Most people associate the films shot in and around Lone Pine with Westerns. This is for a good reason because a majority of the films made in that area are Westerns. But many other genres of films have also worked in this area: film noir, crime, adventure, science fiction, romance and even comedy.
One kind of film is a subgenre of adventure. I like to call them “Easterns,” for in many ways they resemble Westerns but the people wear foreign, “strange” clothes. This subgenre of films takes place in the Middle East, Asia, China and the Far East. Examples include “Oil For the Lamps of China,” “Lives of the Bengal Lancer,” “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and even a Hoppy film called “Outlaws of the Desert” (not to be confused with “Outlaws of the Orient” a hard to find film starring Jack Holt.)
One way to examine these films as a group and singularly is through the critical lens of “Orientalism,” and that is what I plan to do as we visit the many “eastern” locations of these films.
Writer and scholar Edmund Said coined the word “orientalism” and defined it in his book of the same name published in 1978.
According to Said, the West has created a dichotomy, between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the “Orient.” The Middle East and Asia are viewed with prejudice and racism. They are seen as backward and unaware of their own history and culture. They are often seen as sexually seductive and dangerous. To fill the void, the West has created a culture, history, and future promise for them. On this framework rests not only the study of the orient, but also the political imperialism of Europe in the East.
Said argues that orientalism can be found in current Western depictions of “Arab” cultures. The depictions of “the Arab” as irrational, menacing, untrustworthy, anti-Western, dishonest and perhaps most importantly---prototypical, are ideas in which Orientalist scholarship has evolved.
Many of the Lone Pine movies can be seen as suffering from a misperception of the peoples and cultures of one or more Asian societies. Thus an Orientalist analysis is warranted of the films to see how they have affected a generation of viewers’ attitudes and understandings of Arabic, Islamic and people of the Far East. Our “oriental” epics or “easterns” are, to varying degrees, enjoyable today. Our modern understandings have hopefully changed and now the movies can be viewed as artifacts of our beliefs as a country in another time. The realization of this fact can be instructive in its own right.
Many themes come into view as we look at these films, the issues they address and unintentionally touch upon. Stereotypical portrayals move from violent, ignorant, sneaky and seductive to misunderstood ultra religious, ethical challenges with misperceived personal and cultural motivations. The whole subject of Orientalism is complex and controversial and as we examine the several dozen films I am classifying as Oriental adventure, we will explore these topics in more depth.
There are many characteristics of misrepresentation and ignorant portrayals in Hollywood films. We can begin there. The first, which is both entertaining yet tell tale is how women, and genders in general are presented. Women are sensual. They are often shown in well-choreographed sensual dance number, featuring scant costumes. Even more is how “Oriental” women are compared and contrasted with western women, often British or American. The tribal women warriors in their scanty tops are identified as a Quashqai, a tribal people found in Iran and neighboring lands. Being Islamic the real dress of the women is veiled and very conservative, yet in the movie “The Adventures of Hajji Baba” they are costumed in halter tops and sexy bloomers, riding on horses swinging deadly swords.
The beautiful actress Maureen O’Hara, who recently passed away, made two intensely Orientalist films in the Lone Pine area: “Flame of Araby” and “Bagdad.” Her costumes are at times revealing and certainly meant to be seductive. With men in Oriental films, they can be pictured as sneaky as they are in “King of the Khyber Rifles,” or even somewhat feminized. Often the people are presented as living in poverty and squalor. I am not saying this is not poverty and horrible living conditions in areas of the Middle East, India or China. I am saying that there is an assumption that is all you will find automatically there. Hollywood was always attracted to the idea and presentation of harems as were the romantic painters of almost two hundred years ago. Researchers and the diaries and journals of western females in actuality report a very different condition in historic harems then the ones we see in American movies inspired as they are by male fantasy and the domination of women.
These movies we are will be focusing on are both fantasy and action/ adventure films. Consequently we do not see a portrayal of “Oriental” home life or even normal life in the Bazaar. We do see examples in the films of native people pushing back against western colonialism. Even in a John Wayne film “I Cover the War,” we encounter a group of rebels who are resisting the British Empire in a fictional country like Arabia. The attitudes represented in the film show the Arabs as rebellious for no valid reason with little understanding of what their true cause really is. They are bad for opposing the British Empire. Period.
Orientalism is a complex study but it will bring a better understanding to our subgenre of films that considered and accepted “a desert is a desert is a desert.” Deserts may look a lot alike, a convenience for location scouts, but in fact the deserts and the people of the deserts vary greatly. Next time, we set out, headed east.