StarChoice 9: ZARAK

 ZARAK (aka: Zarak Khan / Zarak le Valeureux – Colour – 1956)

Yesterday I watched a movie in which the music teacher of a school held a chronometer in hand to measure how long her students could hold their breath. That stint was pretty short compared to the few months required for the decks to be cleared and a new chapter in the life of the British spy James Bond will be revealed. The media is abuzz with news about the upcoming movie “Skyfall” which is the twenty-third installment of the Bond movie franchise of Eon Productions founded in 1961 by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, a Canadian producer working in England who had options on all available James Bond novels.

But a decade before “Cubby” Broccoli ventured into Bond’s territory, he had formed another production company in 1951 called “Warwick Film Productions Ltd” in collaboration with the Polish-American producer Irving Allen, a partnership that launched about 24 independent feature productions until they went their separate ways in 1961. So far, so familiar.

Warwick Film Productions kick started its activities when American actor Alan Ladd, who had left Paramount Pictures over contractual disputes, signed with them for a three picture deal. Ladd’s regular scriptwriter Richard Maibaum was brought in to co-write with Frank Nugent the script for Warwick’s first movie “Paratrooper” (The Red Beret – 1953). This film, the first one directed by Terence Young for Warwick, is the debut movie of Broccoli as a producer. (Young would later direct three James Bond movies for Eon Productions of which most of the production crew would be from “Paratrooper”.)

They gave emphasis to make films of solid production values, on international locations, with British crew featuring American actors. The films were contracted for release through Colombia Pictures with whom, in 1956, they negotiated a deal for producing 13 pictures in a period of three years. They also took advantage of Government grants to film producers under the British Empire development schemes to promote shooting of films on location in British Commonwealth countries.

Back in 1949, author A.J. Bevan published a book “The Story of Zarak Khan” about an arrogant and deceitful Afghan brigand called Zarak Khan who fought the British across the great tract of the North West Frontier (a British invention) for nearly twenty years. He was later captured, convicted and deported to the Andaman Islands from where, for leniency obtained for obedience, he was allowed to fight for the British, and gave up his life for them. Adventure and action being the mainspring of Warwick Films, the book was chosen for adaptation into an epic scale movie to be made under the direction of Terence Young assisted by Yakima Canutt and John Gilling since Terence Young had finished direction of the adventure film “Safari” at Kenya and in England which starred Victor Mature and Janet Leigh.

The film Zarak stands a bit outside the accuracy of history. Though Cubby Broccoli didn’t believe in messing with the original storyline of books, reportedly at Allen’s insistence, the historical accuracy of the story is compromised to provide emphasis to the human element under in-house scriptwriter Richard Maibaum who would later find fame for writing more than a dozen scripts for James Bond vehicles. Zarak went into production in early 1956.

Presented through Colombia Pictures, the film opens as the entourage of merchant Akbar (Alec Mango) is passing through the dangerous terrain of the North West Frontier to the village of Haranzhai located amidst lush and rugged countryside. Haji Khan (Frederick Valk), the despotic Chieftain of Haranzhai tribe, though at first reluctant to see Akbar, changed his mind to give him audience. To suit this purpose, he sends Salma (Anita Ekberg) away from his tent. Salma was the most beautiful, youngest and favourite of Haji’s many wives.

Grabbing that opportunity, Salma slips out of the village into the depths of the mountain to meet her secret lover Zarak, who is Haji’s eldest son. But unbeknown to her, she had been observed by one of Haji’s sons and the visiting merchant Akbar. A little later, she cozies up with Zarak in the seclusion of his mountain den and implores him to either take her away from the village or take her back to her own people. The dynamics of their interaction emphasizes the notion that up till then she had enjoyed the adventure of adultery without forfeiting the security of monogamy and she had no intention to jeopardize their safety in that closed community. Zarak disagrees to her appeal on reason that she’s one of his father’s wives and leaving Haji would bring him shame and also to Zarak. She countered him with the fact that she’s also shameful for having been sold to a man she hates.

When Zarak, her ray of hope, forbids her to visit him or talk to him anymore, she grabs his dagger and tries to stab him. Though Zarak easily managed to thwart her attack, the ensuing struggle between them merge into a maze of illicit passion that progresses into a passionate embrace and high-charged kiss. Just then the needle stuck in the groove.

A love affair of this nature doesn’t run smoothly. Unaware of his wife’s exploits, but certainly tipped off now by his son and Akbar, Haji Khan together with his sons, Akbar and some henchmen walk right into the fervor of the lovers. The consequences were predestined and predictable. Disgraced and furious with rage, Haji Khan orders his son to be killed immediately before his eyes. The offense is so serious that only bloodshed can wipe out the shame. However, he quickly changed his mind and instructed his men to flog Zarak to death as a knife is too quick, too merciful. Horrified with dread and fear, Salma could only protest as they took Zarak away, but she pleads to her husband that it was she who is to be blamed. Cast with the stigma of a promiscuous woman, her husband condemns her to death by throwing her down to the rocks from the hills of Chamin. Instantly, Akbar, who hungered after her, proposed to Haji to sell her to him.

While Zarak was being flogged, the holy Mullah walks in to the village on his way back from Mecca. Mullah who considered Zarak as “the eye of an eagle” was distressed at the sight of Zarak being flogged in the village square, in front of the women. He promptly requests for the life of Zarak which was denied. However, when the elderly Mullah persisted with his intervention, Haji Khan, in a tone of high morality and out of reverence to the holy man, agrees. But he declared Zarak as an outlaw and ordered that he be stoned out of the village. As is common with the people of these tribal areas which the contemporary British officers called Pathan (Pashtun), life is led almost according to the tribal customs and follows a rigorous code of behaviour. Zarak was stoned and expelled from his village.

In a sudden upsurge of confidence, his two brothers, Biri and Kasim, disgruntled by the tyranny of their “honourable” father, decide to follow their elder brother. But the great virtue of that disaster that befell Zarak was that it gave him the possibility of demonstrating his fire before the British. Zarak becomes the head of the brigands he had formed to fight the British forces. Soon they travelled the bumpy path to notoriety, leaving a trail of fire and destruction along and beyond the strategically vital Khyber Pass.

Due to increased insurgencies led by Zarak, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) declared a reward of Rs.5000/- (a sizeable amount at that time) for information leading to the capture of Zarak Khan of Haranzhai. These lands were annexed to the British East India Company in 1849 following the Second Anglo-Sikh War and many conflicts took place to protect the land from Russian expansion, which also resulted in conflict with the frontier tribesmen.

Some twenty miles from Fort Abbott, the provincial fort of the British forces in the tribal territory, a horse driven Royal Mail Coach (HMC 1476) was rolling through the rugged mountain path. It carried Major. I.P. Ingram, a military specialist of the British army with secret assignment to capture Zarak Khan and put an end to the insurgent activities in the area and to keep the whole provinces safe. With a price set on his head for opposing the British, but handy with the information about the arrival of Maj. Ingram to finish him off, Zarak decides to play a prank on the British Major, The coach was blocked by a camel squatting in the middle of the stony road, with its master settled next to it. When the soldiers tried to get them off the path the master of the camel (Zarak) signals his brigands to attack.

A fight between Zarak and Maj. Ingram erupts and Zarak rides away with the Mail coach which was soon lost over the cliff into the steep rocky slope. Maj. Ingram, seemingly incapable of bitterness, had to walk almost twenty miles to the town of Ziarat where he is assigned to take charge of the Political Agent’s office. In fact, Ingram’s valiant reputation had preceded his arrival to Ziarat. There is talk among the British Frontier Corps that when the new Major takes over as the Political Officer, there will be no more bandits within a hundred miles of the Khyber Pass, especially no more Zarak Khan who’s first on their list. As the Major immersed into the official activities, his wife Cathy surprises him with a sudden visit.

Meanwhile, at Peshawar (one of the most important bases on the frontier), Zarak learns that his father Haji Khan has died and being the eldest of the sons, the tribesmen expected him to be their new chieftain which is promptly declined by Zarak. He visits an entertainment tavern where, unbeknown to him, the beautiful houri Salma is the main floorshow attraction. They meet after Salma sends for him and renew their passion for each other in her private quarters inside the tavern. Zarak learns from Salma that Akbar the merchant was kind and had saved her. Akbar had let her buy back her freedom – and, no, she’s not married, yet. She refuses Zarak’s proposal to marry her claiming that it’s written “to do not marry the same woman as your father married.” She wouldn’t budge even though Zarak proposes that they would make their own laws.

On the rebel front, Zarak and his men were on a rampage disseminating a reprehensible panic among those thought to be made of sterner stuff. The British army soon increased the reward amount on his head to Rs.50,000/- which would lead to further bloody encounters and develop an unseen bond between Zarak and Major Ingram…

The film “Zarak” strikes a note as a curiosity considering all those upcoming landmark people of show business involved in making it. Even author A.J Bevan rendered his services as a technical advisor.

The role of Zarak was originally intended for Errol Flynn, who was then going through a bad phase of personal financial difficulties. Besides, owing to commitments to a string of movies such as “Let’s Make Up” (Lilacs in the Spring), “The Warriors” and “Istanbul”, the role ultimately went to Victor Mature.

Even though adventure stories (especially Biblical movies like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Samson and Delilah”, etc) were exclusive vehicles of Victor (The Hulk) Mature’s road to stardom, he had also captured the imagination of the audience with his roles in movies such as “My Darling Clementine”, “Million Dollar Mermaid”, “The Last Frontier”, etc. Mature, freelancing after expiry of his contract with 20th Century Fox had earlier starred in Warwick’s “Safari” (1955) directed by Terence Young. A man of some style and a sense of humour, Mature had finished acting in director Richard Fleischer’s “Violent Saturday” in Bisbee, Arizona and was available. Mature was signed to play the role of Zarak Khan even though he considered doing his own stunts as an impediment to his performance, something renown from the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” when he declined DeMille’s request to wrestle the tame lion of M.G.M.

Actress Claire Bloom in her memoir “Leaving a Doll’s House” relates Mature once saying “I wouldn’t walk up a wet step”. The matter was solved by assigning the stuntworks to the legendary wham-bang stuntman Yakima Canutt and his team of daredevils. With the stunts taken care of, all Mature had to do was act the way he always did. According to the biography of another reputed actor, Mature once made a remark about his acting to a director: “….. I got three expressions – looking right, looking left and looking straight ahead. Which one do you want?” However there was also a kind of passion he brought to his work that held on. Besides, the directorial skill of Terence Young also figured to establish the real character of gallant Zarak which proclaim the nobility of the human spirit.

For the grace and sensuality of the role of Salma, the alluring beauty of 25-year old former Miss Sweden 1951 Anita Ekberg (Kerstin Anita Marianne Ekberg) was found most appropriate to decorate the film with. She had no qualms to flash her voluptuous body during the two skimpily clad erotic dance scenes choreographed by Tute Lemkow. The scenes of glamourous Ekberg gyrating her hips to the invigorating tunes of classical Pashto music accompanied by scantly-clad girls and men in a room filled with heady smoke (meant to be sweet scented fragrances of Persian tobacco, herbs and spices, coarse sugar, oudh, …) drifting from hookahs certainly appear exotic to the senses. These provocative scenes of Ekberg depicted in British film posters generated protests from the House of Lords. Unfortunately, this tall pin-up who was reportedly once promoted as “Paramount’s Marilyn Monroe”, would show some improvement only later in Federico Fellini’s“La Dolce Vita” (1960). After her marriage in 1956 to the tall and dashing English actor Anthony Steel in the huge square outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (with no hat, no gloves and no stockings) following the release of “Zarak”, Ekberg would take a breather before she would co-star once again with Mature in Warwick Productions’ “Pickup Alley” (1957).

The English gentleman Michael Wilding, hailed at that time as another David Niven, did a realistic portrayal of Maj. Ingram in bright scarlet (Red Coat) of the British military uniform, in spite that in 1956 he was going through a wretched personal crisis. Though he was slated to act in M.G.M’s “The Scarlet Coat”, the film didn’t work out for him since his contract was not renewed. On the domestic front, though his wife Elizabeth Taylor had accompanied him to the locations of Zarak in Spain and Morocco during early spring of 1956, their marriage, which was going through a bad patch then, would finally culminate in their separation by July that year.

Finlay Currie as the Mullah, and bejeweled Eunice Gayson (attired in beautiful Victorian costumes designed by Phyllis Dalton) as Cathy Ingram, provide fair performances in the supporting roles. In addition to music by prolific British composer William Alwyn (played by Sinfonia of London and conducted by Muir Mathieson), to add more spice to the film, it features the hit song “Climb Up the Wall” sung by British singer Yana. Snippets from Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” (An der schönen blauen Donau – 1867) and Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” (1788) for the couples swishing on the dance floor during the New Year Ball for Armed Forces, proclaim the elegance of a life in the past.  The studio scenes, primarily of the town tavern and the colourful bazaar full of flavour of the East, by Art directors John Box and Bill Andrews were filmed at the M.G.M Studios, Elstree, England. The titles are shown on colourful paintings depicting the ensuing scenes from the movie. For authenticity, the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket is mostly used as arms for the British soldiers in the film.

Cinema communicates through emotions, behaviour and relationships which are related to in many memorable scenes in the movie, viz. Zarak playing the flute on pretense to get the camel off the road; the pole dances (may be the first of its kind in a movie) by Salma; the rapport between Maj. Ingram and Cathy; the Pashtun’s Khattak dance at the court of Ahmed Khan’s Citadel in Afghanistan, etc. The factual errors include the constant changing of the sky from plain to cloudy in consecutive scenes.

The action scenes breathe instant authenticity: the cavalry swirling across open plains; the rip-roaring battle scenes (shot in CinemaScope on locations in Morocco and Spain by Ted Moore/John Wilcox and Cyril J. Knowles); the daredevil stunt-works are ample evidence of Yakima Canutt’s gift of skill (thank heavens) to create the chaos and arrange it into a semblance of order. Then there is the exotic Anita Ekberg, the potent ingredient to certainly provoke the viewers’ level of admiration for her. So sit back, relax and watch Zarak as a quite joy. (© JS/Manningtree Archive.)

(PS: The character of Zarak has nothing to do with the 1963 Italian movie “Zarak der Rebel” (Original title: Il Pirata del diavolo) starring Richard Harrison. – JS)

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