4 February 2014 | Bunuel1976
TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS (Lewis Milestone, 1927) ***
I was just 8 years old when I started following the Oscars ceremony in 1985 – when AMADEUS (1984) swept the board – and I used to pore endlessly over Roy Pickard's book "The Oscar Movies From A-Z" (which tackles all the winners of Oscar's first 50 years) so much so that Dad's copy is now all worn out. Taking a leaf out of the U.S. branch of TCM, as from this February, I will be having my own "31 Days of Oscars" marathon and will be concentrating on that very period. One of the titles therein which had always intrigued me was the only film ever to be awarded the "Best Comedy Direction" Oscar on the very first ceremony held back in May 1929; it was also the film's sole Academy Award nod. This was impossible to see for decades until Flicker Alley's Jeff Masino restored it in 2004 but, curiously enough, this has yet to make it onto DVD or BluRay; in fact, the copy I have acquired was culled from a screening on TCM itself and, while perfectly watchable for most of its running time, still suffers from a handful of sequences which displays a severe state of decomposition!
Anyway, to get back to TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS proper: despite the exotic title, this early Howard Hughes production and "buddy-buddy" movie is set not in a fairy-tale Baghdad but during the aftermath of WWI in Constantinople. In fact, director Milestone – one of Hollywood's premier chroniclers of men in war and best-known for his Oscar-winning classic adaptation of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) – opens the film with a wonderful sequence in the trenches where the hierarchical friction between handsome private William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd and his rugged sergeant Louis Wolheim is cut short by a shell exploding around them and soon they are completely surrounded in a foxhole by the enemy, captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp. A sure measure of the movie's "Pre-Code" status here are the gratuitous scenes of P.O.W.s undressing completely for showering purposes – the protagonists, awaiting their turn, are seen having a conversation as the lengthy parade of men passes behind them!
Forgetting their differences, they eventually manage to escape by disguising themselves as Arabs and end up being shipped off to Turkey; the scene where they sport white robes which have been bent into dresses by the snow and the dripping, melting flakes make them look they are urinating is hilarious. Aboard ship, they bond in one front against the shady Greek crew (including purser Boris Karloff) and engage in friendly rivalry while attracting the attentions of exotic shipwrecked princess Mary Astor, whom they had saved when her boat capsizes. The latter is unwillingly betrothed to Turkish Bey Ian Keith and our central odd couple decide to follow her to Constantinople and alter the fate that had been planned for her since childhood; the closing shot of Wolheim mimicking the serious countenance of Astor's eunuch is again priceless.
Having now watched it, on this one preliminary viewing, I cannot say that the film is a masterpiece or even a lost gem – especially knowing that it competed directly against Ted Wilde's SPEEDY (1928; one of Harold Lloyd's best-ever vehicles) and Charles Chaplin's THE CIRCUS (1928; a nomination which was subsequently retracted) – as was Chaplin's one for Best Actor, in lieu of the Academy bestowing an Honorary Award on the British comic "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing THE CIRCUS"!