In my mind’s eye, artist Said Atabekov’s solo show reminded me of “The Horsemen” (Les Cavaliers), the 1967 best-selling novel written by the French writer Joseph Kessel (1898-1979). Enriched by the extraordinary gifts of characterisation and narrative of Kessel, it was the kind of book that cast a spell over the reader, and when you finished it, the experience preys on your mind to think back over the whole plot and rediscover the many priceless pearls from a bygone era which are littered in it.
The Horsemen told the gutsy saga, in contemporary setting, of family conflict between Uraz, a proud and ambitious Afghan horse rider and Tursen, his father, the Master of the Horse at the stables of the regal Osman Bey and the bravest Buzkashi chapandaz of the time, renowned for his highest degree of horsemanship, physical strength, courage and competitive spirit.
By the time producer/writer Edward Lewis and his constant film collaborator, director John Frankenheimer decided to turn The Horsemen into a movie (the films rights of which they had purchased jointly), two of Kessel’s novels were already lauded as popular films: The Lion (1962, D: Jack Cardiff) which is a marital drama of an American lawyer who goes to Africa to deal with his child and animal interest; and Belle de Jour (1967, D: Luis Buñuel), a fascinating fact and fantasy tale of a surgeon’s wife who took a liking to afternoon work in a brothel.Lewis and Frankenheimer contracted with Colorado born screenwriter (James) Dalton Trumbo’s (1905-1976, Spartacus, Exodus, Papillon), to adapt Kessel’s book. Joseph Kessel, who considered Trumbo in the first rank of screenwriters, was delighted by the news. According to a book on Dalton Trumbo, they agreed to pay him $125,000 for the completed script and another $125,000 in ten equal instalments.
Although Lewis questioned Trumbo’s depiction of the lead character’s motivations, Frankenheimer found the finished script “perceptive” and “damned good.” However, when made into an old-fashioned action-adventure movie of the same title, the studio executives demanded that the rough cut be reduced from slightly over three hours to two hours.
A co-production of John Frankenheimer Productions and Edward Lewis Productions, Inc. with the cooperation of Afghan Films, Colombia Pictures released The Horsemen in mid-1971, the year the studio turned to look back rather than forward – releasing movies such as Nicholas and Alexandrea (D: Franklin Schaffner), The Last Picture Show (D: Peter Bogdanovich), 10 Rillington Place (D: Richard Fleischer), The Anderson Tapes (D: Sidney Lumet), etc.
Similar to film directors such as Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Marty Ritt, Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill, director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), took the road out from television to Hollywood, where, retaining only the most useful elements of his earlier style, he became one of the most versatile directors in the American cinema.
He made dramatic hits such as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), Seconds (1966), although the movie that catapulted his name to fame was the satirically angled political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). A demanding director, whose hallmark was working well with most actors, Frankenheimer’s work projected a fascination with the mechanics of visual story telling.
A reporter once noted in a newspaper: “You won’t find much romance or many complex leading ladies in a Frankenheimer film: For the most part his characters are men, real men, fighting each other or some outside force trying to destroy a way of life. His films are known for their biting look at this country’s political and social times.”
Director Frankenheimer’s flair in games and sports were evident in his Grand Prix (1966) and The Gypsy Moths (1969). The Horsemen (Cavalieri Selvaggi), made just before Frankenheimer’s career went into sharp decline in the 1970s, was the first film ever made in Afghanistan during a period when it was a popular destination all the year round for Western tourists to enjoy its rugged mountains and valued relics of ancient civilisation.
The production received plentiful cooperation from the government – and according to a magazine article, the authorities even allowed Frankenheimer to bring in a helicopter to shoot aerial scenes.
The film featured a spectacular tale of human drama giving emphasis to the skill, violence, and great courage of man-and-horse rivalries played out in the ancient equestrian tradition of buzkashi, an amalgamation of dirty polo and open rioting which brings to one’s mind the legends of the Golden Horde of the times of Mongol king Genghis Khan, whose warriors slipped into enemy camps and without dismounting from their horses, swooped up goats, sheep, etc., and rode away undetected with their pillage.
Having realised that he could no longer play in buzkashi, the valiant chapandaz (specialist buzkashi rider) Tursen’s (Jack Palance) mind was clouded over by his son Uraz’s (Omar Sharif) youth and prowess. For Uraz, like his father before him, is reputedly the greatest chapandaz in the three provinces of Meymaneh, Mazar-e Sharif and Qataghan.
To prove his machismo and to challenge the code of behaviour by which he had been raised, as well as to please his imperious father who refused to give up the values and beliefs of his native land and had chosen Uraz to ride on the newest and finest purebred stallion, Jahil, Uraz had decided to compete in the king’s Royal Buzkashi tournament on the field of Bagrami in Kabul. Winning the game would ensure that Tursen would deed Jahil to Uraz – which was Tursen’s challenge to secure Uraz’s victory in the Buzkashi competition (1).
The game featured in the movie, where the horseman with the carcass is fair game for an all-out assault, was played at its roughest when the leather whips were applied with devastating effect on challenging riders.
Although Uraz’s boldness and fierce competitive spirit was evident throughout the game, in an unfortunate incident during the game after he had grabbed the carcass off the ground, Uraz fell and broke a leg. But then, in the last moment, his colleague Salih had leapt onto Jahil to win the tournament for their Meymaneh clan.
Later, escaping from the hospital where he was admitted, Uraz was forced to journey back home to the province of Meymaneh to face his father. Disgraced and humiliated in failing to measure up to his father, Uraz imposed severe ordeals on himself – eventually suffering terrible tribulations from the amputation of one of his legs infected with gangrene. Accompanying him through the treacherous old Bamian Road across the mountains were his faithful syce Mukhi (David de Keyser, uncredited) and a crafty nomad woman called Zareh/Zereh (Leigh Taylor-Young sporting a new gold nose ring) with her greedy eyes set on to acquire Jahil.
Having allowed to join Uraz in his journey as Mukhi’s woman and having seen Uraz sick and weak, Zareh’s mind was devious to realise how a good buzkashi horse like Jahil would play for as long as twenty years and would bring glory and wealth to her. Encouraged by the knowledge that the prize-horse Jahil’s ownership would pass on to Mukhi upon Uraz’s death, Zareh took upon herself to convince Mukhi that they could go to the land of Hazarajat and make a fortune by racing the swiftest Jahil in the great annual fair.
As Uraz progressed on his passage home with his animal powers of endurance and survival, it didn’t take long before Zareh found out that, although Uraz liked women, he liked horses even better.
The great old film stars are everlasting. They live on in the hearts of all who have adored their looks and performances, and anytime is a good time to view their films repeatedly.
Star of Doctor Zhivago (1965, D: David Lean) and Funny Girl (1968, D: William Wyler), the dark-eyed Omar Sharif (1932-2015, born: Maechel Shalhoud in Alexandria of Syrian-Lebanese descent) whom actor Peter O’Toole irreverently dubbed “Cairo Fred”, needs no introduction. Following his dramatic entrance from the sands of the Sahara into screen stardom in the opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia (1962, D: David Lean), the flamboyant American actor became a whirlwind which brought him adulation, riches and hearts of millions of female movie lovers in particular. He frequently appeared in dashing leading man roles, relishing the honour of being a social idol, a superstar and a worthy successor to Rudolph Valentino.
The Memoirs of Roger Vadim quotes Omar Sharif as “a charming man and exciting friend, but he had a very particular style with women. In spite of the passionate lover that he played on the screen, he was rarely romantic.” Sharif had remarked during the filming of The Horsemen that he welcomed the opportunity to play a straight role. It is a provocative film role in which he shared something in common with the character of Uraz – the ambitious chapandaz dressed in a thick caftan and high-heeled boots, leather whip gripped between his teeth, his head adorned with a hat lined with astrakhan fur and the emblem of a chapandaz fixed on it.
As a racehorse owner and breeder himself who, during that time, paid US$50,000 to send his mares to America to mate with wonder horse, Canadian-bred Nijinsky, (about which he was asked to narrate a French documentary in 1970,) Sharif did not shirk some tough riding in The Horsemen – at times holding the reins in one hand and the sand-stuffed, 120lb. carcass of a goat in the other, sequences which were added in Spain.
During production, he spoke of his understanding of horses. At the age of four he had begun by riding on tourist horses trotting around the pyramids: “It’s not all that difficult, really… I have ridden horses since I was a child in Cairo and I can hang on to a horse.” Then again, Sharif who had brought along an American masseur to Afghanistan to ease his muscle strains from the game, was, on tricky bits, obliged to indorse assistance of a double for some of his buzkashi riding scenes.
According to an article, the required footage for the film was canned by Frankenheimer by making the teams play every day for 30 straight days. Just like artist Said Atabekov, director Frankenheimer with his Polaroid would, at times, shoot interesting pictures of the men and horses in action. To complement the game scenes shot at Aranjuez in Spain, about ten chapandaz (including leading buzkashi riders, Jalal and Habib, who had tremendous riding and game-time experience in buzkashi) were flown from Afghanistan for filming a third of the movie over a parched Spanish playing-field. A Spanish army helicopter was also engaged for this.For the role of Tursen, the filmmakers wanted a star with enough physical presence and regional look to match Sharif. Movie audiences have seen Omar Sharif and Jack Palance together in Che! (1969, D: Richard Fleischer) although they were criticised as miscast in the roles of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Maybe the filmmakers had hoped to derive a better result from this combination from their roles as Uraz and Tursen.
The hard, villainous skull-faced one-time boxer Palance was the heaviest Heavy Hollywood knew in the old days before he deserted Hollywood for Europe. The lantern-faced Palance chews the scenery as a “mean as dirt” gunslinger imported by cattle interests to confront former gunfighter Alan Ladd in Shane (1953, D: George Stevens), Paramount’s splendid outdoor drama of the Old West.Moviegoers may also remember him as a disillusioned film star in The Big Knife (1955, D: Robert Aldrich) and in a good number of films made in Europe such as: The Mongols (1961, D: Andre de Toth/Riccardo Freda), Barabbas (1962, D: Richard Fleischer), The Professionals (1966, D: Richard Brooks), Justine: Le Disavventure della Virtu (1968, D: Jess Franco), Vamos a Matar, Companeros! (1970, D: Sergio Corbucci), Chato’s Land (1971, D: Michael Winner), etc.According to a biography of actress Joan Crawford, during filming of the solid suspense thriller, Sudden Fear (1952, D: David Miller), Crawford was disturbed by Palance’s “moodiness and particular techniques, such as racing around the studio stage to incite his emotion.” Quite possibly, Palance, in his first starring role and an actor whom Crawford once fired, was nervous and apprehensive about acting as the new husband of Crawford, the legendary star who had shared screen space with biggest film icons such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, etc. In The Horsemen, one will find Palance mellowed, put on weight and smiles as if he meant it.Beautifully filmed in Eastmancolor and Panavision (2) in Afghanistan and Spain, Cinematographer Claude Renoir brilliantly succeeds in recapturing the look and feel of the period. The original cinematographer James Wong Howe (nicknamed Low Key Hoe) who had worked on many Frankenheimer movies was replaced.According to the book The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Howe admits having worked two or three weeks on his last picture, The Horsemen, but left over a disagreement with director Frankenheimer for refusing to use a particular lens rented for the movie. (3)
The 23-year old, fresh-faced, Leigh Taylor-Young, when contracted to play the leading lady role in The Horsemen, which took about two and a half years to make, had a repertoire of film appearances credited to her career.
Debuting in the Broadway play Three Bags Full (1966) under the name Leigh Taylor-Young, she progressed with appearance in the TV soap opera Peyton Place, following which she went on to make five major motion pictures in a row.The Horsemen also features: British general purpose actor Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal), George Murcell (Mizrah), bald-headed Viennese character actor Eric Pohlmann (Merchant of Kandahar), Vernon Dobtcheff (Zam Hajji), Saeed Jaffrey (District Chief), John Ruddock (Scribe), Mark Colleano (Rahim), Salmaan Peer (Salih), Aziz Resh, Leon Lissek, and Vida St. Romaine as the Gypsy woman. Some websites identify actor Srinanda De in the role of Mukhi.
The crew also consists of: Costume designer: Jacqueline Moreau; Production Designer: Pierre Louis Thevenet; Music composed and conducted by: Georges Delerue.
Following the filming, director John Frankenheimer had joined Harold F. Kress to edit the film in Paris and also devoted part of the nights attending cooking classes for three months at Le Cordon Bleu which was followed by a tour of Europe studying the great chefs. Undeniably, the film’s production had occasioned a learning experience for Frankenheimer in the traditional game of buzkashi which inspired in him the thought of holding buzkashi tournaments in the USA.
As for Sharif, whose interests thrived on bridge games, globe-trotting, dating girls and owning horses, among others, his movie days in Afghanistan acquired him a new buddy to share his Rolls-Royce and his new Penthouse overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris: a majestic Afghan hound named Baz (Bazo), a gift from the King of Afghanistan (4).
PS: This here Second installment of the two-part serial “Catch-as-Catch Can” would have appeared earlier, had I been able to go ahead with my scheduled visit to Dubai in April-May for research work for that post. Unfortunately, I had to forego that trip and sustain subsequent delay due to urgent engagements.
- Please refer to the first part: “Catch-as-Catch Can” for more details on Buzkashi.
- The film’s Trailer states “Super Panavision”
- For the benefit of minimal content in this post, many finer details re. the production of this film, readily available in numerous websites, books, etc, is not incorporated.
- A chapter in “No Better Friend: Celebrities and the Dogs They Love,” by Elke Gazzara features an interesting narration about how the last king of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007; Reign: 1933-1973) presented one-year old Bazo to Sharif, through his emissary, while Sharif was already inside the aircraft waiting to take off to Paris after having spent more than five months location shoot there for The Horsemen.
- Books, DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred to in this article are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.
- DVD sleeves/posters credits: Wikipedia, amazon, imdb and from my private collection.
- This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
- In memory of John Frankenheimer who died on July 06, 15 years ago.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)