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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Sand Pirates of the Sahara (review)

Movies as Religion: The Gospel of ‘Sand Pirates’

I can’t remember the first time I saw 1951’s Sand Pirates of the Sahara — it’s one of those classic movies that has simply always been with me. It was a perennial on my local PBS channel for filling overnight time slots in the late 70s, so that by the time the miracle of the VCR came around and I taped it one night, I already had the movie memorized. Not that that didn’t keep me from devouring it at least another 50 times as a teenager.

Sand Pirates looms in my mind the way that March of the Wooden Soldiers and the ’33 King Kong and The Wizard of Oz do: as one of those movies of my childhood that expanded my awareness of the real world — of human motivations and desires and fears — through the most fantastical kind of fantasy. I couldn’t get enough of it: the escapism and the adventure, sure, but also the lurking danger not just in Ramón Jamón’s evil (but handsome) Prince Khalid but also in Brett Armstrong’s swashbuckling Roland Blackstone. Roland may have been the first hint my teenaged self got of the dark side of sexuality, though I was only dimly aware of it as a girl.

But watching the film again as an adult… wow! There is something treacherous and torturous in the push and pull between Roland and Khalid as they battle for the heart and hand of Sandra Sinclair’s Emily Meredith (even if she is a bit a twit), a barely submerged undercurrent of presumed masculine supremacy: they’re more alike than they are different, and this may be the first movie I recall in which the hero and the villain are separated by mere degrees. Roland may truly love Emily while Khalid sees her only as a prize to be won, but they both are driven by virile aggression — they both want to possess her in a totally sexual way. There’s a lot of actual, if veiled, rage in the “raging passion and clashing swords in the pitiless desert wastes” that classic poster for the film promised. (I soooo could have written film critic Pieter der Vanderhaar’s recent bestseller The Cad in the Gray Flannel Suit: Male Dominance in Postwar Pop Culture, from Arpád’s ‘Sand Pirates of the Sahara’ to Hitchcock’s ‘Tarnished,’ 1950–1959.)

But much more than just getting my adolescent hormones flowing, Sand Pirates was instrumental in igniting my love of movies. There’s something quintessentially movie-ish about the film, something that seems to wrap up in one perfect package all that is right and good and perfect about movies. When people talk about loving “The Movies,” it’s movies like this that they’re talking about. It deploys the grand drama between good and evil while also acknowledging the fine line — of exigency, of opportunity — between the two. That glorious scene in which Roland, Emily, and Emily’s father, kindly old Professor Meredith (Michael Sloane), stumble across the book (the one that hints at the secret of the pharaoh’s jewel) in Sir Wallace’s (Nigel Clive) library in Oxford, helped by Khalid, before he had revealed his true identity, when they all still believe he is merely Sir Wallace’s factotum… that’s such a great scene, because Khalid is as genuinely excited by the find as the rest of them are.

Because we really do love Khalid early on, with his rapier wit (more than a match for Roland’s) and his aching desire to see his family’s honor restored, it’s hard to see him as the big bad villain later on, even if that’s the role he gets slotted into in the third act. It’s hard to know now whether screenwriter Peter Appleton was intentionally aiming for the subversive with Khalid (and with that twist at the end — ho boy!), because so much of the film is clearly very conventional (“You! I thought you were dead!,” Khalid squawks at Roland in the final swordfight. “You thought wrong!” Roland snaps back. *groan*). Was Appleton sly enough to sneak in the suggestion that those we perceive as the enemy often have more in common with us than we’d like to acknowledge? Or was he merely attempting to surprise jaded moviegoers who were all too familiar with Hollywood clichés? We’ll never know, with Appleton’s disappearance from the movie biz after he was hauled up before McCarthy’s dreaded HUAC interrogators on national television… but you have to wonder whether that furtive rebelliousness was what caught the eye of the commie hunters in the first place.

Steven Spielberg couldn’t resist paying homage to Sand Pirates in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I often kid that movies are my religion, but it’s really not a joke. You get baptized into the worship of movies by the likes of Sand Pirates (and Oz and Kong and so on), and the love and the devotion never leaves you. And I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way. Famously, of course, there’s Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who have cited the film as a primary influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark — both films were venerations of the chapter serials of the 1930s, but Spielberg and Lucas would have actually seen Sand Pirates as kids — and Spielberg pays homage to the film in the opening sequence of Raiders: The South American idol Indy snatches from the pedestal is the Egyptian funerary object Khalid uses to conk Professor Meredith on the noggin in the temple scene. (Hollywood lore says Spielberg found the prop in storage, Paramount having snatched up the HHS Studios warehouse for a song years earlier when HHS was bankrupted by its 1963 Biblical-epic flop The Book of Genesis.)

The list of films that directly refer to Sand Pirates is ridiculous. There’s that bit with the jammed machine gun in Martin Scorsese’s 1975 Howard Beach Hooligans that plays off the gangster shootout that sends Roland and Emily fleeing New York for London in the beginning of the film. Lasse Hallström’s 1997 old-coot drama Portrait of Lars and Eddie is practically an expansion of the relationship between Professor Meredith and Sir Wallace, down to their reversion to schoolboy-buddy antics when together and even their secret code (“More’s the pity!” and “Avast ye scoundrels!”). Even the dumb 2002 angel-on-earth chick flick Penny’s From Heaven works in a rather sophisticated nod to Sand Pirates, when Matthew McConaughey’s Eric stumbles upon Reese Witherspoon’s Penny in a compromising position with Eric’s best friend… it’s played for laughs, but that scene directly apes, from the camera angles to the use of the mirror, the moment when Roland overhears the encounter between Emily and Khalid at the museum and misinterprets what he hears, changing his pursuit of Emily from one fueled by affection to one fueled by jealousy.

But it’s not just filmmakers — a lot of movie fans, too, obviously have a special place in their hearts for Sand Pirates of the Sahara. It regularly appears at the top of DVD wish lists — the film has never been released on VHS or DVD, and it’s starting to look like it never will be. (Apparently there’s a rights issue with the popular Jerome Schwartz/Miles Tago tune “Shifting Sands of My Heart,” which underscores the fancy-dress-party scene; though the music was performed both on the score and onscreen by the famous Bill Glendale Orchestra, actress Billie Grey is onscreen actually lip-synching to vocals sung by 50s chanteuse Lucinda Laine, and Laine’s estate is for some reason dragging its heels on giving permission for a home video version.)

So I jealously protect my now-23-year-old homemade tape of the film — I’m half afraid to watch it, for fear of wearing it out, but usually I can’t resist. Brett Armstrong was my first celebrity crush, the first truly unattainable object of desire I encountered: far more than the usual “well, he’s a movie star and I’m no one,” he, you know, died before I was born. He has only ever existed for me — and since his tragic death in 1962 for all of us — on film, and watching Sand Pirates, which I do every couple of months, is as much about peeking into my own childhood and my own sexual awakening as it is about looking into a celluloid realm where reality and fantasy sit in uneasy company.

Brett Armstrong in Sand Pirates; Bruce Campbell will play the actor in a 2008 biopic.

That brings up an aspect of our relationship to The Movies that Sand Pirates of the Sahara always makes me think about: the immortality that film grants to those it elevates to fame that is at once spectacular and poignant. And this is about the movie lover’s evolving relationship with a particular film, too, how the way we see a film is ever changing. As a kid, all I knew was that I loved this movie. But when I watch it today, that love gets commingled with the knowledge of how it shaped my love of pop culture in later years. Like this: I have no doubt that one of the reasons I adore Bruce Campbell is that he bears a striking physical resemblance to Brett Armstrong. (Am I totally stoked for the upcoming 2008 Martin Scorsese biopic of Armstrong starring Campbell? Oh my god yes I am.)

I knew nothing about Armstrong as a kid, just that he wielded a mean sword and made me feel kinda funny, but in a good way. I didn’t know that he had packed movie houses in the 30s and 40s, that millions of women swooned at that rakish grin. I didn’t know that he’d been up for the role of Rhett Butler and been crushed when it went to whatsisname. I didn’t know that Armstrong saw Roland as a last chance to regain his earlier fame, or that he, ironically, came to despise the character when he began to believe that the overwhelming popularity of the movie — and not his public drinking and carousing in the increasingly straitlaced 50s — killed his chances at other roles. I didn’t know that — according to his widow, former starlet Acey Winstead (who died only in 2002), who has been quoted in numerous places saying as much — Armstrong had taken to disparaging the character as “Roland the Intrepid Explorer.”

Now I know these things, though, it makes me very sad to think that a movie that has given so many millions of movie lovers so much pleasure actually brought such pain to its star. It doesn’t make me love the movie less, but it does make me appreciate it more, to know that there is a price paid by those who wrought even the art we consider less than Art.

‘Sand Pirates of the Sahara’
1951, HHS Studios
director: Ferenc Arpád
writer: Peter Appleton


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