breathing dragons operated by the Wizard of Oz-like Daad Al-Shur (Mickey Rooney), an evil genie (perennial hulking manservant Milton Reid), and a crew of comic relief bandits led by Achmed (John Ratzenberger), who end up in the service of Alquazar.

It's generally enjoyable and silly fun, though there's a black hole at the center with THE STUD's Tobias making a dull hero (Connor/Dark regular McClure was in his 40s and two decades too old to play a young prince, but he at least would've brought some charm and personality to the part), but Lee is a blast, bringing all the pomposity in his arsenal as the sneering, bellowing, dastardly Alquazar. The special effects are definitely of the old-school sort even though this was the biggest-budgeted film of the Connor/Dark partnership, with the sometimes cheap-looking sets augmented by a copious use of matte paintings and rear-screen projection and even a couple of fleeting instances of Ray Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion. The optics of ARABIAN ADVENTURE's casting would probably launch a slew of AV Club and Vulture cancellation pieces if they ever got a review copy of it, with the largely white British and American actors sporting turbans and fezzes, and in the case of Ratzenberger (then an American expat working exclusively in the UK until landing his big break as Cliff on CHEERS) even wearing some smudgy brownface as "Achmed." That's nothing compared to Reid's appearance as the Genie, the India-born actor sporting near-full-on blackface and painted-on bulging eyes each looking left and right. Like a lot of 40-year-old films, certain elements of ARABIAN ADVENTURE haven't aged well, but from the perspective of 1979, it didn't deserve the miserable fate it found with audiences and perhaps could've done a bit better if it was released at a different time of the year (by the standards of today, this has "February" or "September" written all over it). Still, it's got a great cast of pros (there's also Lee BFF Peter Cushing in a small role as a long-imprisoned Alquazar enemy), and Christopher Lee as a de facto Jaffar is alone worth the price of admission. Lee, Samms, and Ratzenberger would reunite with director Connor on the 1981 syndicated miniseries GOLIATH AWAITS. Connor would go on to a busy journeyman career with the cult favorites MOTEL HELL (1980) and THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982) before settling into countless TV assignments, including a long run in recent years as a go-to director for the Hallmark Channel.

ARABIAN ADVENTURE opening in Toledo, OH on 11/21/1979

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