(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo/novel by Joseph Kessel; cinematographers: Claude Renoir/James Wong Howe; editor: Harold F. Kress; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Omar Sharif (Uraz), Leigh Taylor-Young (Zareh), Jack Palance (Tursen), David de Keyser (Mukhi), Peter Jeffrey (Hayatal), George Murcell (Mizrar), Mohammed Shamsi (Osman Bey); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: GP; producer: Edward Lewis; Columbia Pictures; 1971)
“The location shots in Afghanistan (and some in Spain) are off-beat and stunning, and are the best reason to see this film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
John Frankenheimer(“52 Pick-up”/”The Manchurian Candidate”/”I Walk The Line”) directs this humorless old-fashioned adventure story. It’s a misfire, saddled with a dullish uninvolving character story of its death wish hero thinking he must do something extremely risky to redeem his honor with his imposing father.
Writer Dalton Trumbo weakly adapts it from Joseph Kessel’s novel. It’s set in modern Afghanistan and relates its plot to a violent Afghani sport called Buzkashi (which looks like a wild polo game, with riders on horseback–called chapendaz–riding at full speed while trying to bring a headless goat carcass, a substitute for a ball, into a winner’s circle as rivals whip and do anything to stop the rival from succeeding).
The location shots in Afghanistan (and some in Spain) are off-beat and stunning, and are the best reason to see this film. The initial cinematographer James Wong Howe got into a dispute with Frankenheimer over lenses and quit. He was replaced by Claude Renoir, a relative of the great French artist.
In a rural northern Afghanistan tribal village, Uraz (Omar Sharif) is the son of the proud Tursen (Jack Palance), the stableman for the local feudal lord (Mohammed Shamsi). In his time Tursen was the champion at Buzkashi. He now expects his son to follow the tradition, as Uraz competes in the Royal Buzkashi competition in Kabul, with the king in attendance. Uraz will ride a valued white stallion that was bred to win these games. But Uraz loses the spirited game when he breaks his leg, and feels great shame that he let his father and the village down. To regain his honor, Uraz runs away from the hospital and removes his cast, and as a self-imposed penance he grimly rides the prize horse with his manservant (David de Keyser) over a dangerous mountain pass back to his home village. When the leg doesn’t heal and gangrene sets in, a local shepherd amputates it with an axe. Uraz must learn to ride with that handicap, and must also persevere attacks from his manservant (who wants his horse, and will legally inherit it if something happens to the current master). There are further dangers from the presence of a wandering ‘untouchable’ (Leigh Taylor-Young), who wants to kill Uraz so she can steal his money. Uraz also meets a blind scribe who warns him about temptation, as he tells him his morality story of how he became blind.
The choppy and listless adventure film serves to honor the ignorant macho sports exercise as something to be admired because it is so purely primitive, even if it is falsely ennobling.
REVIEWED ON 12/25/2014 GRADE: C+