The Barbarian, 1933
“In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors, stuntmen.”
(Bette Davis, while filming “Death on the Nile”, 1978)
And so, on Christmas night, I went and watched The Barbarian, also known as A Night in Cairo. Not exactly a Christmas movie, as we’ll see. The movie features Myrna Loy and Ramon Novarro, and was directed by Sam Wood in 1933.
While the name might not ring any bell, Wood was the man behind the camera for A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Raffles, and The Pride of the Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Not an amateur, in other words.
The movie is a remake of a previous, silent film, called The Arab (1915), and based on a play of the same title.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to see the movie because of the reconstruction of the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Because, true to the Bette Davis quote above, this pre-Code movie was really shot in a time in which the studios recreated whole chunks of exotic locations in their backlot.
The Barbarian features portions of the Shepheard’s, a fair slice of Cheops’s pyramid, oases, the desert, and an Egyptian potentate’s residence, everything wonderfully built by the guys in Hollywood.
The story is somewhat complicated: Loy is Diana, a young American whose fiancee is working as an engineer on a dam somewhere along the Nile. She joins him in Cairo for their wedding, but her beauty attracts both Jamil, a young dragoman (Novarro), and by her fiancee’s local business partner, the slithery Pasha Achmed.
Various shenanigans ensue.
Melodrama, in other words, with Loy being shown in various states of dishabille and being wooed by Novarro with his songs. And much more. This being a pre-Code movie, and this being a story of passion and exotic love, in the end Novarro drops his singing routine and basically kidnaps, humiliates and rapes Loy.
Jamil then reveals he’s not a cheap Cairo hustler and gigolo, but he’s actually an Arab prince in disguise, and offers to marry her. She takes her time, but finally realizes that she actually loves him.
It is probably this thoroughly unpleasant aura that makes The Barbarian so hard to digest. Oh, granted, Loy is gorgeous, Novarro suave, and C. Aubrey Smith as Loy’s uncle is his usual gruff British self, and there’s a nice comedic tone to the whole thing, but the situation is too far from our current mindset to work.
Novarro’s character is first presented as a man fleecing his many Western lovers. Jamil’s cheeky and invasive, basically a stalker. Sure, a stalker with a good singing voice, but still the sort that gets into a woman’s bedroom while she’s asleep to throw orchids at her. The fact that he saves Loy from Pasha’s clutches is not a consolation considering it was Jamil that handed her over to Pasha in the first place, and he’s the one that convinced Pasha that whipping and assaulting the American is actually what she expects. Topping that with humiliation, cruelty and rape is almost overkill.
But it was not actually the misogyny and brutality, that grated on my nerves during the viewing, as much as the insufferable attitude of the Western characters, idle rich in search of thrills.
Now, a movie like My Man Godfrey (1936) shows us the post-Crash-of-’29 upper crust as silly, selfish, spoiled and uncaring, but on one hand it does so with vitriolic satire, and on the other shows us there is still good even in the most jaded.
The Barbarian does not – Diana and her fiancee, and all the other western characters are rich and vain, selfish and spoiled, and this is no satire, and very few redeeming features are there to be found.
In the end, The Barbarian has some gorgeous scenes, and lavish panoramas, but remains an unpleasant story about unpleasant characters. I did watch it for research purposes, and I had not much fun watching it.