By Govindini Murty. A $100 million dollar plus movie is released on DVD this week with glaringly obvious anti-Iraq War themes – and no-one in the media seems to have noticed. The film I am talking about is Prince of Persia, a frenetic, action-packed extravaganza produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan, the eponymous Prince of Persia.
Prince of Persia is based on the video game of the same name and tells the story of a scruffy but charming urchin, Dastan, who is adopted as a little boy by the King of Persia and raised as his son. Years later, the grown-up Dastan is a roguish roustabout who constantly gets into scrapes, while his adoptive father King Sharaman and his foster brothers Prince Tus and Prince Garsiv – along with the king’s brother, Nizam (Ben Kingsley) – take care of the important work of running the empire. Things get dramatic when the Persians decide to invade a holy city, and there discover both a princess with mystical powers (Gemma Arterton, the only female with any lines in the film) and a magical dagger that can turn back time.
To say that Prince of Persia dwells on surfaces is an understatement. As with most late decadent culture-products, the film has an obsessive focus on surface pattern – with elaborate production design that relies on a mishmash of geometric inlays, rich brocaded textiles, profusions of minarets, formal patterned gardens, fretwork, tracery, and monumental statuary from the Islamic Persian, Mughal Indian, and Hindu Indian artistic traditions. This focus on surface extends to the characters, who are one-and-all cardboard cutouts – and yet who even in their limited humanity still seem ill at ease in this ersatz world. As is typical in Hollywood’s current product-line, the only thing the filmmakers really seem to care about – the only thing that actually dwells beneath the endlessly proliferating, distracting surface – is politics. The two seem to go together: an elaborate surface of special effects and production design … with a sub-stratum of political messaging (the true passion of today’s Hollywood filmmaker).
***WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW ***
Prince of Persia features the most absurdly obvious anti-Iraq War themes. In a film that generally dwells only on surfaces, the only delving below the surface that goes on in this film is when the film’s leads, ludicrous stand-ins for George Bush and Dick Cheney, go digging underneath the Persian sands to find hidden weapons to justify their attack on an innocent holy city(!).
The film begins with the Persian forces massed on the outskirts of the holy city of Alamut, depicted as a shining city of white marble on a hill. In the tent of the Persian commanders, Dastan and his brothers – Crown Prince Tus and Prince Garsiv – debate with their uncle, Nizam, about whether or not to attack Alamut. Alamut is an ally of Persia, but Nizam has captured a spy leaving Alamut who is armed with a cache of weapons – weapons that appear to have been made in Alamut, and that are being taken to the enemies of Persia. Nizam argues that they must launch an immediate attack on Alamut because the creation of these weapons poses a threat to the Persian empire. (Cue obvious Iraq War parable, with Nizam as the hawkish Dick Cheney stand-in, and Crown Prince Tus as the George Bush-style ‘dupe.’) Others advise that they wait and consult with the King of Persia (the U.N.?), because Alamut is a holy city with no prior evidence of wrong-doing (or evil-doing, as George Bush would say). After more back and forth, the war-mongers have the day. The Crown Prince agrees with Nizam that they must invade, and the Persians attack Alamut. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Dastan is the first to scale the walls of the city, leaping around like a jumping bean, and is hailed as a hero by the Persian forces.
Meanwhile, in the palace of Alamut, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) hands a mysterious package holding a sacred dagger to an attendant who tries to smuggle it out of the city while the Persians pour in. Dastan engages in a fight with the attendant carrying the sacred dagger and captures it, not realizing its significance. The Persians brutishly break into the central sanctuary of the palace of Alamut, and there find Princess Tamina worshipping some mystical force. They treat her derisively and accuse Alamut of treachery – of creating weapons to aid Persia’s enemies. The princess angrily denounces them, looks at the heavily armed soldiers, and tells them: “All the weapons in the world won’t find something that doesn’t exist.” (Cue obvious Iraq War parallel.) Crown Prince Tus, taken by Princess Tamina’s beauty, says to her “I can arrange a political solution” and offers to marry her – but she turns him down.
There follows more dialogue continuing the obvious Iraq War parallels. The King of Persia arrives in the city and chastises the princes for launching the attack: “You’ve got to have more indication to attack a holy city … How will this sit with our allies?” Crown Prince Tus replies: “I will search for the weapons myself … I will not rest until I find proof of Alamut’s treachery.” Again, the Crown Prince here is the George Bush stand-in, ‘duped’ by faulty intelligence into attacking an innocent city (except in real life, Saddam’s Iraq was not an innocent city of white marble – and Hussein was hardly a beautiful princess). The Persians start searching under the city for the weapons. A Persian comes and tells the Crown Prince: “We’ve uncovered signs of tunnels on the eastern edge of the city.” The Crown Prince replies, “That’s great!” The King admonishes him: “A great man would have stopped the attack from happening at all – no matter who ordered it.”
The King is then assassinated by a poisoned robe – and Dastan is framed for the murder. Dastan escapes from Alamut with Princess Tamina and they head out into the desert. When they are attacked in the desert and Dastan defends himself with the sacred dagger, he discovers that the dagger is actually magical; when he presses a jewel on its handle, it releases mystical sands – the “sands of time” – that turn back time. Dastan realizes with a shock that the whole attack against Alamut was a fraud – that it was really just an attempt to capture the magical dagger. As he says to Tamina: “It was all about the dagger!” (It’s all about oil!)
A convoluted plot follows in which Dastan and Tamina wander through the desert, fall into the hands of some cheeky bandits (led by Alfred Molina as Sheik Amar), fight over possession of the dagger, sneak back to Persia to see the old king’s funeral and try to clear Dastan’s name – only to have more treachery and double-dealing ensue. Through all this, there is yet more dialogue from various characters that beats the audience over the head with the Iraq War allegory. Here’s just a sampling of some of the dialogue from the film’s main characters:
- “He’s searching for weapons to prove to our allies that the invasion was just.”
- “Our allies need to see that our invasion is just.”
- “But the invasion was a lie … He’s only after ultimate power.”
- “I’m still searching for weapons to prove to our allies that the war was just.”
Anyway, back in Persia, Tus – now the king – debates with Nizam (the Dick Cheney stand-in) about what they should do with Dastan, who is still at large after having apparently assassinated the old King. King Tus wants to put Dastan on trial in the capitol. Nizam argues against this (obvious War on Terror parallel), saying: “Putting Dastan on trial will only give him a stage for his sedition,” adding, “Send him away for life.” King Tus earnestly replies: “Putting him on trial would show we obey the rule of law.”
If that wasn’t on the nose enough, the villain then heads off to a lair of a sect of assassins that was officially disbanded by the Persian government (Blackwater?), but has been secretly funded and kept going by the villain. The villain hires the assassins in a black-ops manoever to go after Dastan and kill him.
Eventually, after further twists and turns in the plot, the villain (I won’t give away who it is) gets hold of the dagger and plunges it into the sacred “Sandglass” below the palace of Alamut, unleashing the sands of time, and with great sound and fury – and frenetic CGI – turns back the entire story of the film. (This is a variation of the “it was all a dream” plot device.) Suddenly we’re back at the beginning of the film, just as the Persians are invading Alamut. The old king and all the princes are still alive – and everything is as it once was. However, now Dastan knows the truth – that the whole invasion is a fraud that has been set up to benefit a villain who secretly stands in the shadows. Dastan races to tell the king and his brothers: “Alamut has no weapons … This war was set up by one with more power than anyone else.” Dastan tells them (cue heavy anti-Iraq War parallel): “I should never have let the attack happen. I knew it in my heart.” The villain is unmasked, the attack is stopped, the Persians apologize to Princess Tamina for invading her city, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Beyond its comically blatant politics, Prince of Persia has an almost complete lack of female characters. Princess Tamina is the only female with any dialogue in the entire film, and there are no other females who appear on screen for more than a moment. That’s right, in medieval Persia (or whenever this is supposed to take place), there are no women – except for a few scantily-dressed harem girls and female servants seen in passing (who don’t get any lines). The King of Persia has no queen, the Prince of Persia has no sisters or female relatives, the mystical princess has no female relatives or any women around her in her court (not even an older wise woman, which would seem to be a stock character the filmmakers could have worked into the story). As Dastan and Tamina journey through the countryside, there are apparently no other women travelers, shop-keepers, farmers, or any other kind of women they encounter (again, except for a few serving girls in the background at an ostrich race in the desert, and a few harem girls in a palace – none of whom have any lines).
Not only is this a completely inaccurate picture of medieval Persia (which must have had some women around – right?), it’s a distorted and misogynistic vision of the world. And if fans say “it’s just a video game movie” or “it’s not supposed to be an accurate depiction of reality,” I’d respond that the filmmakers have all the more leeway to work in a few more women! How about some women around the mystical princess in her court? How about a wise Queen of Persia who advises the king, or who at least is there by his side to utter a few words now and then? How about a wise older female to advise the princess, or at least be present in the court with her? Why would the princess be surrounded only by men and be the ruler of a holy city with not one woman around? No traditional society would have allowed a woman ruler to be only surrounded by men – and have no ladies in waiting, maids, female guardians, or relatives around her.
But no, just as in the bizarrely misogynistic remake of Clash of the Titans (which killed off or eliminated almost all the major female characters from the original film – see my post on that film here), Prince of Persia is singularly lacking in female characters. (Strangely enough, both Prince of Persia and the Clash of the Titans remake feature the same actress, Gemma Arterton, as the one female character who is allowed any kind of significant role.)
How ironic that in modern-day Persia, now known as Iran – considered to be one of the most repressive societies on earth for women – the nation’s major filmmakers are still able to work more women characters into their films than Hollywood can. It’s a question to be long-pondered: why modern liberal democracies like America are unable to have a meaningful balance in their popular culture between the male and the female. I’ll have more to say about this in the future. In the meantime, only watch Prince of Persia at your peril. After all, it’s all about the dagger.
Posted on September 18th, 2010 at 2:00pm.