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Khayyam Mania!!!: Hollywood's depiction of the great Persian Poet's life

3/7/03 By Darius Kadivar

"Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness - And Wilderness is Paradise enow." _ The Rubaiyat Quatrain XI


Persian Poet, humanist philosopher, and mathematician Omar Khayyam is probably the most famed of all Persian Poets in the West, ever since the translation by Victorian-era writer Edward Fitzgerald of a series of Quatrains known as the "Rubaiyaat". It is probably the best-selling book in the entire history of English poetry. It exists in many editions and has Enjoyed massive popularity throughout the 20th century, many people have carried it around, taken it to war, kept it in the car, ordered it for reading on a putative desert island. The memorable quatrains appeal to all classes and conditions of men and women; they are still treasured by millions.

This translation profoundly influenced the West's perception (or misperception) of Persia ( today known as Iran ) in the turn of the century. In fact as unusual as it may seem one of the original manuscripts of the "Rubaiyaat" was carried aboard the "R.M.S. Titanic" and was to dissapear with the doomed Liner under the Sea never to resurface again ...

picture: Top Right WWII veteran General Omar Nelson Bradley
and below portrait of Omar Khayyam (1048 - 4 Dec 1131)
Poet, mathematician and astronomer.

Khayyam (1048 - 4 Dec 1131) was Born in Nishapur, Iran the provincial capital of Khurasan. Nishapur is located 115 kms. west of Mashhad, Not much is known about his family but there is speculation that his father's trade might have been "Tentmaker". Tentmaker is the literal translation of Khayym. Omar even pokes fun at his nickname in his writing:

"Khayym, who stitched the tents of science, Has fallen in grief's furnace and been suddenly burned, The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life, And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!"
--Omar Khayym

The sudden popularity of the famous Quatrains, sold for only One Pence as a pocket book, was such that it was not only restricted to the London Upper Class and Cultural educated circles, but became an international hit and strangely enough in the United States where Khayyam's poems became a symbol of wisdom and celebration of an epicurian life. The Persian Poets popularity was such that many started picking "Omar" as a surname for themselves or their siblings as was the case for example of General "Omar" Nelson Bradley (1893-1981) , known by his troops in World War II as "The Soldier's General" because of his care of and compassion for those soldiers under his comand, or Costume designer Omar Kiam for many Hollywood films of the 1930's.

Khayyams tribute to Wine was also often exageratedly used to promote the virtues of alcoholic beverages. Thus Khayyam became not only a popular figure but was also used as a formidable merchandizing vehicle, cited in Ads promoting the sales of all sorts of items ranging from Persian or Middle Eastern Rugs, Wine bottles, Vacuum Cleaners, Porcelain figurines to even Restaurant names such as the famed Armenian Immigrant George Mardikian's restaurant "Omar Khayyam" created in 1932 in Fresno, California.

A number of artists have also even tried to put his poetry into musical form such as in British Composer Hubert Bath's "Omar Khayyam: Four Eastern Impressions for Piano" .

picture: Piano music composed by Hubert Bath (1883-1945)

But also in songs such as "Girl O' Mine" in a musical entitled "Omar Khayyam the Poet" of the mid 20's.

In 1931 a radio series of about Thirteen Episodes in a "Mystery and Adventure" gendre were broadcasted with a great deal of success on US national Radio called "Omar - Wizard of Persia"

It is therefore not a surprise that Hollywood very soon discovered the potentials of a film story on Khayyam's life and Times. The Oriental touch of Khayyam's poetry, his glorification of the Good Life and the Universal appeal of his poetry, made him an ideal role model for all movie goers thirsty to discover new Romantic Lovers and Adventurers.

At least Three silent films exist on Khayyam :

"A Lover's Oath" (1922; released 1925), "Omar the Tent Maker"
(1922) and "Omar Khayyam" (1924).

"A Lover's Oath" (also released under the title : "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam") Directed by Ferdinand Pinney Earle. Edited by Milton Sills and starring Ramon Novarro as Ben Ali ,with co-stars Kathleen Key as Sherin, Edwin Stevens as Hassen Ben Sabbath, and Frederick Warde as Omar Khayyam.

picture: Left: "A Lovers Oath" (1922 / released in 1925)
(courtesy silent majority) Kathleen Key, Ramon Novarro, Frederick
Warde (Center as Omar Khayyam), Right
"Omar the Tent-Maker" (1922)
Shireen (Virginia Brown Faire) and Omar (Guy Bates Post).

Artistic backgrounds and trick photography were the draws in this romantic drama, based on The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. As Ben Ali, Ramon Novarro practically disappears in the midst of all the camera work and set design, as does his co-star Kathleen Key. The film's titles are, more often than not, direct quotes of the Rubaiyat's verses. As a result, the plot sticks pretty much to the original Edward Fitzgerald translation -- Ben Ali, the son of Omar (Frederick Warde), is engaged to Sherin (Key), but lusty old sheik Hassan Ben Sabbath (Edwin Stevens) wants Sherin for himself. Although Ben Ali gets the girl, Edwin Stevens walks off with the acting honors, and occasionally another actor's presence emerges memorably in the midst of all the fancy backgrounds and harems, most notably funny-faced character actor Snitz Edwards as Omar's servant.
The films Running Length is : 6 reels. This was Ramon Navarro's (known as Samaniego) first starring role. However, the independent art film could not find a distributor, and stayed hidden in a vault three years until Navarro had become a full fledged star in Fred Niblo's 1926 Silent Epic "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" . By then, both the actor and the film had changed names. After making this film, a disappointed Ramon returned - briefly - to bit and extra assignments.

"Omar the Tentmaker" directed by James Young and produced by Richard Walton Tully was one of the first attempts to adapt Khayyam's life story to the silver screen. It was adapted from the stage play by Tully with mixed results. It shows Omar (Guy Bates Post, who also played the role on stage) as a student in love with Shireen (Virginia Brown Faire), the daughter of his teacher. The couple marry in secret, but the Shah (Noah Beery) has heard of Shireen's beauty and carries her off to his native land. When she turns down his advances, she is imprisoned. Shireen gives birth while she is locked up and the Shah orders that both she and the baby girl be thrown off a cliff. They are saved, and the child is handed over to Omar, but Shireen is sold into slavery. It takes seventeen years for Omar and Shireen to be reunited. During that time, their daughter grows up (to be played by Patsy Ruth Miller), and falls in love with a Christian slave. Do not expect to learn much about Omar Khayyam nor his poems in this Art Deco style silent film, but it has the charm of its time.

Not much can be said either of Bryan Foy's "Omar Khayham" based on his screenplay starring Phil Dunham which basically follows the same plot as the one mentioned above.

Films where Khayyam or his poetry are mentioned :

Films quoting Khayyams poetry:
"Unfaithful", "Duel in the Sun", and "Pandora"

Khayyam's poetry seems to have also inspired filmakers in the talkie era, where the powerful imagery and romantic tainted poetry has been used as an understatement to the films message.

"Pandora And The Flying Dutchman" (1951) directed by Albert Lewin was a film based on the legend of The Flying Dutchman. James Mason plays Henrick Van Der Zee (The Flying Dutchman), a man doomed to roam the seven seas for eternity, only being allowed to stop for six months every seven years to find someone who loves him enough to die for him. He meets Pandora, Played by Ava Gardner, who sees his ship in the harbour and swims out to it as her curiosity gets the better of her.
The British version of the film ends with James Mason picking up a copy of the Rubaiyat and, with his beautiful northern English diction, reads :

" The moving finger writes:
and having writ,
Moves on: Nor all thy piety
nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel
half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out
a word of it."

_ The Rubaiyat Quatrain XI

You can hear James Mason quote this verse at
You will need real player.
The American version, however, omits this and substitutes a few phrases explaining the legend of the Flying Dutchman, almost as if American audiences were not accorded enough intelligence to appreciate the Rubaiyat quotation.

King Vidor 's "Duel in the Sun" (1946) a dramatic love story set in the American West with Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck.
Omar Khayyam is quoted towards the end of the film by Gregory Pecks character "Chavez" who tries to confort his daughter Pearl:

"One thing is certain, and the rest is lies: The flower that once has bloomed, forever dies."
_ The Rubaiyat Quatrain LXIII.

In Adrian Lyne's ( "Fatal Attraction" , "9 1/2 Weeks" ) "Unfaithful"(2002), Diane Lane is a wayward wife and Richard Gere is her suspicious husband. Connie (Lane) leaves her suburban home on an errand, venturing into Manhattan during a wicked windstorm. On a trash-strewn Soho street, she literally runs into Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a handsome young Frenchman carrying a huge stack of books. Connie has a bad scrape on her knee, and is unable to get a cab, so Paul invites her up to his apartment. Paul is quietly flirtatious as he gives Connie some ice and a bandage for her knee. Connie phones home and explains to her son, Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan), that she's running late. Before she leaves, Paul gives her a book of Persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam ...

However the film for which Khayyam is certainly best remembered for is the one with the Hollywood Star of the 1950's Cornel Wilde.

When Frank Freeman Jr., son of the longtime head of Paramount Pictures, reads the novel written by Manuel Kamroff's novel "The Life, the Loves and the Adventures of Omar Khayyam" he is more than thrilled, and suggests screen writer Barry Lyndon to work on it immediately. In order to insure the utmost authenticity a research staff assembles more than 300 books on 11th Century Persia's history, politics and art. The result is a mammoth screenplay of 1, 500, 000 words which will serve as the backbone of a multi-million film with the most popular stars of the Time : Cornel Wilde, Debra Paget, John Derek, Michael Rennie and Raymond Massey.

Filmed in Vista Vision technicolor the film depicts the Life of Omar who appears as a Soldier, Poet and Scientist. The exacting task of designing Medieval Persian Costumes went to Ralph Jester, who already worked for most of Cecile B. DeMille's films such cas the "Ten Commandments" (1956) , or "Samson and Delilah" (1949).

The Movie's Legend has it that on the set, the actors had asked Jester to sew invisible pockets into the flowing robes so that they could carry, between takes lunch, money and cigarettes, car Keys, hankerchiefs and other modern necessities...

It is therefore with amidst great amount of Publicity and Merchandizing (including Poetry contests to win free tickets) that Paramount releases "The Life, Loves and Adventures of Omar Khayyam" directed by William Dieterle, in the movie theaters in 1957.

picture: Poster release of Omar Khayyam 1957

"Eleventh Century Persia is beset with enemies . The Mighty Byzantine army threatens its border. At Court a band of fanatical murderers, The Assassins, plot to set up their own Shah. Eyeing the throne is also Prince Ahmud (Perry Lopez), vindicative, jealous offspring of the Shah's first Wife, Zarada (Margaret Hayes). Ahmud, hates handsom Prince Malik (John Derek), courageous son of the Shah and rightful heir to the throne.
Amid this scene of intrigue and treachury is Omar Khayyam (Cornel Wilde), adventurer, poet, astronomer and man of action. The shah ( Raymond Massey) appoints Omar as counselor to the court, a move which pleases the Shah's chief Minister Nizam (, who needs Omar's wisdom for guidance. Nizam, Omar and the wealthy and fawning Hasani( Michael Rennie) are former schoolmates, intensly loyal to eachother. Knowing that Omar's beloved the beautiful Sharaine (Debra Paget ) is to become the Shah's fourth wife, Hasani brings Omar a pretty slave girl (Joan Taylor). The latter promises to be Omar's faithful servant, hoping to win his heart.
The Byzantines thrust themselves across the border. Prince Malik earns the honor to go into battle with the Shah. By following Omar's scientific calculations, the Shah routs out the enemy with a surprise counterattack.
Through the slave girl, Omar has discovered the Assassin's seemingly invincible fortress. Strangely enough, he is welcomed by the Assassins and is shocked to discover that Hassani is their leader. Conveying the impression that the Assassins are winning him over their side, Omar covertly surveys the rock-hewn structure for means of destroying it.
Learning that the Shah and Malik have been wounded and half their forces wiped out, Prince Ahmud, who is in t league with the Assassins, rides with his army to cut off what is left of the Shah's forces.
Omar seeks out the Shah and prevails upon him to muster his remaining soldiers and attack the Assassins stronghold. Through Omar's knowledge of chemistry and geology, the forteress is destroyed and the Assassins defeated. The Shah dies of his wounds. Ahmud's and Malik's forces join in battle during which Ahmud is killed. Malik ascends the throne and Omar and Sharain find happiness together."

Although details of Khayyam's life are unknown, this movie invents one for him that include his real achievements - inventing a new calendar and of course penning poems. Thus the film provides us with a splendid cinematic introduction to Persia's greatest poet.

Khayyam appears as a compassionate and noble figure whose extraordinary literary talent and all-encompassing intellect displayed no natural boundary. Khayyam is admirably portrayed as a fascinating personality. The casting of the movie is exceptional and we are treated to fine supporting performances by distinguished actors of the time such as as Michael Rennie as Hassan Sabbah ( Hassani ) and Sebastian Cabot as Nizam al-Mulk (Nizam) among others.

picture: Omar Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) Right hardly suspects
his childhood friend Hassani (Michael Rennie) far right and his
mischievace plans as harem girl Yaffa ( Joan Taylor ) looks on

(copyright Paramount pictures)

Somehow Hollywood seems to have only retained Khayyam's metaphorical celebration of wine by making Cornel Wilde play an often-drunk Omar Khayyam who longs for his sweetheart who the Shah ( Raymond Massey) keeps in his harem as his third wife. Omar Khayyam works in the Shah's court as a mathematician who is drawing up a new calendar.

The movie also attempts to explore key historical issues surrounding the life and times of Khayyam. We learn about the Byzantine Roman Empire's war with Persia involving an alliance composed of Bulgars, Greeks, Franks and Lombards. We also confront a number of other historical and scientific issues in this film that are portrayed with an interesting admixture of detail and insight that seems to be unusual for such Hollywood productions.

picture: Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) sitting to the right of the throne
becomes the Shah's ( Raymond Massey ) military advisor

and top in love with Sharain (Debra Paget a Harem Girl.
(copyright Paramount pictures)

Khayyam additionally provides us with a fascinating glimpse of the Assassins of Syria, a sect known as the infamous "Hashashin" and led by Hasani (Michael Rennie). Also the film has Khayyam romancing with Sharain (Debra Paget) while foiling the assassin sect's plot to kill the Shah's son Prince Malik (John Derek) ( historically the future Malik Shah).

picture: Left Video Release cover of 1957 film. Right Prince Malik (John Derek)
left finds in Khayyam (Cornel Wilde) right a loyal protector

(copyright Paramount pictures)

In his efforts to root the Assassins out of their extrodinary mountain fortress, Khayyam is therefore led to crosse swords with the Assassin sect whose members are deluded by their leader into thinking that they are in paradise when they actually are in a hashish-induced zombie-like state. In fact, the word "assassin" means "hashish-eaters".

Thus Cornel Wilde as Khayyam appears as a remarkable military genius in addition to his poetic and scientific skills; while
Nizam who historically was a political genius of his Time is reduced to a supporting role by Sebasien Cabot and Hassan Sabbah portrayed by Michael Rennie is a suave and calculating villain with good manners, rather than a "Osama Ben Laden" type of monster which he probably was.

This leads us to conclude that Omar Khayyam's portrayal in William Dieterle's film is certainly highly exagerated especially regarding Khayyams physical and military skills, and tends to reduce his poetry to the love af wine. The real Khayyam was probably more in phase with the the one depicted by Amin Maalouf in his bestselling novel "Samarkand". However the film can still be considered as a sincere albeit highly romantized tribute to Khayyam's genius very much in the style of other Hollywood movies such as "The adventures of Marco Polo" (1938) starring Gary Cooper, "The Life of Louis Pasteur" (1936) or "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937) starring Paul Muni the latter also directed by William Dieterle. The film is therefore truly a joy to watch as a Technicolor Spectacle and contains all the ingredients that make up an exciting Oriental Tale.

picture: Left to Right Cornel Wilde, Debra Paget, Michael Rennie,
John Derek, and Raymond Massey
(copyright Paramount pictures)

"Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears Today of past regrets and future fears- Tomorrow? - Why, tomorrow I may be Myself with yesterday's seven thousand Years." _ The Rubaiyat Quatrain XXI

Authors notes:

On the Actors of the 1957 film:

Cornel Wilde is "Omar Khayyam" Poet, Drinker and Adventurer. He was one of Hollywoods leading men in the 40's and 50's in such films as "Forever Amber" or
Cecile B. DeMilles "The Greatest Show on Earth" with co-star Charlton Heston. and appeared as Alladin in Alfred E. Green's 1945 film "One Thousand and One Nights" .

Debra Paget is "Shirine" was one of Elvis Presley's sweethearts and a co-star in "Love me Tender" . She often appeared in Adventure films in the mid and late 50's.

John Derek is Malik ( Malik Shah). Better known as Bo-Derek's husband and director, he nevertheless made memorable appearances in such films as Ccile B. DeMilles "The Ten Commandements" 1956 and three years prior to the film on "Omar Khayyam" he took on the role of another "Persian hero" Hadji Baba in "The Adventures of Hadji Baba" (1954) directed by Don Weis.

Michael Rennie portrays a suave Hassani (Hassan Sabah) and is certainly the actor who is best remembered for his role as an Outer Space Alien in "The Day the World stood Still (1951)"

Raymond Massey is the Shah ( Alp Arslan ) and is no other than one of the lady killers in the famous "Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)" with Cary Grant. He also appeared as President Roosevelt in the successful tv series The "Winds of War" starring Robert Mitchum and Ali MacGraw , and many who used to follow the series "Bankeh Karlaid" (Persian title) a Dynasy or Dallas type tv vehical of the late Sixties will probably remember the Old Patriarch who played along with George Hamilton.

On the Music Score:

The music score of this film "The Life Loves and adventures of Omar Khayyam" (1957) was composed by Victor Young with Lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, with "The Loves of Omar Khayyam", "Take My Heart", and "Tell My Love"
performed by Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, who also features in the film as Karina.

Khayyam and the Rubaiyats On-Line :

Khayyam is immensely cited worldwide on many websites dedicated to poetry, science or mathematics, here a just a few of my findings :

Khayyam the mathematician and his Geometric Solution of the Cubic

Beautiful Website on Khayyam The Persian Poet.

Stanzas or verses of four lines The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam appears here in one of the suggested translations by Edward J. Fitzgerald.

Recommended Reading on Khayyam :

Merchandizing "Omar Khayyam's" 1957 film :

Merchandizing the Poet: Carpets and Vacuum Cleaner "Omar Khayyam" Contest proposed by Paramount Studios for promotion of its film "Omar Khayyam" 1957.


French-Libanese Amin Maalouf's 1995 best selling novel "Samarkand" tells the story of Khayyam and the whereabouts of the Rubaiyats manuscript which is supposed to have sunk with the Titanic. It is a novel that has been an International hit by the Author of "Leo Africanus".

"Wine of Nishapur: A Photographer's Promenade in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" Photography: Shahrokh Golestan Calligraphy: Nasrollah Afjei Translated by: Karim Emami published by Mazda Publishers.

Cool Wine Quotes

Check out imdb the name "Omar" which also established itself in Hollywood circles since the 1930's.

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 Online magazines.

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