The latest production based on a popular video game, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is great fun, filled to the sword hilt with swashbuckling adventure, mysticism and all the conspiracy and treachery that would make Machiavelli proud.
But the film has also had its fair share of controversy.
While the advertising blitz for the “Prince of Persia” feature film began more than a year ago, it was accusations of racial bias that made headlines a few days before its release in North America.
Politically correct film critics and advocacy groups bemoaned the fact that Hollywood productions set in the Middle East and Asia rarely use ethnic actors in leading roles. In this case, some groups claimed that a Persian or Iranian actor would have been better suited to play the title role, which ultimately went to Jake Gyllenhaal.
Hogwash. The unfair criticism directed at the casting producers is rooted in genetic and historical ignorance. The Persian Empire, one of the longest lasting in human history, stretched from the steppes of China to the western deserts of Egypt and southern Greece. Dozens of ethnicities served under the Persian Empire including Arabs, Jews, Macedonians, Thracians, ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, tribes of Afghanistan, and other Aryans.
Furthermore, it is not a stretch of the imagination to perceive Gyllenhaal as a Middle Easterner. In today’s terms, he could pass as an Arab from Lebanon or Syria, a Turk — even someone from Iran.
Was there any whining when the late icon Moustapha Akkad cast Anthony Quinn as Hamza, the Prophet Mohamed’s cousin in “The Message”? Or when Quinn played Omar Mukhtar in Akkad’s “The Lion of the Desert”? No. The producers have to keep in mind the selling power of actors in leading roles.
This socio-political mumbo-jumbo should not distract from “Prince of Persia’s” entertainment value.
And it is entertainment worth every last penny.
Based on the storyline of the popular video game franchise of the same name which debuted in 1989, the Disney film of the same name follows the adventures of street urchin Dastan who is adopted by a Persian King and becomes a sibling to the court’s two princely heirs.
Fast-forward a few years, and Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) is part of a military campaign to unearth an illicit weapons trade in the nearby allied kingdom of Alamut. The Persians are led to believe that Alamut has been selling weapons to their enemies; they invade and occupy Alamut on what later turns out to be false intelligence (sound familiar?).
Dastan leads the charge and in the course of bitter street fighting comes across a peculiar bejeweled dagger, which he later accidentally discovers can turn back time. In the meantime, the Persian King is assassinated, Dastan is blamed, and the young urchin-cum-princely hero becomes a fugitive desperately trying to clear his name. In this pursuit he uncovers a sinister plot in the royal Persian court and discovers that the dagger could destroy all of mankind if allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
Sounds like a great video game prologue? Well, in a sense, there are times when the viewer gets the eerie feeling that they are watching someone else — director Mike Newell — handling the joystick as he leads our hero through ancient bazaars, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, scaling walls and artificial ladders made of arrows, deftly and with the ease of a trapeze acrobat performing somersaults and backflips all the while handling his weapons like an artisan of war as he duels with the fearsome Hashashins.
Part ancient Indiana Jones, part “Romancing the Stone,” “Prince of Persia” is a throwback to the 1930s and 1940s classical Hollywood fantasies based on A Thousand and One Nights such as “Thief of Bagdad” (1940) and “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958). Newell superbly captures the mystical, exotic and oriental aura of the Middle East in this modern parallel to those classics.
But not without a snub of history. The first 15 seconds of the film are steeped in inaccuracies: a map portending to show the expanse of the Persian Empire 2500 years ago shows the region east of the Mediterranean as falling under the control of the Abbasids. This is laughable if it weren’t utterly sad.
The Abbasid Caliphate did not come into existence until the 9th century CE.
Furthermore, while the film’s plot is introduced at the height of the Persian Empire — predating Islam by nearly 1100 years — the film set design is all based on Islamic architecture with intricate use of geometric shapes and domes. Throughout the film, we see Persian soldiers using crossbows; while crossbows indeed made their debut in the fifth century BCE, they were the weapons of choice of the Greeks, Romans and Chinese and later were heavily used in Europe, particularly by Crusader armies.
The allied kingdom of Alamut, as depicted in the film, did not come into being until the ninth century CE, and then only as a fortress in Persia. The secretive, yet powerful sect of Hashashins — an offshoot of Shia Ismaili Islam — itself did not come into being until the 11th century CE.
And in an oversight that is sure to anger many Iranians, the Persian soldiers in the film appear to speak perfect Arabic with a Moroccan accent (the film was shot in Morocco and Pinewood Studios).
Although “Prince of Persia” is a lot of fun, history is swallowed by the Sands of Time.
In today’s terms, Gyllenhaal could pass as an Arab from Lebanon or Syria, a Turk — even someone from Iran (AP Photo/Disney, Andrew Cooper)