"Sherif, is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for?"—Mulay Hamid El Raisuli
The Wind and the Lion is one of five films rescued from the MGM/Warner Bros. vaults as part of Warner's "DVD Decision" promotion, in which consumers were allowed to vote for the movies they wanted to see released. That movie fans continue to cherish this 1975 desert epic must warm the heart of its writer/director, John Milius (also known for 1982's Conan the Barbarian and the Apocalypse Now screenplay), whose career has seen some rough times of late.
A rousing tall tale of a larger-than-life Arab rebel, The Wind and the Lion is in some ways the apotheosis of Milius' testosterone-drenched he-man sensibility, perhaps his one directorial effort in which his Hemingway-esque sentiments and political views not only meshed perfectly with his subject, but were brought to screen with a visual grandeur and epic sweep to match his grandiose vision. By turns amusing, compelling, and utterly preposterous, The Wind and the Lion may not be the masterpiece Milius intended, but after nearly 30 years, it remains an entertaining and surprisingly relevant film for our time.
Facts of the Case
Sean Connery stars as Mulay Hamid El Raisuli, a Moroccan desert chieftain clinging to the old ways even as the world around him plunges headlong into the 20th century. The Great Powers of Europe and America have set their sights on the Middle East, reducing the proud people of the region to pawns in their endless power games. Raisuli, seeing his culture crumbling around him as his fellow leaders succumb to the temptations of Western decadence, takes matters into his own hands, striking out at the foreign intruders and kidnapping an American woman, Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen) and her two young children. The abduction precipitates an international incident, as American president Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) and Raisuli engage each other in an escalating battle of wills. Add in the meddling and posturing of local and European powers, and violence—thrilling, rip-roaring violence—can't be far behind.
Meanwhile, viewers familiar with the Stockholm Syndrome and its many cinematic manifestations will easily predict the course of the relationship between Mrs. Pedecaris and Raisuli. Sparks fly between the feisty American woman and the ruthless but chivalrous Arab chieftain; she comes to admire and love his roguishness and fierce sense of independence and honor, while he is indulgently charmed by her scrappiness and inner core of strength. You know the drill.
If you ignore the breathtaking license that Milius takes with historical fact—the film is (very) loosely based on actual events—and view the film strictly as a fantastical adventure, The Wind and the Lion is a pretty engaging ride. (The real-life Pedecaris was a man, and not American but Greek, but I suppose it wouldn't have been as romantic to have Sean Connery sweeping a Greek businessman off his feet.) Working with a limited budget, Milius manages to capture a story of epic scope, replete with all the sweeping, panoramic views and swashbuckling action you'd expect. There are scenes involving armies of men on horseback clashing in clouds of dust and the clatter of swords that lose none of their power even compared to today's CGI-generated mega-battles. This is old-school action at its finest.
Visual style aside, it's the performances that carry the day. While Sean Connery isn't exactly the first actor I'd envision in the role of an Moroccan chieftain, and I'm still wondering if there's actually a tribe of lost Scotsmen wandering the deserts of Northern Africa, Connery as an Arab isn't nearly as ridiculous as, say, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. Connery's mushy brogue is so ingrained in the cinematic collective consciousness that it transcends nationalities; after a few minutes, you forget that he's playing an Arab and enjoy Connery playing Connery.
As the "Wind" to Connery's "Lion," Brian Keith delivers a brilliant, complex performance as Theodore Roosevelt, conveying not only Roosevelt's outsized manly-man ruggedness but also his bemused, almost rueful awareness of his own bluster. T.R. is too often portrayed as little more than a swaggering buffoon; Keith gets the swagger down pat, and also portrays the Rough Rider President as a man who relishes his image and knows how to play it to maximum effect, but is too smart not to realize that it's a caricature. As Raisuli points out late in the film, he and Roosevelt are both forces of nature, but Raisuli knows his place in the world where Roosevelt does not; as dangerous a man as Raisuli is, Roosevelt, with his unfocused appetites, is far more dangerous. It's a fascinating and multi-layered piece of acting, and stands out in a cast of otherwise fairly one-note characters.
At the time of its release in 1975, America was still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate; The Wind and the Lion, sent out into that disillusioned, anti-establishment zeitgeist, must have been viewed as an anachronism at best, and at worst a reactionary imperialistic fantasy. Indeed, Milius doesn't exactly downplay his enthusiasm for Roosevelt's "Big Stick" interventionist policies, but he's nothing if not evenhanded in his sympathies—the Arab underdogs are also treated with affection—and what might otherwise be little more than a jingoistic screed is complicated by a surprisingly sharp, cynical satire of America's foreign policy machinations. It's to Milius' credit that he depicts the darker side of the attitudes he otherwise embraces.
It is impossible to view a film like The Wind and the Lion today without relating its central conflict between the Arab world and the West to the current situation in the Middle East. Those mystified by the hostility displayed by Arab peoples toward the U.S. and Europe can find part of the answer in this film's portrayal of the breezy arrogance of the Americans and other Western players, who barely disguise their contempt for the people of a region that, to them, signifies little more than another savage land to be conquered. It's not difficult to see the inspiration for the current administration's Middle East policy in The Wind and the Lion—although, strangely, both proponents and opponents of that policy can find their positions supported by this film. It manages to be both pro-imperialist and a brutal satire of imperialism in the same breath.
Warner Home Video has put together a solid package with this DVD; The Wind and the Lion is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a terrific transfer considering the vintage of the film. While the print shows its age, primarily in a small amount of graininess, image defects, and a somewhat soft, washed-out quality, overall the film looks quite good, with a sharp picture and rich colors. Warner has given the film a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and while it's obviously not as lively as those on recent blockbusters, the more energetic scenes sound terrific with the added presence of the surround field. It's a subtle rather than flashy enhancement, but a welcome one nonetheless.
Supplements aren't plentiful, but should please fans of the film. Milius provides an enthusiastic, if extremely low-key, audio commentary that tells you just about everything you need to know about this film and its author. Let's just say that Milius is not exactly a humble man, but he is honest about his work; although his tendency to point out and congratulate himself for every effective directorial decision is rather annoying, it's presented with such tongue-in-cheek good nature that you can't really fault him for his affection for his own film. It's an informative commentary that provides a good mix of production information and discussion of Milius' artistic choices, and you do get a clear sense that this was an important and cherished project for him.
Rounding out the extras is a so-so behind-the-scenes featurette that's primarily clips from the film edited in with on-location footage; and the film's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Wind and the Lion is made up of great moments, but it's not a great film. Milius has a sharp ear for dialogue and a knack for memorable characterizations, but he's not an especially gifted storyteller; as a result, the film lacks narrative cohesion, often meandering into irrelevancies and getting mired in talky expository scenes that go on far too long. Milius strains to achieve the magisterial sweep of Lawrence of Arabia and the gritty, mournful violence of The Wild Bunch, and even when he succeeds, the effort shows. Too often the film comes across more like a tribute to old-fashioned swashbuckling epics than a solid story in its own right, and the result is diverting enough but lacks dramatic heft.
John Huston has a prominently credited but largely irrelevant role in the film; it's a glorified, phoned-in cameo. On the commentary track, Milius states that Huston didn't provide any directorial guidance but mostly hung out and smoked cigars; it's too bad, because Huston really could have done something with this Kipling-esque material (compare The Wind and the Lion with Huston's own, superior Kipling film, The Man Who Would Be King, released the same year). Huston probably could have delved a little deeper into the character of Raisuli; here, we never really get to know the man behind the larger-than-life image.
Another of the film's weak spots is Milius' treatment of the film's female and child characters. As strong as Milius is with his macho leading men, he's a fish out of water when it comes to women and children. Mrs. Pedecaris is the kind of character that would have been tailor made for a Katharine Hepburn; Candice Bergen, a last-minute replacement for Faye Dunaway (who had to decline the Eden Pedecaris role due to illness), emotes gamely as the proper-but-tough high society lady, but she's out of her depth in the role, and Milius fails to draw a truly strong performance out of her. Likewise, Pedecaris' two children, played by Simon Harrison and Polly Gottesmann, put a lot of enthusiasm into their characters, and they're clearly meant to be a significant part of the action, but Milius doesn't seem to know what to do with them; ultimately, they're inert figures, put through their paces but nonexistent in terms of their presence in the story.
As flawed as The Wind and the Lion may be, it doesn't lack for sheer entertainment value. It's the kind of film that thrives on late-night TV, when you're looking for something consistently engaging without necessarily being strikingly original or deep. Seen on that level, The Wind and the Lion is a solid adventure with some fine performances that verges on something more ambitious. That it doesn't succeed in those ambitions is disappointing but hardly tragic; it's good enough on enough levels to please its audience.
The Wind and the Lion is found not guilty, and is free to roam the desert unfettered…defiant…like the very sea itself, like—okay, enough of that.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Writer/Director John Milius
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