Afghan Rogue

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Saddened to hear of the death of Omar Sharif, and then bloody annoyed by the BBC obituary, which accompanied the line “as the years went on, the films grew worse,” with a cut to a clip from JUGGERNAUT. JUGGERNAUT is an excellent film, and its director was likely to be watching. You don’t want to hear of the death of a collaborator (the fourth in as many months, counting costume designer Julie Harris, and actors Christopher Lee and Ron Moody) and get insulted at one at the same time.

While the obit stressed Omar’s being more interested in playing bridge than making movies, which he admitted himself, Lester told me he had been convinced, shooting JUGGERNAUT, that Omar would direct something himself, so keen was his fascination with every aspect of the production — not doubt stimulated by the fact that Lester’s process was so different from the conventional approach.

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We marked Omar’s passing by viewing John Frankenheimer’s THE HORSEMEN (1971), also starring Jack Palance, Leigh Taylor-Young and David de Keyser, inexplicably uncredited in a major role originally earmarked for Frank Langella, who got an earful from the volatile Frankenheimer when he opted to do THE WRATH OF GOD instead and sleep with Rita Hayworth.

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More temperament — the great cinematographer James Wong Howe walked off the shoot after disagreeing with Frankenheimer about a lens. The great Claude Renoir took over. Nice to be able to choose and discard great cinematographers as easily as lenses. The film is wonderful looking, with plenty of helicopter shots showing off the unique locations, and inventive diopter tricks to allow Frankenheimer to indulge his passion for deep focus. (The massively wide lenses used for shooting TV plays in the fifties gave him this taste for depth.)

The movie is set — and shot — in Afghanstan and is thus an unusual project for Hollywood — all the characters are Afghans. Probably nobody would have contemplated making it if Sharif hadn’t come along. What we need is more Sharifs. Instead we have one fewer. The main one.

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Sharif’s character is relentlessly unsympathetic and the values all the characters live by quite alien to a western, Judeo-Christian, “civilized” audience. None of the main actors is an Afghan — Peter Jeffrey has been cast because of his big nose, but his plummy accent is a  bit of a shock in this company — everyone else is trying to sound a bit non-specifically foreign. The dialogue is written in that uncomfortably blank, formal idiom used for historical epics. I suspect Taylor-Young has been dubbed, but she’s quite effective otherwise. Screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, from novel by Joseph Kessel (BELLE DE JOUR, ARMY OF SHADOWS).

I do believe animals may have been harmed during the making of this film — not so much the horse falls, though those occur — they’re not of the spectacular and wince-making order of THE LONG RIDERS. But we see all these animal fights — camel wrestling, in which the beastly bactrians snake their long necks round each other and gnaw one another’s humps to hamburger with foaming maws; bird wrestling, where the adorable little chicks have their beaks meticulously sharpened the better to shank each other; and ram-fighting, whereby two sheep-things batter each other into submission. Points are awarded according to the Glasgow coma scale.

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“Say, buddy, are you OK? How many horns am I holding up?”

An odd film, but an absorbing one, and a moving snapshot of an exotic land before the Russians, before the Taliban, before us. Probably still irretrievably messed up, but not as badly as now.

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4 Responses to “Afghan Rogue”

  1. renlauoutil Says:

    I saw Juggernaut on first release at the Odeon Leicester Square when I was very young and thought it was amazing. I’ve not seen it since. So, it was actually good, then and not just my youthful impressionability? I’m really delighted to hear this.

  2. It’s marvelous. I was about seven, then, and it fits perfectly with my memories of what Britain was actually like, more so than any other film of its era. Delightfully acerbic, very tense, cinematically incentive, and with some terrific bits from Richard Harris, Roy Kinnear, Roshan Seth, David Hemmings, Freddie Jones…

    “He must have been a good sport,” I said of Omar S., thinking of what a cold and unlikeable character he plays. “He was!” said Lester.

  3. Leave us not forget he was discovered by the great Youssef Chahine, who gave him the name “Omar Sharif”

    Chahine’s work is next to unknown outside of Egypt and France (he did many French co-productions in his later years). Among his masterpieces: Cairo Station, Alexandria Why, Alexandria Again and Forever and Adieu Bonaparte with Patrice Chereau as Napoleon.

  4. The BBC obit did at least inform us that Sharif means “pure spirit” and that he needed a screen name because his father deeply disapproved of him being a thespian.

    I have a big stack of Chahine movies and have yet to watch any of them, shamefully.

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