The Politics of "Prince of Persia"

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The Prince of Persia,” opening today, follows the paradoxical Hollywood formula, mixing political liberalism with cultural conservatism. That is, Hollywoodites want to have it both ways: They want to wear their lefty politics on their sleeve, so they can get credit within the “creative community,” but they also want to sell tickets and DVDs to the country that lives between Beverly Hills and Manhattan. So in the end, Hollywood movies must appeal to the basically conservative instincts of the American public.

That’s why, in every big Hollywood action movie, the hero is a heterosexual who fights to restore order and justice. The hero might have to confront entrenched and corrupt authority, but whether he’s combating a sinister corporation or an alien zombie, he fights to uphold familiar tradition and American values. No Hollywood action hero fights for communism. No leading man, or leading woman, struggles--on screen, at least--to advance homosexuality, or abortion rights, or any of the sort of “transgressive” sexual-cultural ideas that fill up campuses these days.

This review of “Prince of Persia” contains some spoiler, so I’ll give you a moment to decide whether or not to keep reading. But by way of marking time, let’s note some other instances of this liberal-conservative fusioning. “The Day After Tomorrow,” directed by action-meister Roland Emmerich, tried to convince us of the danger of global warming, even if the end result was catastrophic global cooling; the Green belief-system can get a bit tangled. But once you got past the carbon-is-bad lectures in “Day,” you found a family-values movie; it was about a dad trying to reunite with his son, even after America was covered under 100 feet of ice and snow.

And as noted here in the Fox Forum last year, “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron, emphasized anti-imperialist politics, but did so within the context of a straight man defending an American way of life--that of Native Americans. The story line for “Avatar” could have been pulled, at least in part, from the American classic novel “The Last of the Mohicans.”
OK, so back to “Prince of Persia,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who has never let politics get in the way of an action sequence. Hollywood might support nuclear disarmament and gun control, but nobody in LA would expect Bruckheimer’s movies to preach non-violence. Show business is, after all, a business.

“Prince of Persia” is based on a videogame of the same name that debuted back in 1989. The whole premise of “Prince” is at least somewhat conservative. The hero, Dastan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is the prince in the title; actually, he was once an orphan street urchin, but after being spotted in a display of great moral and physical courage, he was rewarded by being adopted into the royal family. Surely that’s an American value, straight out of a Horatio Alger novel, or “Little Orphan Annie”; the plucky child makes good, with the help of a benevolent boss. Once installed as a prince, Dastan accepts his exalted wealth and power, perfectly willing to enjoy the princely lifestyle, even to be a captain in the king’s army. Thus the message: Back in ye olden times, most people were happy in their place, and, in battle, happy to be led by aristocratic warriors. Indeed, “Prince” shows a sort of warm nostalgia--nobody is deformed, nobody goes hungry, nobody needs medical treatment, everything is wrapped in a benign non-Islamic mumbo jumbo. In further keeping with familiar movie conventions, the actors--even the American-born Gyllenhaal--speak with a slight English accent, just to class things up a bit, and to communicate a sense of manageable foreign-ness. These were the operating assumptions, we might note, for the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and you can’t get much bigger--or more conservative--than they.

Soon the Persian royal army is off to war, marching against the city of Alamut, which stands accused of providing special high-tech weapons--”high-tech” defined as steel arrowheads and sharper swords--to Persia’s enemies. Can you say, “ancient equivalent of weapons of mass destruction”? Dastan has some doubts about the mission, but when given the order by the king, he cheerfully leads the successful assault against the city. Gyllenhaal-as-Dastan displays a Douglas Fairbanks-ish physicality, leaping and swinging from horse to rooftop and back again--although while Fairbanks visibly did all his own stunts back in the 20s, one can’t always tell, in “Prince,” where Gyllenhaal stops and the stunt man, or computer-generated-imagery, starts.

So “mission accomplished,” or so it seems. As Alamut’s princess-priestess, Tamina, played by Gemma Arterton, coolly informs her new captors, there are no weapons in Alamos--and there never were any. Arterton is British, too, and she plays the damsel-in-distress role with sass and spunk. But Tamina is never in too much distress, because Dastan and all the rest of the Persians are perfect gentlemen. Still, the Persians don’t immediately believe her denials of the weapons, and so they search the city and surrounding countryside. But, of course, they find none.

So here we see the politics-on-the-film’s-sleeve. Yup, the plotline rests heavily on parallelism to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Americans--oops, I mean, the Persians--invaded a country under false pretenses. Yet the Persians’ motives were good. In fact, they were duped by one of their own, the #2 man in the kingdom. That’s the king’s brother, Nizam, played by Ben Kingsley, who has been the bad guy along, manipulating the evidence to provoke the Persian attack. Gee, the #2 person in the government, and he’s the bad guy--who could that be a stand-in for?

Moreover, Nizam has a secret motive for provoking the invasion, because buried underneath the city of Alamut is a great natural resource, the “sands of time.” Whoever controls these sands has the power to turn back the clock--a powerful tool. The magic sands were always a part of the videogame, but in the context of the movie, the sands can be seen as a metaphor for oil, the buried treasure that inspires the invasion-plot.

OK, so there you are: The makers of “Prince” can brag to their colleagues that they made a Dick Cheney-bashing film, in which the evil Cheney is shown as manipulative, even murderous, all in pursuit of his wicked plan to grab Middle Eastern oil. That’s a pretty heavy message, even if it is shrouded in layers of allegory and special effects.

But “Prince” was released by Disney, so the film not only has to end happily, but everyone must be reconciled. So Tamina falls in love with Dastan, and the Persians and Alamutians seem destined to live together, happily, ever after.

Politics aside, is “Prince” a good movie? Not really. It works better as a better videogame. To get the kids into theaters these days, you need first-rate special effects. And yet the greatest special effect is the ability to let the audience decide the action--and only games can do that. Cheney-haters, to be sure, might enjoy the film, but there aren’t enough of them to fill seats outside of Berkeley and Cambridge.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the founder/editor of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.

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