A minor but reasonably entertaining action-thriller, Escape from Zahrain (1962) is a quirky little picture. Its small cast is a strange mix of actors while its screenplay is unusually unambitious for producer-director Ronald Neame, who had just made two outstanding British features, The Horse's Mouth (1958) and especially Tunes of Glory (1960), Neame's masterpiece. Why he'd follow those with such an innocuous trifle is anyone's guess. The film is well made and involving, however - though all attempts to reach deeper into issues of religious conflict and American exploitation of the Middle East fail pretty miserably.
A Paramount production licensed for DVD to Olive Films, this Panavision and Technicolor (35mm prints only, not the original three-strip process) release is given an adequate if not stellar 16:9 enhanced transfer. There are no extras.
The clunky script by Robin Estridge (from Michael Barrett's story), reportedly radically altered from a Richard Matheson screenplay intended for Clark Gable. It opens with a completely unnecessary prologue: In a fictitious Middle Eastern country, its Arab leader (Joseph Ruskin) orders a condemned nationalist freedom fighter, Sharif (Yul Brynner), assassinated as a police van transports Sharif to jail. In as much as the assassination attempt is preempted by an ambush of university students, the opening scene appears to have no other purpose than to make clear that a) the government is corrupt; and, b) to clue the audience in that, while ruthless, Sharif is a freedom-loving rebel worthy of audience sympathy.
The university students, led by hotheaded malcontent Ahmed (Sal Mineo, fresh from his role as an Arab-hating Zionist in Exodus), having released Sharif, attempt to get him out of the country with three other prisoners along for the ride: psychotic brute Tahar (Anthony Caruso), old and feeble Hassan (Jay Novello), and Huston (Jack Warden), a hard-luck American caught embezzling $200,000 from the American oil company where he worked. Hassan is knocked off almost immediately and, early in the story, the little band steal a heavy-duty ambulance* with Arab nurse Laila (Madlyn Rhue) aboard.
At 93 minutes, Escape from Zahrain is just a tad long for its otherwise tautly-told story, with the disparate outlaws, plus student Ahmed and nurse Laila, fleeing across the desert and having to overcome one enormous obstacle after another. It's all pretty interesting in a Wages of Fear** sort of way, the rough desert terrain presenting many challenges, and the widescreen photography by Ellsworth Fredericks (Friendly Persuasion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is good.
The cast is game, though Brynner, Mineo, Caruso, and Rhue, with their Russian, Italian, Italian, and French (?) backgrounds aren't really convincing as Arabs. The screenplay attempts to grapple with issues of Muslim identity: Laila is a "European Arab" not above tasting Huston's whiskey, for instance, while more orthodox Ahmed fumes in the background. Sharif points to America's exploitation of his country's oil riches while the vast majority of the population lives in poverty, but none of this leads anywhere. Lawrence of Arabia, directed by Neame's longtime associate David Lean, this ain't.
Chiefly this is because Escape from Zahrain falls into that annoying category of movies, quite common in the 1960s, set in a completely fictional universe with little shading - no real countries, places, or people, with everything generalized and presented in black and white extremes only - thus rendering most of the political/cultural/religious conflict toothless and characters like Sharif into cardboard. True it's an old, established device, but given the film's efforts to address some of these issues, it's not done well.
The cast does what it can; they give enjoyable performances, especially Caruso, who seems to relish playing his sweaty, scurrilous brute, whom Huston nicknames "Frankenstein." Rhue was a prolific television actress but headlined few films. Her unusual features - slightly walleyed with unusually large, dark eyes, a delicate frame, etc. - made her an unlikely leading lady, but she's fine here. (Mild Spoiler) Since the packaging gives this away anyway, James Mason's unbilled cameo is worth noting. His brief role gives the film a boost just when it needs it, and his appearance is a genuine and amusing surprise. Neame and Mason must have been fellow ex-pat neighbors in Beverly Hills; they hadn't worked together since Neame photographed Catch As Catch Can in 1937, in which Mason starred. Mason and Warden would work together later in The Verdict (1982), a far better movie in which both were superb.
Video & Audio
The 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer generally looks good. The color is a tad off, heavy on browns, and there's a fair amount of age-related wear, but it looks okay. The Region 1 encoded disc has adequate mono audio, English only with no subtitle options. There are no Extra Features.
Though not exactly good, Escape from Zahrain is decent escapist entertainment, the type of high-end B-movie more common in 1934 than 1962. It's no great shakes but I enjoyed it, flaws and all. Recommended.
* Though operating in an Muslim nation the ambulance has a Red Cross symbol. Why not a Red Crescent?
** Stephen Bowie writes, "You identified the uncredited (and un-IMDB'ed) Joseph Ruskin in that prologue (which I'm sure was tacked on after principal photography, to explain Brynner's character more clearly), but did you recognize the guy playing the corrupt colonel? He's a veteran TV actor named Gregory Morton (Thriller, Peyton Place)....You [also] mentioned Wages of Fear, which I agree is probably an inspiration, but the movie is a much more direct ripoff of Ice Cold in Alex, the classic British getting-a-truck-across the desert movie."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.