Two Arabian Knights (1927, Lewis Milestone)

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This, the first and only winner of the special “comedy” Best Director Oscar, was the first of most likely many films required by this blog’s various list and awards projects that proved nearly impossible to track down. In the end I paid ten bucks for a sketchy DVD rip of the film copied from TCM. The film was actually enjoyable enough to justify jumping through such hoops; I wish I could think I’d continue to be so lucky! It’s reputed to be a direct imitation of What Price Glory?, another World War I buddy movie, but having not yet seen that I was able to be blissfully unaware and stay gratefully engaged with the goofy but low-key comedy of war and camaraderie here.

The “Knights” of the title aren’t; they’re a couple of American soldiers, Phelps and his superior O’Gaffney (William Boyd and Louis Wolheim respectively, both solid), who get taken prisoner by Germans and then Turks while trying to escape from behind enemy lines — one of many silly complications in amidst all this is their being mistaken for Arabs after they don some robes to try and blend in. Initially bickering rivals, they become devoted friends who look out for one another and their constant Last Crusade-like stunted heroics and lady-watching (the love interest is a very white “Arab” woman named Mirza, gamely but ludicrously delivered by the great Mary Astor, who’s about as much an Arab princess as Shirley MacLaine in Around the World in Eighty Days). They eventually escape on a cruise ship and run into less immediate dangers involving eunuchs and the inability to pay their fare, and it all turns out all right with a ride off into the sunset and everything. The absurdity of the situtaions is entertaining enough, but it’s the winning and vivid personalities of the two leads, both fabulously understated, that make the film so fun and memorable, even if it doesn’t betray as much of an artistic voice as Lewis Milestone would in other projects soon enough.

Milestone nevertheless is an outstanding technician at the height of his powers and captures night skies, deep water and heated turmoil with appropriate zest and exotica; the picture looks as far-flung as it pretends to be despite being shot on studio backlots, and already Milestone is showing the uncompromising grittiness and scrappy ingenuity that would light up the very different Great War masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front a few years later. It’s even possible to spot the presence of William Cameron Menzies’ tremendously inventive eye in several visually striking sequences. It says a lot that this relatively obscure — despite its Oscar win — but enormously accomplished film refutes every assumption about Hollywood silent cinema made by The Artist but I digress.

This is really a shot of Hollywood at its warmest and most direct, but also clearly adult-targeted. My immediate rapport with its situations and characters, dated as they might be at times, makes a depressing point about how movie comedy has changed since the days of the studio system. That’s not just in terms of classiness; there’s plenty of ribald and sexual humor here, though significantly fewer lazy jokes about bodily functions than in the average trailer today, but more interesting to me is how much more believable the central motif of male friendship here is than in any modern picture. Phelps and O’Gaffney’s simple, easy but hard-won respect for one another has no creepy-crawly element of seclusion from adult life — an uncomfortably unspoken bond this isn’t, for the two are aware of how important they are to one another’s survival, and their mutual comfort is palpable whether you look at them as simple actors playing out personas or as characters. They’re excitable and vaguely heroic men, not boys.

But most significantly, the movie’s just really funny, its low-key humor and subtle comic situations charming even when they fall back on title cards. You could still argue that this all amounts somehow to wish-fulfillment, that Our Boys abroad could win the war and outsmart the leagues of baddies chasing after them from all directions and still take home a gorgeous lady (to share?). Even on that basis, Two Arabian Knights is in many ways a delightful film because it cops to its own skeletal recognition of the audience and provides an unpretentious good time without condescension — it seems to be laughing with us.

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