A very entertainment adventure silent movie.
Synopsis: Two American soldiers are captured by the Germans on the Western Front during World War I and escape a POW camp only to stumble into further life-threatening adventures when they come across an Arabian king’s daughter on the lam. (IMDB)
Starring: William Boyd, Mary Astor, and Louis Wolheim
Writers: Wallace Smith and Cyril Gardner
Director: Lewis Milestone
Running Time: 92mins
Americans Sgt. Peter O’Gaffney (Wolheim) and one of his soldiers, privileged “pretty boy” W. Daingerfield Phelps III (Boyd), who is always drawing caricatures, are captured and interred at a POW camp in Northern Germany near the end of WWI. Their relationship has always been an antagonistic one based on what Phelps sees as O’Gaffney pushing him around. O’Gaffney’s achieved his rank despite him being wanted by the police back home as a con man. It is because of these differences that their resulting friendship at camp is so unlikely, the friendship based on both having the nerve to attempt to escape.
On a snow covered day, they do manage to escape, in part by stealing white robes to camouflage themselves against the snow. In their adventures and misadventures on the outside in trying to get to safety, those adventures which include being mistaken for Arab prisoners. They would eventually find themselves as stowaways on board a cargo ship headed to Arabia. It is there that they meet a beautiful Arab woman named Mirza (Astor), who they save from drowning. They are both immediately smitten by her, which is why they are so disappointed to learn that she is betrothed in an arranged marriage to the ruthless Shevket Ben Ali (Ian Keith). As the two try to reach the safety of an American consulate, they also decide to try and liberate Mirza, which may be more dangerous than fighting in the trenches in the battlefields of France.
As we all know, a lot of silent movies and films from the transition period to sound have not aged well at all. Luckily, this doesn’t happen to Two Arabian Knights, a very entertaining adventure movie that won Lewis Milestone the very first Oscar ever for best director in a Comedy Picture, a category that only existed in the edition of the award. The film was archived somewhere for a long time, until the University of Nevada Las Vegas restored it and TCM broadcasted this version first in 2004, almost 80 years after its original release.
Although it has certainly aged, there are still a lot of good parts to it, especially because of Milestone’s direction. This film is the perfect example why cinema is a visual art, with words and dialogue only coming in second. There is, of course, no sound in this film, but the mis-en-scenes, the way Milestone is able to tell this story in a perfect visual way – and doing It hilariously in many moments – shows how great film can be when a director is truly inspired. The film is fast-paced, episodic and frantic, but Milestone holds it all together, managing to create a cohesive whole. And that is a true marvel.
There are some elements that are quite ridiculous now (white actors playing Arabs), which happened a lot in those times (well, it still happens today, actually), but there are very amusing concepts that are quite modern. The two partners, North American to the core, are incapable of imagining that people from Middle East can be smarter and more educated than they are, and it is hilarious to see that unfold. This is a very peculiar comedy, with a lot of nuttiness happening, which helps turning it into an endearing comedy in the end.
Two Arabian Knights was released and awarded the same year Chaplin’s The Circus and Harold Lloyd’s Speedy were contenders. Looking in retrospect, with two major classic films being its competition, it is strange to think that Two Arabian Knights triumphed (strange but very Oscarly). Maybe it is, but it is also very deserving. Two Arabian Knights is, indeed, a lot of fun.
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