In the area of today’s Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers almost touch, is the swath of land called the Cradle of Civilization. Babylon was here in this Fertile Crescent as were many other ancient cities that have been mined by archaeologists in recent centuries. Perpetual warfare has made this process difficult and dangerous in modern times and this remains a chapter of world history about which we know too little and see infrequently in the movies.
The larger expanse as Iran lies to the east of Iraq. This was once the domain of the mighty Persian Empire. Once again, there is not much that the movies have to tell us about this time except to picture the Persians as the foes of early Athens, and the victims of Alexander the Great (see Greek World).
Poirot: Murder in Mesopotamia (2001)
This is an A&E original movie. Made in the traditional English style, the plot line follows Hercule Poirot in an investigation of a murder at an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia (today Iraq). Poirot likes the parallel between his profession and that of the archaeologists. The obligatory room full of suspects makes an occasion for an interminable monologue from Poirot, with only mildly interesting flashbacks. This film is only interesting when it takes us into the excavations in search of the Mesopotamian past. There is a story about Agatha Christie accompanying her archaeologist husband on a dig in Mesopotamia, which provided the inspiration for this book.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
This Walt Disney release got little respect and resorted to the claim that it was the “highest grossing adaptation from a video game.” The genius of this film is in its transformation of Asian/Persian characters into attractive Hollywood types. Set at the height of the Persian Empire (today Iran), it begins with a pleasant enough tale of how an orphan boy is picked out of the marketplace and adopted by the King of Persia. Seventeen years pass, and the movie quickly degenerates into testosterone driven mayhem. Jake Gyllenhaal has the likable face of a Disney character and seems woefully miscast as the orphan grown into a warrior prince. Gemma Atherton is the hot babe who happens to be the powerful princess (?) of a city conquered by the Persians. It is not a surprise that she and Jake are thrown together. Ben Kingsley plays the brother to Jake’s adoptive father and a wise advisor in the Gandalf/Obi-Wan mode. There is a strong influence of Star Wars desert scenes here, not to mention elements of many other modern adventure classics. The film is hugely overproduced though much of the Persian-inspired spectacle is persuasive. Jake and Gemma eventually manage an attractive chemistry but they are ridiculously out of place in this Persian epic. It ends in fiery apocalypse. Kingsley turns out to be the villain. This should have been better but the formula is not working. The mythical dimensions of the film are hackneyed and the constant hacking of swords becomes tiresome. There is an overuse of really scary snakes. Still, it earned predictable millions around the world while failing to impress the critics.
This is not reliable history, but for students of popular culture, it is a study in how historical epochs are preserved by reckless imagination. Kingsley took the lead position in many of the interviews promoting the film. He wanted to make the point that it is really all about family and a perfect fit for Disney.
The Physician (2013)
This is a German movie, although the version I found on Netflix in 2015 was apparently filmed in English. The main characters are played by English actors. Ben Kingsley heads the cast. It is the story of a orphaned boy in 11th century England who apprentices himself to a barber that travels from town to town on a red medicine wagon. There are some beautiful scenes of the wagon moving across English landscapes. The boy grows into a young man with aspirations to practice real medicine. His name is Rob Cole. When the Barber goes blind and is cured by a Jewish physician, Rob learns that this medical knowledge came from a great teacher in Persia. He is determined to get there and learn from the master.
The barber drops him near the Cliffs of Dover and gives him some money. He sails first to Egypt and then travels by camel caravan to the city of Isfahan in today’s Iran. On his journey, he meets a beautiful girl who is being sent to Isfahan to marry a rich man. Christians are not allowed to study at the school of the renowned Ibn Sina (Kingsley), so Rob takes on the identity of a Jew. He becomes a star pupil for Ibn Sina.
The city is under threat from the Seljuk horde, which has the mission of conquering most of the Middle East and imposing strict Muslim law. The Seljuks send a man infected with the Black Death into Isfahan, causing an epidemic. Rob becomes instrumental in discovering that the plague is spread by rats. Later, he treats a man who suffers from the “side sickness.” His mother died of this unknown condition and he is obsessed with finding the cause and cure. The dying man is a Zoroastrian who requests not to be buried or cremated. His religion requires that he leave his body behind to be picked clean by vultures. This gives Rob the opportunity to perform an autopsy otherwise forbidden by religious law. He is caught in the act, and he and his teacher are sentenced to death.
The autopsy taught Rob that removal of the appendix can cure the side sickness. Just at the moment he is condemned, the Shah collapses with side sickness and Rob is called upon to perform the first appendectomy in the history of the world. These scenes are not calculated to win the appreciation of people looking for a fun night at the movies. The Shah shows his gratitude by allowing the Jews to escape from the city even as the Seljuks are invading. Ibn Sina takes a death potion and remains in the burning city. Rob and his lover ride off for England. In the end, the itinerant barber learns that a hospital has been founded in London by the famous Dr. Cole.
This film is set at the midpoint of the Islamic Golden Age when acquisition of knowledge in Christian countries was hobbled by the control of the Church in Rome. Jewish knowledge was defused and sometimes viewed as archaic. Muslim scholars saw themselves as the vanguard of a new synthesis in the world of Abrahamic religion so long as they were not crippled by fundamentalism. Great advances were made at Islamic centers of learning in this time.
More to Come: Modern Middle East
Where is My Friend’s House? (1989) – Iranian
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) – Iranian
The Color of Paradise (1999) – Iranian
Turtles Can Fly (2005) – Iraq
The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005) – Iranian
Persepolis (2008) – Animated