31 December 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Gleason and Besser save this movie
'The Desert Hawk' is a bog-standard adventure epic (Arabian Nights subclass), sorely compromised by its extremely low budget but benefiting from an interesting cast. When I saw that Yvonne De Carlo was the female lead (in harem trousers, worse luck), I was worried this might turn out to be a Maria Montez-type campfest: fortunately, this film never sank to that level. Rock Hudson, in a prominent supporting role, is not as embarrassing as one might expect. Richard Greene, in his Robin Hood period, basically plays an Arabian version of Robin Hood here. De Carlo's character is named Scheherazade, but she isn't the famous Scheherazade of the 'Arabian Nights' tales: she's playing a different character with that same name.
The best and most interesting performances here are given by Jackie Gleason and Joe Besser as Richard Greene's wily assistants. Confusingly, their characters are named Aladdin and Sinbad. I kept wondering why Aladdin didn't whip out his magic lamp and summon his genie (not to mention Widow Twanky), until I twigged that the 'Aladdin' and 'Sinbad' in this movie aren't the two famous characters: they're two completely different characters with the same names as those two.
Jackie Gleason, as 'Aladdin', does well in a semi-serious role: his performance here doesn't resemble any of his well-known television characters. Joe Besser is a 'comedian' whose unfunny performances have almost always annoyed me, and who spent most of his career in supporting roles to comedians much more talented than Besser ... such as Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In 'The Desert Hawk', Besser gives a genuinely impressive performance, with some dramatic ability. I was especially impressed by one scene in which Besser as Sinbad is put into a torture device (a vertical form of the rack), and stretched unmercifully. Based on Besser's other characterisations, I expected him to scream effeminately and have a tantrum ... instead, he remains stoic and endures his torture manfully. (A trivia note: Joe Besser and the famous caricaturist Al Hirschfeld lived in the same house in St Louis, Missouri during their respective childhoods ... but not at the same time.) Gleason and Besser are the two main points of interest in 'The Desert Hawk', but their screen time is quite brief.
Michael Ansara and Nestor Paiva put their facial bone structures to good use in small roles. Ben Welden (an American actor who started his film career in England) is obtrusively American in a small role as an Arab. I'll rate 'The Desert Hawk' 4 out of 10. I'm grateful that this film wasn't very campy ... but I suppose that fans of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson will be disappointed that this film isn't MORE campy.