ZARAK —-oh, what a delicious hoot this one is. Years back a great friend (Jay Amicarella, now deceased) and I had a movie-conversation lamenting the dearth of stirring old-style Adventure epics. Citing childhood favorites like The 300 Spartans, Jay enthused over this 1956 rumpus. Local affiliates in my part of the country never played it. Finally, many moons—or cries-of-the-she-goat—later, my craven dogness caught up to its Many Splendors, and lo, was charmed by the lusty, full-bore goofiness; how I would have loved this as a kid! Let’s go in the back yard and play ‘Zarak’! I gotta get a copy!
As the humble asterisk at the end of this unworthy paragraph will reveal, the real Zarak Khan was a true bad-ass brigand of the 1920s/30s. Richard Maibaum’s script resets the wild man’s story back to the British Raj of the 1860s, with the stiff-upper-lipped redcoats battling tribesmen in the contested mountains of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (throw dart, hit revolt). Ads trumpeted “For the Harem Beauty…Mighty Zarak Fought Half a Continent!…Pillage!…Plunder!…Passion!” I’ll take passion for 200. *
Ostracized from his village after making whoopee with his fathers wife (carefully explain this to the kids on the way home), Zarak (Victor Mature–at his most Mature) becomes a feared and fearless bandit. He repeatedly eludes the British (led by Michael Wilding), engages in brawls, chases, floggings, skirmishes and full-scale battles, and in his spare time re-fondles dad’s banished wife (Anita Ekberg), even as she sagely/sadly/sexily tells him “It is written: do not marry the same woman your father married.”
The statuesque, voluptuous 24-year old former Miss Sweden is about as Afghan as Doris Day, yet as a fellow officer warns Wilding (the movie is full of people warning each other) “This is a cruel, hard, miserable, primitive land”. Indeed, so all the better to enjoy Ekberg’s eye-burning primitive dance number, outfitted in garb that when it showed up on posters had censors ban it in the U.K. after the House of Lords declared it “bordering on the obscene”. Ekberg’s undulating superstructure wresting their attention away from the Empire’s collapsing foundation in Suez–and where exactly is Obscene?—and does it have a beach?
Mature changes his expression three, maybe four times. A member of the supporting cast drew good notices: it was a leg up for 27-year-old Patrick McGoohan; he does a solid job, given the material. Apart from general silliness (there’s a wild sword-dance sequence that will have you choke on your camel-yogurt: it looks like something choreographed by Steve Martin), the action-packed Saturday matinée has a bandoleer load of notable production factoids.
A Warwick Films spectacle, it was partially filmed on location in Morocco, with hordes of horses and volley-firing extras in the exuberant battle scenes. That action stuff was handled by stunt legend Yakima Canutt, while the overall direction came from Terence Young, future genie behind Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball. Writer Maibaum would go on to 007 glory, as would co-producer Albert R. Broccoli, cinematographer Ted Moore and supporting actress Eunice Gayson, 24, immortal six years later as the first Bond girl (“I admire your luck, Mr…?). The rousing, make-no-mistake-it’s-mighty music score is courtesy of the prodigious Willam Alwyn. Also on the music end, we must note that preceding Ekberg’s salacious hubba-hubba number, there is a song from Yana, a chanteuse of the day. It’s called “Climb Up The Wall”—we jest you not. What a movie! **
More guys get mowed down in this show than were felled in the Crimean War. One of them, sadly, was Mature’s stunt double, Jack Keely, killed doing a horsefall. Mature, famous for never doing physically iffy moves (he refused to ride horses, even) paid the expenses for Keely’s funeral.
99 minutes, with Bonar Colleano, Finlay Currie, Peter Illing, Bernard Miles (as ‘Hassu, the one-eyed’) Eddie Byrne and André Morell. Reputedly, Broccoli and co-producer Irving Allen spent nearly $2,000,000 on this colorful nonsense but it paid back with a US gross of $4,252,000 and no doubt quite a bit more in other markets. One site says it came in 15th for the year, another places it at 76th—such a mystifying spread only adds luster to the he-legend known as Zarak Khan. ***
* In 1949, A.J. Bevan wrote “The Story Of Zarak Khan”, recounting the blood-drenched saga of the real bandit, who operated six and more decades after the movie hero. Twenty years of harassing the British and everyone else he felt like eventually turned to gallantry when he ended up working for the British against the Japanese in WW2 Burma. Captured, about to be beheaded, he demanded instead to be… flayed alive. They thoughtfully complied.
** Yana (aka Pamella Guard) was a beautiful, sexy, very popular cabaret singer in Britain, chiefly in the 50s. “Climb Up The Wall”, though it seems ridiculous in the setting of Zarak, was a big hit, her most well-known number. She passed away in 1989, only 57. Let’s pay quote-due to some of the fun personalities who toiled on this picture. From Anita Ekberg: “I don’t know if paradise or hell exists, but I’m sure hell is more groovy.” Michael Wilding—gotta love a guy with the ballsy middle name of Gauntlet: “You can pick out actors by the glazed look that comes into their eyes when the conversation wanders away from themselves.” The self-kidding Victor Mature: “I’m no actor, and I’ve got 64 pictures to prove it.”
*** In the immortal words of producer Irving Allen (not to be confused with Irwin of disaster fame): “If somebody sends me a literate script do you know what I do with it? I throw it in the waste paper basket, that’s what I do with it. I make films to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s why I’m still in business while the other arty-farty boys are not. I just want to make pictures to make money.” A bandit like Zarak would smile at such sentiments. Plot revenge. Strike!