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Ancient Persia's virtual absence in Hollywood

1/17/03 By Darius Kadivar

Unlike many ancient civilizations, such as Greece, Rome or Egypt, Persia has hardly been given significant attention in Hollywood. This is mainly due to lack of significant feedback and study on Persian civilization which has never quite penetrated Western popular culture. Only an elite group of Western scholars ponder on the "mysterious" Persian Empire.

To many, Persia, before changing it's name to Iran in 1926 (for Iranians, Iran and Persia have always been synonymous, only that Persia refers to the province of Pars or Fars in southern Iran) was no more than an imaginary country often confused with the legend of Atlantis. Apart from a few films such as Robert Rossen's "Alexander the Great" or a Raoul Walsh's "Esther and the King", it is rare to see Persian characters and culture in Hollywood films.

However a few films do emerge beneath the veil that seems to cover ancient Persian history. Persia's Hollywood presence goes back to 1916 in D.W Griffith's film "Intolerance." Through different ages in history, starting with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, through the Barthelemy Massacre in Middle Age France, up to modern America, Griffith attempts to portray intolerance as a consistent historical fact. He shows a woman milking her baby in a rocking chair as a transition between the different ages.

"Intolerance" was shot in sixteen weeks with a budget of $400,000. Some 5,000 extras were employed in the three-hour epic. The reconstruction of Babylon is truly magnificent and the famous "push in" of the camera through the Gates of Babylon (45 meters high) and it's famous falling Gardens is to remain in film history as an icon of what Hollywood was capable during the silent era.

However, it is a mystery why Griffith did not stick to historical fact. Cyrus, the Persian king and founder of the Persian Empire was depicted as a ruthless barbarian who wishes to destroy Babylon and it's inhabitants. Yet Cyrus is known by historians as the very ruler to have established what was to become known as the first declaration of human rights. The Cyrus Cylinder, now at the British Museum, describes how the Persian king liberates the inhabitants of Babylon, notably the Jews, from tyranny.

The Persian Empire reached it's peak under Darius, but it is his son Xerxes I who is best remembered. It was his army that invaded Greece and was initially resisted only by a minute Spartan force of three hundred at Thermoplae. "The 300 Spartans" (1962) directed by Rudolph Mate is a sensible unpretentious movie that does a pretty good job of retelling the story of Leonidas and his tiny army facing the mighty Persian Empire.

There's an attempt to convey the complex politics of the Greek city-states, and the Spartan Council is cast as the villains, advocating surrender. Nevertheless, Leonidas and his men march off to Thermoplae. The Persian expeditionary force is as lavish as one can desire, including Artemisia of Halicarnassus, a Persian vassal, portrayed as an exotic oriental lady with Greek sympathies.

The battle at Thermoplae is kept as simple as wars were back then (walk up to an enemy and stab him), with one telling shot of the thin red wedge of Spartans cutting through the black-garbed Persian horde. There is also a suitable sense of place since the film was made on location in Greece. The strong-jawed Richard Egan is suitably laconic as Leonidas, and Ralph Richardson is as wily Themistocles of Athens.

Richard Egan turns up again in the fifth century B.C. as, of all people, Xerxes/Ahasuerus in "Esther and the King" (1960). Fair-haired and clean-shaven, he is a peculiar picture of a Persian monarch, but then the movie is a peculiar picture of the Persian Empire. On the other hand Joan Collins plays opposite Egan as Esther. Just as she is about to be married to her soldier-fiancÚ, back from the Egyptian wars with Ahasuerus (as Xerxes is referred to in the Bible), she is carried off to be part of the beauty contest for Persia's new queen.

For some obscure reasons she takes the fancy of the chief eunuch, who aids her in winning the crown. She learns to love Ahasuerus, a monarch beleaguered by all the intrigues of an Oriental court, and bothered by the upstart Greeks - "Alexander, I'll cut him off in his youth", he mutters presciently, since the boy conqueror is yet to be born.

"Alexander The Great" (1956) directed by Robert Rossen, is an interesting portrayal of Alexander the Conqueror of the Persian Empire. Historically, it is surprisingly accurate in event and production, and certain scenes, such as the decisive battle against the Persians, are beautifully handled. The scenes were shot with the help of the Spanish army, 45,000 extras (10,000 more men than the actual army of Alexander). As for Richard Burton, well, he is Alexander; his splendid voice and polished acting is enough to convince us.

There is no mention of Persians in Stanley Kubricks Spartacus (1960) yet it is interesting to note for those who felt sorry for Spartacus' (Kirk Douglas) fate that his life was avenged by no more than the Parthians, the Persian dynasty contemporary of the Roman Empire. Indeed the Roman senator and General Crassus played by the magnificent Laurence Olivier was historically killed during a battle against the Parthians shortly after having crushed gladiators rebellion, and crucified them along the Appian road.

Indeed the only Empire to have resisted the Roman conquests was that of Parthians or Persians, if you will. A short but memorable reference is made in Samuel Bronston's megalomaniac production "The fall of the Roman Empire" (1964) with freshly wigged Stephen Boyed (best known for his magnificent portrayal of Messala in William Wyler's "Ben Hur" (1959)) and the lovely Sophia Loren as Marcus Aurelius, the dying Emperor's daughter and Commodus' (portrayed by Christopher Plummer) incestuous sister.

No serious allusion is made to this ambiguous relationship, especially in the Hollywood of the early 60's, unlike Ridley Scott's latest film "The Gladiator" in which this relationship is verbally suggested. The reason I mention "The Gladiator", which is a good attempt to revive epic films, is also to remind the costume designers for their lack of historic documentation. Indeed the Emperor Commodus bares two medallions on each shoulder to carry his cloak, which represent a winged griffin. Far from being a Roman symbol this griffin is an Aechamedian (first Persian Dynasty) symbol.

But back to "The Fall of the Roman Empire", for the battle of the four armies between the Persians and the Romans, 8,000 soldiers and 2,000 horseman of the Spanish army were mobilized. No other film to my knowledge refers to the Pre-Islamic Persian Empire. There are rumors that an adaptation of Steven Pressfield's best selling novel "The Gates of Fire" will be directed by Michael Mann, which will be a remake of the battle of Thermoplae, with George Clooney or Bruce Willis in the title role.

The summit in recreating the splendors of Persian armies -- which would have made Cecile B de Mille blush -- was most probably achieved by the late Shah during the celebrations marking the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy back in October 1971. Recreations of the Persian armies from the time of Cyrus the Great to the Pahlavi Dynasty marched in front of the ruins of Persepolis. During the ceremony, a documentary was made with Orson Welles as the narrator.

As for Persia after the Arab conquest, it seems that its geographical identity seems to obscur itself in most films such as those based on the 1001 Nights which from Sinbad to Aladdin are just as enchanting and are indifferently set in Baghdad, at the time historically under Persian rule or the enchanting city of Isphahan but without further precision.

One film however can be distinguished for describing the adventures of a specific Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam, immensly known in the West for his quatrains of the Rubai'iats translated by Fitzgerald in the 1900's and which began to gain faim in the intellectual and litterary circles, thus launching a new trend of orientalism among Europeans and even Americans, who greatrly appreciated the epicurian approach to life of the poet. This was the case of William Dieterle's film "The Life, Love and Adventures of Omar Khayyam" released in 1957 with famous stars of the time such as Cornel wilde in the title role, Michael Rennie as Hassan Sabbah and Debra Paget as Khayyams love. It is of course and exagerated and highly romantisized version of the great poets life but is entertaining and colourful and even if Hollywood tends not to fully expose the depth of Khayyams writings it is nevertheless a tribute to his legend.

The 1950's and 1960's led many Biblical adaptations of films on the middle East such as Cecile B. DeMille's "Ten Commandments" with Charltion Heston or "Solomon and the Queen of Sheba" with Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida. Hollywood seems once again interested in exploring the past and with such success' as Ridley Scott's "The Gladiator" we may indeed see such "sword and sandals" films reappear. A Film on Alexander the Great is supposed to enter production this year with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role. "When will Hollywood or Disney delight us with an Epic on Cyrus the Great and how he established the "first declaration of Human Rights" ?" is still a question in suspension.

About the author:
Darius Kadivar was born to an Iranian father and French mother,and lives and works currently in France as a multimedia documentalist. Interested in movies and particularily historic Epics made by Hollywood's Golden Age in the 50's and 60's. He has contributed a number of articles on movies for various on-line magazines.

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