Sunday, April 6, 2008

Introduction to Ali Baba:

When he set out to direct Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the years approaching 1944, Arthur Lubin surely had something to say concerning the outbreak of World War II. Whether coincidental or intended during the production of the film, Lubin’s Ali Baba quietly parallels the ideals of a war waged between two sides—a fight for power at the expense of innocent citizens. Much to the delight of the audience (and hardly a surprise in the escapist genre), Ali Baba and his band of underdog thieves save the day and stabilize the city of Baghdad (not to mention the fact that Ali gets the girl). As if these themes aren’t Western enough in nature, the movie has more to say about the alternate views held by two very different cultures—since when do films set in what today is Iraq appear as American western dramas?
Oddly enough, the extent of the literature available on Lubin’s 1944 Ali Baba is disappointing at best. For this reason, the purpose of this page is to reflect on the content present in the film and to generate some thought surrounding a movie otherwise intended as a way to escape from everyday life. Specifically, the motives of this blog are three-fold:

—To consider the origin of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves: The Arabian Nights

—To discuss the influence Western culture holds within the film, directly surrounding the choice of actors/actresses, motives of the director, and the language of set design.

—To understand other possible themes woven into Ali Baba’s script and the influence WWII may have had on the film.

Through consideration of such topics, we as a society may better understand the implications culture and historical events may have in everyday life. And more often than not, such issues have direct correlation to the events of the present. To discuss is to collectively understand human nature, and in the case of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, draws contrast between what is historically considered ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ culture.

The Original Ali Baba: The Arabian Nights

As most Americanized versions of foreign texts turned big-screen features, the 1944 film version of Ali Baba borrows little from the original translation in The Arabian Nights. In its original form, the story of Ali Baba begins with the marrying off of two brothers: Qasim marries a wealthy woman who brings with her much inheritance while Ali Baba marries a wife of working class. One day while traveling through the forest, Ali Baba is surprised by a band of thieves—which would appear to be a negative experience. However, he witnesses the location of the thieves’ hideout (opening at the command ‘open sesame’) which promises to be filled with the items stolen from far-off nations along with an extensive collection of gold coins.
After a mishap, Ali Baba’s wealthy brother finds out about the cave and while on a trip to collect his own share of the treasure, he is killed. The knowledge of the hideout exposed to the thieves, the rest of the story involves the thieves’ pursuit of the person with knowledge of their cave. Essentially, the group is outsmarted by one of Ali Baba’s slaves after pinpointing the location of his home. His life is saved and everyone lives happily ever after—he even keeps the treasure in the family for numerous generations after the destruction of the band of thieves.
Keeping true to the history of most books-turned-movies, Lubin’s film fails to follow the plot of Ali Baba’s precedent work. In the film, the audience is introduced to Ali as a child. Following the death of his father (the Qualif) in the city of Baghdad, Ali is orphaned and for some odd reason decides to roam the desert for answers. As in the literary work, Ali does stumble upon the thieves entering their hideout and finds the key to entering (open sesame!). Only once discovered and assimilated into the band of thieves does Ali receive the name Ali Baba, and from this point on, the film completely deviates from the movie. The thieves turn out to be a righteous and amiable group of outlaws that eventually aid Ali Baba in bringing down Hulagu Khan’s reign in the city of Baghdad. Once again, everyone lives happily ever after.
For the most part, film critics would not expect a film version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to follow the plot of the original transcript. Not only would it be a more difficult film to produce, but it most likely would not captivate American audiences to the extent of the common clich├ęs used in every Westernized ‘Arab’ production. However, the Westernization of Ali Baba (including casting and director’s influence) is quite important in understanding the film, as is discussed in the next section.

Influence of The West: What Has Happened To Baghdad?

Upon viewing Lubin’s Ali Baba for the first time, the unknowing movie lover may be taken aback by the number of foreigners residing in and around Baghdad—most of the cast is white and clearly of European lineage. Fear not, a quick referencing of the latest edition of The World Almanac lists Islam as the primary religion of the residents of Baghdad. However, as is typical of American-made films with settings surrounding ‘Middle Eastern’ nations, little attention is paid to hiring a culturally accurate cast nor one that represents an accurate crosscutting of the population as a whole. For the most part, this mishap is fairly innocent and does not take away from the understanding of the film—it does however show the West’s lack of respect for cultures that are not their own.
As if the poor casting in general is not enough, take into account the star and co-star, Jon Hall (Ali Baba) and Maria Montez (Amara). Hall is clearly Caucasian (any amount of tanning cannot cover this up) and Montez hails from the Dominican Republic—her Spanish accent cannot be masked with any amount of editing, particularly in a movie from 1944. This is not to mention the embarrassing performance of Andy Devine as Abdullah whose acting is about as convincing as the costumes he tries on when the thieves plan on entering the city in disguise. Luckily, under the direction of Hall, they decide to enter by hiding themselves in barrels of ‘oil,’ as in every other American adaptation of Ali Baba to date. Add on top of this the Western themed desert scenes straight from Gunsmoke and the seemingly medieval-themed Baghdad on the day of Amara’s wedding and the origin of the film becomes quite clear. All of these mishaps are really quite disappointing considering the number of themes present within the movie that are still relevant today. These themes will be discussed in the next section.

Underlying Themes: Present-Day Perspective

Even with all of its inaccuracies, the 1944 version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves carries much relevance for today. At the time of production, WWII was still being fought overseas. When considering the plot of Lubin’s Ali Baba, it is interesting to draw comparisons. The film involves an outside invader (figuratively speaking) that sacks the current leader of Baghdad and overtakes the city. People are killed by the new leader (Hugleu Khan) everyday, and much to the dismay of Baghdad’s citizens, he cannot be stopped. Eventually, resistance builds and with the help of Ali Baba the people of Baghdad are able to regain control of their city and protect the lives of future generations.
Does this sound at all familiar? The plot very closely follows events similar to those of WWII. Adolf Hitler and his cohorts gained power through a similar form of intimidation and deception. Once in power, Hitler oversaw the slaughter of millions upon millions of people—whether they be Jews, homosexuals, the mentally retarded, etc—anyone that did not fit his idea of the ideal human race. However, as in the movie, help eventually comes in the form of worldwide resistance to Hitler’s operations. Not everyone lived happily ever after in this case, but the storyline is relatively the same. With this clear representation of WWII infused within the plot, again, it is surprising that more literature is not present on the subject when such obvious relations clearly can be made—relations that today can be used for commentary on the War In Iraq.
In addition to its relation to war, Lubin’s Ali Baba also has much to say on the subject surrounding modern views of women. A majority of the time, dialogue on women is concentrated between Andy Devine and Jon Hall. The two consistently argue concerning Hall’s (Ali Baba’s) obvious love of Montez (Amara). At one point Devine (Abdullah) bellows, “Why do you give her all this freedom?” It seems Lubin harbors a modern view of women for his time—though women’s suffrage had been around for many years, women were still expected to be submissive to men in the 1940s. Even as Amara is somewhat a damsel in distress by the end of the movie, she does exercise some freedom and proves to be of relatively strong character and moral resolve. Clearly, with the fate of Baghdad sealed and in his grasp, it is clear that Ali Baba will treat Amara with the respect she deserves, much unlike the treatment of Hugleu Khan.

Conclusion to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The shortfalls and successes aside, Arthur Lubin’s 1944 Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves offers much to its viewers. Whether it be a modern-day perspective of war or a faint reminder of the origins of Ali Baba in The Arabian Nights, the film somehow manages enough content to escape the label of an exclusively escapist production. As with all popular media, films help to construct an awareness of our own culture—and in the case of those with Arab settings—exposes our lack of understanding of others. However, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves holds its place in the lineup of films derived from the Nights, and provides a basis for later films on similar subjects. Though it may have escaped the line of critical thought due to its genre, Ali Baba is nevertheless an important work representing ‘Eastern’ traditions infused with ‘Western’ themes. To understand the differences and similarities between the two is to better understand the social and political climate of the world today—increasingly important in an expanding global environment.

Precedent Works:

Chraibi, Aboubakr. Galland's Ali Baba and Other Arabic Versions. Marvels & Tales. 2004;18.2;159-169.

Evans, Peter W. From Maria Montez to Jasmine: Hollywood's Oriental Odalisques . New Eroticisms: Changing Patterns in the Construction of Otherness. Rodopi. 2000.

Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2003;588;171.

Shohat, Ella. Gender In Hollywood's Orient. Middle East Report. Jan-Feb, 1990