Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Omar Khayyam ( 1957 )

"Could you and I alone with Fate conspire" 

In the 1940s and early 1950s colorfully costumed Arabian adventure films were all the rage. Universal studios started this string of sword and sandal spectacles in Hollywood when it released Arabian Nights, a modest box-office success starring Jon Hall. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves ( also with Jon Hall ), The Prince who was a Thief, Son of Ali Baba, A Thousand and One Nights and Sinbad soon followed. By 1957 however the genre was beginning to wane in popularity and it was in this year that Paramount Pictures decided to release Omar Khayyam starring Cornel Wilde and Debra Paget. 

Omar Khayyam was a fictional biographical account of the life of the 11th century mathematician-poet who lived in Bagdad. Since very little details of his life are known, Barre Lyndon freely took the opportunity to weave a script which included sultans, thieves, intrigue, harems, and a beautiful princess. All the prime ingredients for an Arabian night fantasy. 

It begins with our hero, the wise poet, discovering that his beloved is to become the Shah's newest bride. Forlorn at the thought of losing her he obtains a position at the palace as chief astronomer to be near her, and lo! what does he discover here but schemes of betrayal stirring within the palace walls!

Cornel Wilde, who rose to fame in Hollywood for his swashbuckling films ( he was a champion fencer ), lacks the pizzazz that he had in his other pictures and understandably so, the role calls for a distressed love-lost poet, not a swashbuckling hero. However, the supporting cast in Omar Khayyam is marvelous and more than makes up for Wilde's mild performance. Michael Rennie, always a familiar face in costumed dramas, is excellent in the role of Hasani, one of Khayyam's dear friends and later his adversary. Sebastion Cabot is also one of Khayyam's childhood friends who helps give Omar an audience with the shah, which later earns the poet the position of counselor and astronomer at the palace. 

Raymond Massey, the man of one face, looks surprisingly Arabic in appearance in his role as the mighty Shah, and surrounds himself with wise counselors and his two fighting sons, played by John Derek and Perry Lopez. Yma Sumac, the exotic four-octave range singer ( check out her amazing Les Baxter numbers ) has a brief appearance to do some warbling while Joan Taylor and Margaret Hayes round out the cast of femme fetales. Debra Paget is ravishingly beautiful as ever and was well-chosen by the Shah to be his newest wife. 

Other familiar faces include Edward Platt ( "Sorry about that, Chief" ), John Abbott and Dick Elliott ( Mayor Pike on The Andy Griffith Show ). 

The film boasts some stunning costumes by Ralph Jester who did only a handful of costume design work in films such as The Ten Commandents, Soloman and Sheba, and The Buccanneer.

William Dietrele discontinued his 27-year long Hollywood career after completing Omar Khayyam and it's no wonder he was dissatisfied with what he was being given. As colorful and vibrant as Khayyam is ( it was filmed in VistaVision ) the movie is a far cry from Dietrele's earlier biopics, such as The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. One can't help wondering how great it could have been had it been had it been given a different approach. Perhaps a different leading man, or even if it were turned into a musical....with Howard Keel.

Nevertheless, for loyal followers of sword-and-sandal Arabian Nights flicks ( which we of course are ) this is highly recommended viewing. Especially on a Saturday morning. As Khayyam would say, "A bowl of oatmeal, a jug of juice, and thou...great television set. Give me the sweet pleasures of life to while my days away". 


  1. In this genre, if there are enough costumes and color and exotic settings, I usually don't even care if the writing and/or acting is bad. In fact, sometimes I enjoy it more if they are.

    1. Good for you! You'll enjoy Omar Khayyam. Wilde does a great job it's just we can't help wondering about how really good the film could have been had it had that extra something special ( which I can't put my finger on ). I feel the same way about Kismet. I love that movie to pieces and yet it seems like it is lacking something. If you want to see a really entertaining Arabian adventure, check out The Thief of Bagdad ( 1940 ). That's a fun movie, as is Arabian Nights ( 1942 ). Even Shemp Howard got a role in that movie!

  2. Fun for the whole family! Or it will be once I tell the hubby about Debra Paget. It's funny that just the other day I was thinking about "Princess of the Nile" with Ms. Paget and Jeffrey Hunter. Surely one of the most attractive Hollywood pairings. Of course, Cornel Wilde is no slouch either. This would be just the thing to chase away the winter blahs.

    1. Yes, isn't she stunning! I was Googling Ms. Paget's mailing address yesterday in the hopes of penning a letter to her, but had no luck finding it. She was perfect in all of those costumed pictures. We haven't seen Princess of the Nile yet so thank you for reminding me about that film! I just adore Jeffrey Hunter. Such a good actor ( and not at all bad looking either ).

  3. THe supporting cast is indeed excellent. I'm always delighted to see Edward Platt! What I liked the most in the film was the story about pouring wine in th ground for those who drank it before us, and for those who will still drink.

  4. Raymond Massey (East of Eden) and Edward Platt (Rebel Without A Cause) in the same film, two years after the death of James Dean.....and in "Rebel" Dean hums
    some Wagnerian opera while he's drunk...and other than this film, Dieterle's other great Technicolor epic, was 1955's "Magic Fire" about the life of Richard Wagner!


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