Sean Connery delivers one of his most charismatic performances in this rousing, historical adventure from the “Movie Brat who got away”, John Milius. In 1904, Morocco is the source of conflict between Imperial Germany, France and the British Empire. Although ostensibly ruled by the buffoonish Sultan Abdelaziz (Marc Zuber) and his uncle, the Pasha of Tangier (Vladek Sheybal, the evil chess genius in From Russia With Love (1963)), many see them as corrupt and beholden to the Europeans eager to increase their influence in the Middle East. Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli (Sean Connery), leader of a band of Berber insurrectionists, kidnaps American ex-pat Eden Perdicaris (Candice Bergen) and her children, William (Sam Harrison) and Jennifer (Polly Gottesman), and issues an outrageous ransom in a deliberate attempt to provoke an international incident, embarrass the Sultan and trigger civil war. Back in the USA, President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Keith) seizes upon the kidnapping as a political tool to aid his re-election (coining the phrase: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!”) and as a chance to show-off America’s military might as a new world power - despite protests from cautious Secretary of State, John Hay (legendary director John Huston, for whom Milius wrote The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)).
With American consul Samuel Gummere (Geoffrey Lewis) unable to negotiate a peaceful resolution, Roosevelt sends a battalion of gung-ho marines led by Captain Jerome (Steve Kanaly) to coerce the duplicitous Pasha to give in to Raisuli’s demands. While initially fearing for their lives, over several adventures Eden and her children grow to love Raisuli, while thousands of miles away Roosevelt also comes to respect and admire an honourable man. However, the Pasha enlists ambitious German commandant, Von Roerkel (Antoine Saint-John) to set a trap for Raisuli, which leaves Eden trying to persuade the marine’s to assist her kidnapper.
Historical fact mixes with Boys’ Own fiction here. In real life the kidnap victims were both male: Ion Perdicaris and his stepson Cromwell Varley. While Perdicaris and Raisuli really did grow to become friends during the incident and President Roosevelt did send in the marines who held the Pasha under house arrest, no shots were fired and the rescue mission is wholly fictional. It is also worth noting that the real Samuel Gummere strongly advocated military action against Raisuli, while Roosevelt (not the galumphing cowboy he’s commonly thought of. He won a Nobel Prize for negotiating a peaceful end to two wars) favoured a more measured response.
John Milius openly admits his film is more indebted to adventure stories, and cites the aforementioned periodical Boy’s Own and Rudyard Kipling as inspiration, alongside classics like Gunga Din, The Four Feathers and naturally, Lawrence of Arabia many of whose sets are re-used in the battle scenes. In only his second movie, Milius was still finding his feet as a director, resulting in handfuls of fumbled scenes cluttering an otherwise sweeping romance. His storytelling craft and flair for poetic dialogue are very much in evidence, as he draws upon several real quotes and incidents (John Hay’s “likey forkey?” encounter with the Japanese ambassador; Roosevelt’s line: “Why spoil the beauty of the thing with legality?”) to create a tongue-in-cheek look at American foreign policy, but also a sympathetic portrait of Berber culture which met with some acclaim in the Islamic world.
As much a cinephile as his Movie Brat contemporaries, Milius speckles the narrative with nods to his favourite movies: Raisuli’s rescue of the Perdicarises on the beach evokes a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Jennifer Perdicaris being cornered and kidnapped riffs on The Searchers (a common touchstone for all the Movie Brats), the children’s growing fascination with their bandit captors is taken from A High Wind in Jamaica, and the almost-romantic relationship between Eden and Raisuli draws upon the silent era classic The Sheik.
Connery finds an wonderful sparring partner in the lovely Candice Bergen, while there are splendid turns from John Huston, Geoffrey Lewis and Nadim Sawalha. The standout has to be Brian Keith, who delivers what is widely considered one of the finest portrayals of President Roosevelt. Larger than life, but with poignant touches especially in his relationship with daughter Alice Roosevelt (Deborah Baxter), who discovers he is going blind in one eye. Twenty-two years later, Milius gave Keith his final role as President William McKinley, opposite Tom Berenger as Roosevelt in The Rough Riders (1997).
While the portrait of America’s foreign policy is loose and humorous - and certainly resonates in our times - it isn’t quite satire. Given Milius’ own gung-ho stance, it’s easy to see he admires Roosevelt’s audacity and the reckless heroism of the marines (whose climactic charge alongside Eden includes a nod to The Wild Bunch), as much as he idealizes a “noble savage” like Raisuli. The film is foremost a romance, with the mood enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score and the handsome cinematography of Billy Williams - who cameos as the sharp-shooting Sir Joseph in the opening scene. Lookout for Milius himself as the one-armed German officer who gives Sultan Abdelaziz his machinegun.