‘Valentino’s Ghost’ shows Arabs via Hollywood

“Valentino’s Ghost” came to me as I was pondering my choice for the most recent Criticwire survey question. I was sure that some critics would choose “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“Valentino’s Ghost” also mentioned the David Lean film. The 1962 British-American adventure movie features an almost impossibly beautiful 30-year-old Peter O’Toole. The desert scenes were filmed in Jordan and Morocco. The romance of T.E. Lawrence looms large, and yet his younger brother, Professor A.W. Lawrence campaigned against the movie.

When I was in England, a fellow grad student from Jordan commented that in Arab history, Lawrence of Arabia, the person, was not particularly notable in Arab history.  Yet “Valentino’s Ghost” finds the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” a milestone in the changing views of Arabs.

The movie takes its name from the 1921 romantic silent movie, “The Sheik,” which starred Italian-born Rudolph Valentino. In the movie, one supposed that Valentino’s character is Arab, but he turns out to be half-British and half-Spanish. Yet this is only revealed at the end when the woman Diana (Agnes Ayres) has already fallen in love with Sheik Ahmen Ben Hassan (Valentino).

While the documentary doesn’t go into these specifics, it notes how the Arab as a hero and sex symbol and Arabia as a place of excitement and adventure soon descends into a place of heathens. Movies begin to show how the Middle East was won, through British courage.

Invasions by France and England are shown in movies like “The Four Feathers” or “Beau Geste.” Although the Arabs are native people defending their lands, they are shown as rebels and savage tribesmen. Arabs are seen as assaulting foreigners and not as patriots defending their homeland from foreign powers. The documentary compares them to the “redskins” of the Old Westerns.

Instead of showing the Arab desire to be free, they are shown as being fevered, ruthless and lawless. What better place for the white man to take up his burden through European expansion? The barbaric savages need Western salvation and that means the only good Arab is an obedient Arab.

Between segments of movies, we get commentary from experts such as Niall Ferguson of Harvard, Melani McAlister of George Washington University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago as well as foreign correspondents Robert Fisk of “The Independent” and the late Anthony Shadid of “The New York Times.”

Actor Tony Shalhoub talks about regretting his pre-Monk role as a terrorist  (1986) and stand-up comics Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader and Ahmed Ahmed talk about their experiences and take on American stereotypes. Sometimes it’s the money, sometimes actors are just so eager to work they don’t mind being part of a stereotype.

What “Lawrence of Arabia” represents is that “Arabs needed a white man to lead them.” The documentary includes the 2012 “Argo,” the 1994 “True Lies” and the 2012 “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Then there’s that touchy subject of Israel and the country that was given away to help liberate Jerusalem. We don’t get any Israeli commentary here and that might bother more than a few people. Yet consider the recent “Five Broken Cameras” and “The Law in These Parts.” Both those documentaries make Israel’s policy toward the Palestine hard to defend.

Valentino received a lot of attention and died young, but unfortunately, “Valentino’s Ghost” hasn’t gotten much notice. That’s a shame. Today, 23 May 2013, is the last day it is scheduled to screen in Pasadena at the Laemmle Playhouse 7. For students of movies and prejudice, this is an intelligent, sometimes humorous documentary well worth your time.

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