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 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; it wasn't filmed in the original three-strip process) release was first issued to DVD in 2010. The new Blu-ray looks a teeny bit better and more 35mm film-like, but not enough to send me out on a midnight ride like Paul Revere urging those that already have the DVD to dump it in favor of the new Blu. There are no extras.
The clunky script is 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, probably added after principal photography. 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 staged by 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. As colleague Stephen Bowie pointed out in my review of the DVD, the movie is basically a variation, if now outright steal, of J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex (1958), a far superior picture available as a region "B" Blu-ray in Britain. Its success, not to mention fairly low cost to produce, prompted numerous imitators, including another film available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, Taxi for Tobruk (Un taxi pour Tobrouk, 1961), a French version of the same basic idea, starring Lino Ventura and Hardy Kruger.** The premise is almost surefire and pretty hard to screw up completely, and here the rough desert terrain, presenting many challenges, unfolds in impressive widescreen photography by Ellsworth Fredericks (Friendly Persuasion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
The cast tries hard, though Brynner, Mineo, Caruso, and Rhue, with their Russian, Italian, Italian, and French (?) backgrounds aren't 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) 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
I toggled between the DVD and Blu-ray versions of Escape from Zahrain. The Blu-ray is undeniably a bit brighter and certainly sharper, though like the DVD the color is a tad off, heavy on browns, and there's a fair amount of age-related wear, but it looks okay. This is definitely one of those instances where if you don't own the DVD, by all means spring for the Blu, while those who already have the DVD need not feel they are missing out on something. Unless they happen to be die-hard Escape from Zahrain fans, that is. The disc has adequate mono audio, English only with no subtitle options. There are no Extra Features, and the menu screen is the same as the DVD version.
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 a Muslim nation the ambulance has a Red Cross symbol. Why not a Red Crescent?
** Sergei Hasencz adds, "Fleeing across the desert an overcoming obstacles is a staple of Westerns, including Stagecoach and any of the versions of Three Godfathers, for instance. In a war setting, there's Sahara (1943), an underrated movie with Bogart leading a ragtag group of Allied soldiers across the desert. Based in part on a Soviet movie, The Thirteen (1936), Sahara was remade as the Western Last of the Commanches (1953) starring Broderick Crawford, and again with a WWII setting as Sahara (aka Desert Storm, 1995) with James Belushi in the Bogart role. Of the four, I've only seen Bogart's."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.