History Nerd's Review: The Wind and the Lion (1975)

The Raisuli (Sean Connery) and
Eden Pedicaris (Candace Bergen)
"Why would anyone want to cut out a man's tongue?"
"Perhaps the previous owner had nothing pleasant to say."

The Wind and the Lion is one of my all-time favorites.

It's a grand sweeping historical adventure that has everything you could ask for: spectacular scenery, snappy dialogue, worthy adversaries in tense confrontations, narrow escapes, epic swordfights, a climactic three-sided battle, imperialism, Great Power politics, U.S. Marines, desert bandits, a grizzly bear, a suitably majestic musical score by the mighty Jerry Goldsmith, and, as the cherry on the dessert, Theodore Roosevelt, the most entertaining President in U.S. history, played by Brian Keith.

In the course of serving up all that awesomeness, the story takes a few liberties with the events the film purports to portray. Okay, more than a few liberties. A lot, actually. To be perfectly honest, the story is almost entirely fictional.

When a historical film is simultaneously wonderfully entertaining and wildly inaccurate, what's a history nerd to do? How do you grade that one?

Yes, that really happened Something sort of like that kind of happened, in a sense: The Wind and the Lion is very loosely based on the 1904 "Perdicaris affair," a diplomatic crisis that arose that summer when a gentleman named Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped in Morocco by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, a Berber chieftain. In response, the U.S. sent warships to Tangier and pressured Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco to secure Perdicaris' release. In response to that, British, Spanish, and Italian ships showed up to keep an eye on the Americans, and pretty soon most of the other Great (and Not-Quite-Great) Powers were throwing their two cents in to the Moroccan situation. Since it was also an election year, the administration's diplomatic position was soon reduced to a catchy one-line campaign slogan: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" Eventually, the Sultan of Morocco met the ransom demands, Perdicaris was released, and the whole thing was largely forgotten--the administration having learned, while the negotiations were going on, that Ion Perdicaris wasn't even an American citizen! That rather embarrassing fact was of course not made public at the time, and remained buried in the State Department archives until 1933.

Points off for: creative writing. In turning this nearly-forgotten diplomatic kerfuffle into a glorious epic adventure, writer-director John Milius made a number of "improvements" to the narrative. Ion Perdecaris became Mrs. Eden Pedicaris (Candace Bergen), a proper Edwardian woman who gets in touch with her inner mama bear when she and her two children (played by Polly Gottesman and Simon Harrison) are taken prisoner. The Raisuli (Sean Connery) was given an upgrade, being portrayed as a noble leader fighting for the sovereignty of his people instead of the opportunistic "last of the Barbary pirates" that he actually was. The Sultan (Marc Zuber) was demoted to a figurehead; the power behind his throne, the Bashaw of Tangier (Vladek Shleybal), was made the Raisuli's brother to add a bit of sibling rivalry to their conflict.  Throw in some wholly imaginary direct military intervention by Imperial Germany and the U.S. Marines, and a Stockholm syndrome platonic romance between Eden Pedicaris and her captor, and you end up with two hours of magnificent wide-screen cinematic adventure that didn't happen that way in real life.

Extra credit for: While the plot of the film has only the most tenuous resemblance to real life events, this is compensated for by exacting attention to period details. To mention just a few:

— The Raisuli really was a chess-playing scholar with a tendency to express himself in archaic aphorisms ("The lion makes long strides, but the path is worn smooth by pygmy armies."), and was a very gracious host to those foreigners he kidnapped.

— Brian Keith absolutely nails Theodore Roosevelt's whimsical manners and quirky personality, and the Roosevelt children really were as playfully mischievous as the film makes them out to be.



— The Marines are equipped with "Krag-Jorgensen" rifles and Colt "Potato Digger" machine guns on wheeled mounts, both correct for the period. In the scene above where they are forming up on the docks, three "Steel Navy" warships are visible in the harbor: protected cruiser USS Baltimore, armored cruiser USS Brooklyn, and gunboat USS Marietta.

— In the double-time march through the streets of Tangier, the Marine captain is holding his sword in the proper position, as USMC officers and NCOs are taught to do.

— The Sultan's palace sequence is based on the descriptions given by English diplomat (and one-time hostage of the Raisuli) Walter Harris in his 1925 book The Morocco That Was. The bicycle polo game, the servant-drawn carriage, the callous disregard for range safety during the Maxim machine gun demonstration--all true to life.

The film also features some superb acting. This is probably Candace Bergen's career best performance, and may be Brian Keith's as well. Most impressive of all is Sean Connery, who completely sells you on the character of Raisuli the Berber chieftain, even though he makes no attempt to disguise his thick Scottish accent.

Additional comments: Like Kirk and Khan in The Wrath of Khan, the two main adversaries, T.R. and Raisuli, never meet--yet they play off of each other all through the story. John Milius earns a gold star for the writing, and Brian Keith and Sean Connery for the acting, that makes this relationship work.

Final grade: 75% on the history homework, the period detail being enough to earn a passing grade despite the gross fictionalization. As for artistic and entertainment value, four out of four Marine landing parties with Krag-Jorgensen rifles.

"To Theodore Roosevelt - 'You are like the wind and I like the lion. You form the tempest, the sand stings my eyes and the ground is parched. I roar in defiance, but you do not hear. But between us there is a difference. I, like the lion, must remain in my place, while you, like the wind, will never know yours.'- Mulai Achmed Mohammed el Raisuli the Magnificent, Lord of the Riff, Sultan to the Berbers."

1 comment:

NomadUK said...

Excellent. It's been ages since I saw this on television. Time to find it and watch it again!