Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Spoilers of war

It’s rare that I get to contemplate a new movie by seeing it twice in quick succession. Usually, I feel lucky that I got to see any movie once. A second viewing that doesn’t come months or years later on DVD or TV is just downright unheard of. So it was a bit out of the ordinary that I found myself watching Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time a second time within a 72-hour period.

The reason this happened has everything to do with fatherhood. And brother-in-lawhood. The Missus’s brother and I have a standing date to go to the movies on Wednesdays. It is tricky enough to find a film suitable for Joseph, as he has been known over the years to do things like go find a priest and tell him how traumatized he has been by some of the flicks I have brought him to. Prince of Persia fit comfortably into the Irish 12A cert which seems to suit him best. There wasn’t much else playing that fit the bill. We both enjoyed the flick and that was that. But then Friday was the Munchkin’s birthday and she wanted to go to a movie. And guess which one she wanted to see? Being a good dad, I sat through it again and was relieved that I really didn’t mind. It was entertaining enough, even the second time around. And I managed not to spoil it for anybody by foreshadowing any plot developments before they occurred.

Of course, there was no chance that that would happen because I don’t talk during a movie and have little tolerance for those who do. But I am not such a fanatic that I shush people who say a few words to me during the movie because they want to share their reaction. That would be rude. But if they overdo, well, then they do get the shush. People who know me know better than to talk or, for that matter, to expect me to get up and leave before all of the closing credits have rolled. While hearing extraneous chatter while one is trying to concentrate on a film is annoying enough, I believe there is a whole circle of hell reserved entirely for people who have already seen the movie and start talking about what is going to happen.

This isn’t a situation that naturally arises often. But it does happen. My earliest recollection of finding myself in this situation was when I was about 12 years old. My dad brought my best friend Eric and me to a drive-in in Bakersfield to see Elliot Silverstein’s western/comedy Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda in the title role. It was an enjoyable romp that featured Stubby Kaye and the great Nat King Cole as a sort of Greek chorus, singing refrains from the title song which was popular on the radio at the time. In one of the early scenes Lee Marvin (as Kid Shelleen, the role that earned him his only Oscar, indeed his only Oscar nomination) made an appearance, as I recall, in a train compartment. The camera barely settled on him before Eric shouted, “He’s drunk!” My dad and I looked at Eric and he became more emphatic. “He’s drunk as skunk!” he insisted. It turned out, he was right and, as things progressed, Eric made other pronouncements that made him seem as though he was uncommonly prescient. Finally, my dad asked him suspiciously, “Have you seen this before?” Eric answered sheepishly that he had, but he hadn’t seen the whole thing because his family had had to leave before the movie was over for some reason that I have since completely forgotten. But I remember that I was counting the minutes until the movie got to the point where Eric was as clueless about what was going to happen as I was. But I didn’t really mean to go off on the topic of people who spoil movies while you are watching them.

And in the spirit of not ruining things for people who haven’t seen a movie, let me alert you to the fact that ahead lie spoilers for Prince of Persia. Seriously, stop reading now if you haven’t seen it.

One thing that I noticed during my two viewings of the movie was how movies, even those set in a long ago or even mythical time, sometimes try to include contemporary or recent geopolitical themes. For example, it was pretty hard to miss that this Middle Eastern set movie featured a key plot element of a nefarious bald guy causing an invasion by putting out a story about weapons that didn’t really exist. Nobody actually utters the qualifier “of mass destruction,” but we get the idea. That’s right, Sir Ben Kingsley is basically Dick Cheney. So I guess that makes, by extension, Richard Coyle George W. Bush and Jake Gyllenhaal, I dunno, Joe Wilson. And the sub-titular sands of time are really standing in for Iraqi oil deposits. That’s the problem with political allegories dropped into escapist Hollywood entertainment. They only work if you don’t think about them too much. The parallel is further complicated when you consider that the invaders are Persians, which is to say ancient Iranians, and not western forces. Indeed, if you really wanted to, you could make something of the fact that this is basically the story of Persians trying to get a hold of materials that will give them incredibly destructive power. You could thus just as easily make the case that this is a parable about Iranians striving to get the fantasy video game equivalent of nuclear weapons.

The possibilities for modern political relevance do not end there. The most entertaining character in the whole movie is an outlaw entrepreneur called Sheik Amar, played by the wonderful Alfred Molina. His whole thing is to avoid paying taxes to the Persians. That’s right, no more than Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, he is a virtual walking and talking advertisement for the Tea Party movement.

But to get back to parallels with the Iraq war, there is yet another way the movie can be construed. At the end of the movie (hey! I told you there were spoilers!) Prince Dastan uses a magic dagger to rewind time until the moment of the Persian assault on the religious city of Alamut. Forewarned with knowledge of the future and how things will play out, he is able to prevent any of it from happening by insisting that his brothers listen to him. He reveals his uncle’s nefarious plan to everyone, which leads his uncle to try to silence him which winds up with the uncle being killed.

That’s right. The movie, which starts out by criticizing the invocation of non-existent WMDs as a pretext for invasion, ends up by being a powerful endorsement of the doctrine of preemptive force.

-S.L., 17 June 2010

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