Reel Bad Criticism

Abbot and Costello, Popeye, and Elvis as anti-Arab crusaders

Last month, as part of its Race in Hollywood series, Turner Classic Movies featured “Arab Images in Film.” Dr. Jack Shaheen accompanied TCM host Robert Osborne in the screening of more than 30 movies. The selections proved entertaining and instructive, though perhaps not in the way Dr. Shaheen intended.

Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Olive Branch Press, 2001), hailed by some film scholars as a courageous expose of Hollywood’s racist stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Middle East culture. Shaheen, of Lebanese parentage, traces interest in this theme from his early days watching television.

He has since come across more than a thousand movies he views as detrimental to Arabs, such as Team America Secret Police and Blackhawk Down, and a few he sees as beneficial. These include The Chronicles of Riddick, Flightplan, and Kingdom of Heaven, a tale of the Crusades starring Ghassan Massoud as Saladin.

Shaheen has served as a Middle East consultant for CBS News and has consulted on such films as Syriana and Three Kings. In July on TCM he screened such films as The Sheik (1921), Lawrence of Arabia, Tarzan the Fearless, Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Jewel of the Nile, Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, and others. Shaheen castigates most of the films as deliberate vilification of Arabs.

That is a stretch for such fare as The Road to Morocco, and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This approach reaches its nadir in Harem Scarem, from 1965, starring the late Elvis Presley. To see in the worst of Presley’s 30-odd movies a deliberate attempt to vilify Arabs is more than a stretch. At that point, good judgment, perceptive criticism and common sense, have all left the building, just like Elvis.

One might imagine a screening of Marx Brothers movies such as A Night at the Opera or Horse Feathers as an attempt to vilify Jews and Judaism. The characters appear to have no religion, no jobs, and spend all their time cracking jokes. By Shaheen’s standards Three Stooges and Red Skelton movies are a vilification of all Americans.

His list includes The Battle of Algiers, the great 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo. Here the Algerian Arabs are clearly victims of French colonial policy and one sees them falling to the guillotine. Yet Pontecorvo does not hesitate to show the Arabs lovingly preparing their bombs and blowing up restaurants full of innocents.

Shaheen has some good things to say about Lawrence of Arabia, which falls short in realism on intra-Arab violence and atrocities by the Turks. Should that be doubted, consult Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, the new book by Michael Korda. He calls the movie a “masterpiece” but notes that is not a completely accurate account of the Arab revolt. What the producers set out to achieve was “entertainment,” says Korda. One could say the same for many of the films on Shaheen’s TCM list.

Shaheen ultimately dismisses Lawrence of Arabia as a catalog of stereotypes, particularly submissive Arabs being led by a foreigner. The author of Reel Bad Arabs wants to see something like Faisal of Arabia, with Arabs at the forefront and Lawrence as an intermediary.

Arab filmmakers have not tackled the project, and aside from Moustafa Akkad’s Mohammed, Messenger of God have not produced for Mohammed what Hollywood biblical epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told did for Jesus Christ. Akkad, who also produced the Halloween movies, died in 2005 along with his daughter Rima in Amman, Jordan, victims of a suicide bomber.

In Richard Grenier’s novel, The Marrakesh One-Two, wealthy Arabs tap an American, Burt Nelson, to make a Mohammed epic. But Nelson can’t show images of the Prophet, which proves a major obstacle. And Islamic regimes are not particularly kind to cinema.

Post-9/11 movies, of which Dr. Shaheen is generally critical, have failed to take note of the more recent Islamic uprising in Algeria under the Groupe Islamique Armee. As Lawrence Wright noted in The Looming Tower, the GIA killed entire villages in midnight massacres. Their London publication Al Ansar ran headlines such as: “Thank God We have Cut 200 Throats Today,” and “Our Beloved Brother Beheaded his Father for the Sake of Allah!”

Gillo Pontecorvo, who died in 2006, stayed away from that battle of Algiers. But if any real bad Arabs exist, these might be the ones, along with those who flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That was nearly 10 years ago, but it seems like just the other day.