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At his death in June of 2010, Ronald Neame was one of the last surviving talents from the golden years of the British film history. His mother was Ivy Close, the star of Abel Gance's silent classic La roue. Starting as an assistant in the late 1920s, he became a top cinematographer for some of the most prestigious films of the era, including Gabriel Pascal's Major Barbara, Powell & Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve. An early association with David Lean led to collaborations as a cameraman, producer and writer on some of Lean's most famous films. He co-wrote four classic Lean pictures, earning two Oscar nominations in the process.
Ever adaptable, Ronald Neame eventually reinvented himself as a director without borders, working both in England and Hollywood. When many of his contemporaries were near retirement, Neame was still making box office hits, with pictures as diverse as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Poseidon Adventure.
Neame's last credit as producer was for 1961's Escape from Zahrain, an adventure drama set in a fictional Arabian nation. In his autobiography Straight from the Horse's Mouth (Scarecrow Press 2003) Neame barely mentions the film between his major accomplishments Tunes of Glory and I Could Go On Singing. Excited about working with actor Yul Brynner, Neame watched as Paramount downgraded his budget, nixing Arabian locations in favor of the relatively local Mojave Desert. Worse yet, the shooting schedule required Neame to overstay his work visa. To avoid paying double taxes on his earnings, he was obliged to spend weekends across the border in Mexico.
Escape from Zahrain is an efficient if somewhat predictable thriller that stays focused on a small group of people on the run. No actors of Arab descent appear in this almost all-Arab drama. Four desperate prisoners make good their escape by seizing an ambulance and racing for the border across Zahrain's arid desert. The charismatic opposition leader known as Sharif (Swiss-Russian Yul Brynner) is determined to continue his nationalist rebellion. Young activist student Ahmed (Italian-American Sal Mineo) worships Sharif and planned the breakout. Swarthy criminal Tahar (Italian-American Anthony Caruso) is an able fighter but completely untrustworthy. Feisty American oil worker Huston (Jack Warden of Twelve Angry Men) just wants to escape to enjoy the loot he's embezzled from the Zahrain Oil Company. Nurse Laila (American Madlyn Rhue), a Europeanized local, grows to respect Sharif's principles. She volunteers to stay with the group even when the Zahrain army closes in.
The escape offers plenty of opportunities for the fugitives to get to know and judge one another. Huston and Sharif trade wisecracks and become an unlikely 'buddy' pair. When the army gets too close, Sharif shows his flair for leadership by taking a perilous detour over a difficult mountain pass. The immature Ahmed tries to impress his revolutionary mentor and finds himself attracted to the patient Laila. She indulges the proud young man but is clearly attracted to the powerful Sharif, whose glowing example reawakens her ethnic pride. As played in standard strong & silent Yul Brynner fashion, Sharif is a remarkably patient and understanding Arab firebrand. The treacherous Tahar threatens his companions more than once, but Sharif doesn't expel him from the group.
The group is strafed by Zahrainian fighter planes and harassed on the ground by armored cars. Friendly Arab tribesmen (led by Russian-born Vladimir Sokoloff) loan the fugitives another vehicle. They also raid the oil company's pumping outpost for fuel and supplies. The dramatic situation never builds to the heights of tension seen in films like Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Food, water and gasoline keep appearing just when they are needed. At one rest stop Laila seizes the opportunity to take a very non-traditional outdoor shower only a few feet away from her male comrades.
Yul Brynner gives his standard stony performance, while Jack Warden enlivens Huston, a Yankee crook scripted as an amusing rascal. Sal Mineo still seems like a boy pretending to be a man. As the only woman in the story, Madlyn Rhue's Laila comes off as intelligent and level headed. She finds a number of excuses to remain with Sharif, when the real reason is easy to guess. The beautiful Ms. Rhue made only a few films (such as Operation Petticoat) but enjoyed a long and prolific career on television.
The finished movie doesn't disturb then-prevailing attitudes about the Middle East, when a gallon of gasoline cost perhaps 25 cents in America and nobody worried about where it came from. Robin Estridge's script, from a story by Michael Barrett, comes down firmly on the side of Yul Brynner's faultless nationalist rebel. The country's corrupt leader prefers to hoard the profits from lucrative foreign oil deals. Although the noble Sharif wants the oil nationalized, he expresses no animosity toward Europeans or Americans.
Ellsworth Fredericks' sharp Technicolor cinematography allows California's Barstow area to stand in for the mythical Zahrain, most notably when the group dares to haul their truck up and over the rugged mountains. Desert oases, nighttime scenes and the oil camp are all filmed on interior sets back on the Paramount lot, a standard practice for 1961 filming that defeats any attempt to give the adventure a hard edge of realism. Obvious matte paintings of a trans-desert oil pipeline are also something of a liability. When the Zahrain Air Force finally locates the runaway fugitives, director Neame gets some good stunt footage of impressive low-flying passes by a real P-51 Mustang fighter plane.
Other sources report rumors that Escape from Zahrain was originally intended as a vehicle for Clark Gable, who died suddenly after finishing John Huston's The Misfits. This may or may not account for the name of Jack Warden's character, Huston. Zahrain was nearly the last film appearance of actor Vladimir Sokoloff, who began in classic German films 35 years earlier. He had just attracted attention in the Yul Brynner western The Magnificent Seven. Providing an odd footnote to a movie nobody seems to be proud of, James Mason contributes a surprise uncredited star cameo as an oil worker at the remote pumping outpost. Mason and the director hadn't worked together since 1937's Catch as Catch Can, when Neame was a cameraman and Mason the young lead.
Olive Films' DVD of Escape from Zahrain is presented in a bright and colorful transfer in its original Panavision aspect ratio, which restores the film's impressive desert vistas. Director Neame's restrained direction makes reasonable use of the wide screen and minimizes the impact of desert scenes filmed in front of studio process screens. The resulting film is a more than adequate matinee adventure.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Escape from Zahrain rates:
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