Hollywood and the Slideshow of Western Imagination

Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies

Interventions Vol. 12(2) 239-250 2010


Western images of Islam and Muslims have been frozen in history and are recycled with mundane regularity. These ‘freeze frames’ emerged at the beginning of Islam and have, over centuries, acquired certain key elements and descriptors. Association of Islam with promiscuity and licentiousness was common during eight and tenth centuries. The Crusades added war-like violence to the picture, and embedded Islam within the concept of evil. Two further elements, barbarism and despotism, were supplied by the humanist movement of the fourteenth century and the Enlightenment. We explore how Hollywood used the historic authority of the freeze frames to establish a convention for representing Islam and Muslims during its formative years in such iconic films as Fatima’s Dance (1907), The Sheikh (1921) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The convention was expanded and developed further in blockbusters like Dream Wife (1953) and El Cid (1961). It is now so well established as short hand descriptors of Islam and Muslims that one only has to locate a film in a Muslim city, like Bagdad, Cairo, Algiers or Casablanca, for all the elements of the freeze frames to come into play. The movies had made freeze frames an integral part of western popular imagination and consciousness.

Key words: Orientalism, Hollywood, Muslim Representation, Islam, Western Imagination


In 1978 Edward Said’s Orientalism invited us to consider how the Orient and specifically the Middle East was framed in the western imagination (Said 1978). He pointed to a way of looking at the Orient that formed an overt and latent continuity of imagery within western cultural products. In Britain, the publication of the Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All in 1997 centred the debate on Islamophobia, the historic legacy of an ‘irrational hatred’ by which Islam and Muslims were framed in cultural, political and social discourses (Runnymede 1997). Again, the report argued for a continuity of imagery and ideas. Today, the Middle East, Muslims and Islam are central to the political questions of our time, questions framed by terrorism, the global war on terror, the military and humanitarian debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing disaster of Israel/Palestine. The debates and dilemmas of today are inextricably linked to the continuities established by the Orientalist/Islamophobia discourse.

Contemporary debates, far from being driven by analysis of today’s realities, are read through, analysed and interpreted against a stock of ideas and imagery of remarkable consistency. We are confronted by a series of freeze frames, a disjointed slideshow of images in sepia tones or the stark crispness of black and white. The freeze frames and the ideas they codify continue to contain and circumscribe how Muslims and Islam are spoken about and spoken for and thus impede and obstruct Muslim engagement with the issues of our times. Muslim efforts to describe themselves and find resolution for their problems continue to be disassociated from the mainstream. In many ways the consequence of the freeze frames is to emphasise and at times empower, or at least invest with presumptive authority, the most traditionalist and conservative tendencies in Muslim discourse. The reality of the shifting debates within Muslim communities is treated as tangential to situational and self-interested western concerns.

The process of freeze framing operates on a number of levels to construct a set of disjointed contexts in which Muslims and Islam become known quantities, familiar sets of ideas and images. The freeze frames are historical and geographical; they demonstrate a continuity of cultural, literary and artistic conventions that are now cinematic and televisual commonplaces. In the dominant culture where the cinematic and televisual are the predominant modes of communication the freeze frames shape not only genres of popular entertainment but also journalistic conventions of description and inquiry and these in turn structure political debate that speaks in the language of the general public to that public through the news media. We have a continuous feedback loop of terms of reference, mutual assumptions and shared understandings rooted in the continuity of images and ideas, which is of course one definition of a culture.

In introducing the theory of freeze frames we focus on three points: first, the centrality of Hollywood as the principal agency for the continuity of imagery; second, the nature of the continuity which is characterised by disjunctions, or jump cuts, which maintain a lack of coherence in the representations of Muslims and Islam; and third, the incoherence of the western imagination which is read as the characteristic reality of the object represented, Muslims and Islam. Hence the cumulative effect of the freeze frames is to contain and circumscribe the possibility of Muslims becoming full partners in contemporary debate about their own future. We use the terminology of cinematic convention as more than a descriptive device. We see it as an analogy that projects a theory of the western imagination and its discourse on Muslims.

Original Frames

Visions of the future are recognised, in essence, because they are manufactured by recycling the past. (Sardar and Cubitt 2002). Freeze frames shape both the present of the West and influence its future because they provide western culture with its bearings, locate where it has come from and where it is going. In an ever changing world, they serve as reference points, guidebooks, easy ready reckonings of people and places beyond the immediate environment. To understand the complexity of the contemporary world, western culture effortlessly turns to the slideshow of familiar freeze frames, the stock images invested with authority by history.

The freeze frames begin from first contact. The first report of the new religion of Islam to circulate in Europe was written by John of Damascus (c. 676- 749 or 754) regarded as the last of the Church Fathers by the Roman Catholic Church. Born in Damascus, then the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate, he was the son of a court official. His writing on Islam appears in his major work, variously translated as the Fountain of Knowledge or the Source of Wisdom, which became a standard text on orthodox Christian faith for both the western and eastern branches of the Church. One section of the book, ‘Concerning Heresy’, lists 100 known heresies to which it adds a 101st : Islam.  It is clear the author had access to reliable information about Islam which he treats in negative vein as a Christological heresy[1]. From the outset Islam is seen through the prism of Christianity and its concepts rather than as a distinct conceptual worldview. John of Damascus associates Islam as a precursor of the Anti-Christ, in keeping with contemporary concern for the end of times. He writes that Muhammad, happening upon Old and New Testaments and in conversation with the monk Arian, author of various Christian heresies also included in his list, set up a heresy of his own writing his own book which he claims descended from heaven. In this book, says John of Damascus, are some things worthy of laughter. But the book also contains a licence for promiscuity and licentiousness, to legitimise the habits of its founder Muhammad, and leads to idolatrous practises. This then defines the boundaries of the frame which was frozen at the Council of Nicea (787), a seminal moment in the theological and institutional formation of Christian religion. At this Council the writings of John of Damascus were vindicated as a canon of orthodox faith. The view of Islam he presented thus entered the lists of authority.

The process of colouring the frame began at the 732 Battle of Tours, near Poitiers, where the Muslim forces were routed with great slaughter. The victory was to become crucial to Europe’s sense of history and identity. The Song of Roland, written circa 1100, retells the later battle of Roncesvalles (778) as a song of deeds, a chanson de geste (Daniel 1984). The hero Roland and his companions Oliver and Turpin are Paladins, nobles in service of Charlemagne, they became the model for all the chivalric knights who were to dominate medieval European popular literature. They sacrifice themselves nobly for the cause and Roland, with his last breathe, summons Charlemagne to revenge their death. Meanwhile the heroes are carried off to heaven by angels. Interestingly, as a work of fiction the Song of Roland tells Europe that Charlemagne reconquered Spain, not the last time historical fact would be reversed by artistic licence. Indeed, by the 14th century Charlemagne was being credited with having liberated the Holy Land as well. But the imaginary significance of the Song of Roland is its representation of Muslims. Like all the epics that come after this, chanson draws on the themes already common in scholarly opinion. The adversary is pagan, their leaders names all imply some connection with magic or the devil; their society is presented as the moral reverse or inversion of Christian society, especially in their dedication to carnal pleasures. And the heroic deeds of the Paladins ‘confers an apocalyptic character’ to the conflict: ‘We are in the sphere foreshadowing the final battle between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness’ (Cardini 1999: 81). [2]The freeze frame is thus black and white, depicting an on-going, eternal struggle between the light of Europe and the Darkness of Islam.

The Song of Roland was written as the conflict with Muslims was entering a new phase, one we identify as the Crusades. This new departure was legitimated by being located in history, a history which made antipathy to Muslims an original ingredient of European consciousness. The Crusades were not a singular event, they are best understood as a concept integral to the entire political, social, cultural, religious and intellectual formation of Europe. Begun as an export of warlike violence for the recovery of that which had once and therefore still legitimately belonged to Christendom, the Holy Land, it became a complex stance towards all non-Christian (pagan and infidel) people wherever they lived (Southern 1962). The first Crusade 1096-1102 recaptured Jerusalem and planted a European population in the Latin kingdom of Outremer which existed until the fall of Acre in 1291. The existence of the Latin Kingdom increased the interaction between Europe and Muslims and was accompanied by considerable transfer of knowledge from east to west. But this familiarity went hand in hand with propaganda which inscribed the difference between Muslims and Christians in the western imagination, a distinction which continued long after the campaigns in the Middle East had past into history. How Europeans thought about the crusade is reflected in the writing of various chroniclers such as Foucher de Chartres (d. 1127)[3] and Guibert of Nogent (1053-1124).  Guibert of Nogent, a French monk, author of Dei gesta per Francos encapsulated much of the popular and propagandist attitude when he declared, ‘it is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken.’ Also, it is in the crusade chronicle of the French cleric Foucher of Chartres that we find the first mention of Orient and Occident; as Cardini notes: ‘we happen upon an Orient that is highly prized; indeed, something to dream about and to love, as well as something to possess.’ (Cardini 1999: 77).

The next elements in the freeze frame emerge with the rise of the Ottoman empire, ‘the present terror of the world’, in the words of Francis Bacon. It created fear across Europe, best reflected in the line in Macchiavelli’s Mandragola: ‘Do you think the Turk will make it to Italy this year?’ But by this time Europe had acquired a new way of thinking about its adversary. The humanist movement, inspired by Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), the father of European humanism, was a reaction against Muslim learning. The Muslims had become synonymous with ‘philosophy’. The Humanists looked back to the purity of Latin Roman sources and then to the inheritance of ancient Greece, inspired by the documents flowing westward from the withering Byzantine Empire, besieged by the Ottoman advance. In studying the Greeks humanist scholars found the idea of the struggle between Europe and Asia, which so exercised their own time, prefigured in Herodotus and Aeschylus’ The Persians. Benedetto Accolti (1415-64), Chancellor of Florence, wrote a history of the First Crusade drawing parallels with Europe’s confrontation with the Ottoman Turks whom he accused of religious intolerance, idol worship and sin.[4] And in the classical sources the humanists found a new concept – barbarism – to embellish the medieval imagery of Muslims that they did so much to recycle. Thus was added to the freeze frame a new take on the old battle between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness: the battle between civilisation and barbarism. And humanism soon found ways to make this distinction global.

It is not the case that there was no change in the attitude and expression of Europe’s view of the Muslim World over the centuries. There were fluctuating relations, periods of intense interaction, exchange and even alliance. The problem is that the shifting pattern of relations never dislodged the stock of freeze frames of how Muslim society and Islam as religion were represented and discussed in European cultural products. As Columbus and Vasco da Gama led the way westward and eastward, expanding Europe’s engagement with the world, the Muslim threat to Europe remained. But by the end of the seventeenth century Europe was beginning to think very differently of itself in relation to the Muslim World. The explorative voyages, going where the ancients had never visited, encouraged Europeans to see themselves as moderns and gave birth to a sense of progress. As they investigated the knowledge of Muslim civilization which they found everywhere in the east alongside Hindu and Chinese civilizations, European men of letters came to the conclusion that these once great traditions were decayed, enveloped in superstition, wedded more to magic than science and unfit for the challenge of modernity and progress. As colonialism developed, and Europeans became rulers over more and more Muslim populations, it was the arrested development, the stasis of their traditionalism, their preservation of all they had ever been known to be, that came to dominate opinion and representation of the Muslim world.  The traces of this can still be seen in the work of Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesqueiu, for whom governance in the Muslim world was synonymous with tyranny.

Through each twist and turn of European ideas then, there emerged the tapestry of common conventions woven into new patterns as required. People frozen in tradition were fit subjects for freeze frames. Often episodic, often eclectic but with nothing wasted or thrown away entirely, it is this extensive body of ideas that echoes through the centuries of the modern era and is found alive and well today in the most popular genre of cultural communication: cinema and television.

The Slideshow

Cinematic representation works through shorthand, through evocative visual imagery that is a sophisticated coded language (Cubitt 2004). Movies have also developed distinctive narrative genres – the crime picture, the action adventure, the spy thriller, the western, the war story and the costume drama among others – as the back lot, the locations and familiar sets, on which specific stories are staged. Location, props, set dressing and costumes all work to inform the audience of the back-story, the context in which the film they are to view occurs. Stock characters and type casting inform the narrative and drive the plot: profiling, especially racial profiling, was a cultural and then cinematic convention long before it became a concern of social policy and security agencies. Cinema lives and works through its established conventions, only then can it parody, subvert, invert and manipulate them to achieve effect.

Hollywood has incorporated the historical freeze frames of Muslim representation right from its inception. It was codified by two of the seminal successes of the silent screen: The Sheikh (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, and The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which starred the original ‘King of Hollywood’, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. For the premiere of The Thief cinemas were refurbished in suitably exotic style. New York’s Liberty Theatre transformed itself ‘with drums, ululating vocal offerings, odoriferous incense, perfume from Bagdad, magic carpets and ushers in Arabian attire’ according to the New York Times (NYT, 19 March, 1924). The Stillman Theatre in Cleveland featured, according to Jack Shaheen,[5] ‘Oriental stuffs and rugs…a magic carpet …as well as a huge life-size mechanical elephant’ (Shaheen 2001). The ‘eastern promise’ established a design trend just as cinemas were being transformed into opulent gilded picture palaces that, in a sense, gave going to the cinema enduring cultural overtones of entering Aladdin’s Cave. Neither The Sheikh nor The Thief was without precursors. But their immense impact on the popular imagination, the fan base they created as well as their enduring place in cinema history ensured there would be innumerable sequels, such as Son of the Sheikh (1926) – Valentino’s last film – that in plot, location and cast of characters fixed the freeze frames.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924), directed by Raoul Walsh, was ‘the most expensive film ever made’ in its time. The film’s opening title sets the scene: ‘A street in Bagdad dream city of the ancient East.’ It is a Muslim city: mosque and imam both feature. Whereas Europe’s first reports of Islam presented it as a Christological heresy this Hollywood essay on the subject appears determined to reframe it in Christian terms: ‘Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King- Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three Worlds! The Koran’ reads the caption. Place is found for a Trinitarian allusion that has no place in Islam at all, but which echoes the garbled conception of Islam presented in the Song of Roland. Yet the most familiar formulation of words known to Muslims everywhere – Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful – is entirely displaced, so eclecticism rules. The film’s narrative concerns our scallywag hero (Fairbanks) and his efforts to achieve that uniquely American objective the pursuit of happiness[6], and thus win the hand of the princess. The set of tasks he must undertake involve him in magical adventures with flying carpets and winged horses. From the Book of Wonders to the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, this is exactly what the western imagination had been educated to expect in such locations.

The Sheikh (1921), the archetypal desert romance, occurs in the alternate location and set for framing Muslims: the desert wastes. But there is a clear connection between the desert and the sown, the city. The connection is the presence in both of the stock characters, the evil vizier and all his cohorts and their retinue of turbulent tribesmen, who are inescapable plot devices. The other cast members are the women, the scantily clad harem maidens or, as in this case, the white women forever imperilled by the rapacious carnal desires of the inhabitants of the desert and the sown. In his role as Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan, Rudolph Valentino asserts: ‘When an Arab sees a woman he wants he takes her’. This line of dialogue was the tagline on the movie posters. The film begins in ‘a city of adventure’ – Biskah – vaguely located in Algeria. But the principal action takes place in the sheikh’s desert tent, an extremely opulent set, to which in the teeth of a sandstorm he kidnaps and where he woos the white heroine, Lady Diana. She gets herself into trouble through her fascination with the allure of this exotic, forbidden world. This idea is a neat allusion to all those classic reports of 19th century travellers, women included but especially Sir Richard Burton and Charles Doughty, venturing into the ‘closed’ Muslim world. To see for herself, Lady Diana steals the costume of a dancing girl and in this disguise sneaks into Biskah’s casino which ‘is closed to all except Arabs’. The film has already presented ‘an ancient custom’: ‘a marriage market where wives are bought by wealthy men.’ In the casino ‘Brides are won on the turn of the wheel.’ So the promiscuous indulgence in carnal pleasure establishes the problem of women – the submissive plaything – as central to the western conception of the Muslim world.

Like any good white woman, Lady Diana, resists the passionate attentions of even Valentino and attempts suicide rather than submit. The brooding Sheikh Ahmed keeps her captive, until reproached by a visitor, his French friend, Dr Raoul, whom we are told is also a novelist, the perfect embodiment of the Orientalist. Lady Diana is to be returned to family and home. But there is no Orient without the villainous sheikh and his tribesmen. Enter Sheikh Omair [sic] and his ‘barbarous’ bandits who steal Lady Diana. In this crisis, Ahmed comes to her rescue and in fighting off Omair is shot. Now the plot confronts the crucial question: how will we achieve the obligatory Hollywood happy ending – can all that ‘catnip for women’ be allowed to go to waste? – within the conventions of cinema and society? The Sheikh is probably the most famous example of Hollywood squaring this intractable circle. Miscegenation was anathema, especially to American society, it was a principle upheld by Hollywood from D.W Griffith’s benchmark film Birth of a Nation (1915) through all the Production Codes that came to govern Hollywood. So, as they tend the wounded hero, Dr Raoul reveals to Lady Diana Ahmed’s true identity. He is Viscount Caryll, Earl of Glencaryll, orphaned and raised in the desert by a friendly sheikh, educated in Paris before returning to the desert to succeed his foster father. All barriers removed, Lady Diana, in concert with the audience, can swoon legitimately. Incidentally, the theme of concealed identity and the rescue of a captive white woman had already appeared in the 1917 film Aladdin from Broadway, in which a New York millionaire posing as an Arab beggar rescues a harem maiden who turns out to be an English woman: total eclecticism may rule but the freeze frames remain static.

But the basic elements of the Freeze frames were in place even earlier. The studios of Thomas Eddison in West Orange, New Jersey, produced in 1897, and again in 1907, films entitled Fatima’s Dance, in which a diaphanously clad Arabian maiden gyrated alluringly. So risqué were the films that both survive in two versions, the censored and uncensored. Eddison committed to film a trope already popular in carnivals and vaudeville where belly dancers were commonly known as ‘Belle Fatima’ or ‘Little Egypt’.  The films also invoked the original trope of representing Muslims as people authorised by their religion to indulge in licentiousness and carnal pleasures.

The exotic, opulent, ancient cities of the east were codified in the setting for the Tales of Thousand and One Nights (a film of that name appeared first in 1922, and again in 1945, 59 and 68).  Arabian Nights served as the compendium for the most commonplace freeze frames of western imagining about the Muslim World and it was as such that it was enthusiastically embraced by Hollywood. The stories of Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba and their derivatives, such as The Thief of Bagdad, were the Book of Wonders of the century of film. Locations, sets, props and stock characters gave cinematic projection to the age old associations of the mysterious and exotic, the magical and demonic, the carnal and the cruel, the mendacious and treacherous. And best of all this setting was conceptually, visually even metaphysically timeless and changeless. In film it inscribed a world that was stalled in tradition, a world that was forever pre-modern, a world wrapped in the superstitious and irredeemably Other. This was an Orient that could be dreamed, visited and possessed as past, present or future and yet would always be the same. In movies these locations and sets have played host to just about everyone including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck’s entire family, Popeye, Mr Magoo, Bugs Bunny as well as the Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The engaging lead characters such as Ali Baba, Aladdin and Sinbad provide familiar plot narratives in which they have to contend with the essential stock characters who define this world: evil viziers, villainous caliphs and sheikhs – the despots who rule this world – as well as, of course, harem maidens. It is these essential characters that encode the signs and symbols of the eclectic spirals of continuity that relate and refer to the history of the western imagination.

Most of the main characters of Arabian Nights have made it to Hollywood. Aladdin first appeared on screens in 1907, Ali Baba in 1918 and along with Sinbad they have returned in virtually every decade of the 20th century culminating with Disney’s much complained of animation feature of 1992. Disney’s cartoon opens with a song:

Oh I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear, If they don’t like your face, It’s barbaric, but hey, its home.

The ditty caused considerable offence, which, the following year, prompted Disney to edit two lines. They excised the reference to cutting off ears, but retained the climax: ‘It’s barbaric, but hey, its home.’ The choice is only to be expected since, as we have seen, the conceptual marker barbaric is central to the entire modern framing of the Muslim World. And anyway, the edit cost the picture nothing in terms of import since an early scene has a market trader poised, scimitar at the ready, to cut off the hand of Princess Jasmine for stealing an apple to give to a starving child[7].

Thus, throughout Hollywood history, locations and sets inscribe the landscape in which derivative narratives with standard plots occur. The markers of the Muslim World are its timelessness and barbarism. Consider how the trailer for the 1949 film Bagdad, starring Maureen O’Hara establishes the location and characters of this coming attraction: Bagdad, is the ‘ageless city of intrigue and treachery’. Maureen O’Hara is Princess Marjan:

‘a woman of a hundred moods, tempting and beguiling, charming and desirable, imperious and vengeful pitting her beauty and courage against the desert’s savage warriors. What is your pleasure? Dancing girls, perhaps, or desert raiders? It’s all yours, all the fighting fury, all the glamour you ever thrilled to!  BAGDAD.’ (quoted in Shaheen 2001: 84).

Thus the location itself becomes a stock character, established in cinema literacy, which explains the presence of a stock cast of human characters: the villains and the maidens.

The harem is another essential set from Fatima’s Dance (1907) to the Elvis Presley vehicle Harum Scarum (1965) and beyond. But in Dream Wife (1953) its plot themes are given particularly telling and prescient treatment. Dream Wife is one in the succession of romantic comedies of gender manners starring the pairing of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. This one is set in a mythical Arabia, identified as Bakistan, where the US government, represented by Kerr, is seeking to negotiate an oil deal. Pointing to Bakistan and the US as located on opposite sides of a globe a state department official explains: ‘We have just one thing in common – oil.’ And the differences are inscribed in the characters of the modern American professional woman, Kerr, and the traditional Arab woman, who brings age old character notes into the present day in the person of Princess Tarji. Cary Grant is Kerr’s fiancé, but he fears she cares more about the oil deal than him. On a visit to Bakistan he is entertained by the obligatory dancing maiden while the ruler explains such women are brought up ‘to make men happy. Women as wives and mothers, as Allah intended them to be. They are not taxi-cab drivers and wrestlers.’  Grant is much taken by the thought of a woman ‘trained from the day she was born to be a dream wife.’ He proposes to Princess Tarji and her dowry of a goat herd and one camel is duly delivered to him in New York closely followed by the princess with her retinue of harem maidens and a bodyguard. Once married, we are told, Tarji will walk three paces behind her husband. This, Grant tells his friends, likens her to his dog, Brutus: when he walks the dog, Tarji follows, when the dog stops she stops. But meanwhile, in Bakistan, the ruler who considers America ‘foolish to allow women in government’ is being won over by Kerr. The oil deal is agreed. In the denouement Grant concludes the modern liberated woman is the right one for him while Kerr gets to instruct Tarji in modernity: she learns ‘a new word, freedom.’ Though whether Tarji entirely grasps the doctrine of the liberation of women is moot since she delivers her lesson in its Hollywood variant as ‘Woman not have to obey man she not love.’  Even so, we are presented with a fair approximation of the political agenda and concerns of the noughties –secure the oil, instruct in the arts of freedom and liberate the women – inscribed in a romantic comedy made half a century earlier.

A succession of films use the names of cities – Bagdad, Damascus, Cairo, Tangiers – as titles in their own right or part of the title to establish and identify their themes. The most famous in Hollywood’s lexicon of the city-as-establisher is one of the most enduring films of all time, Casablanca (1942). The film’s tagline tells us Casablanca is ‘Mysterious City of Sin and Intrigue.’ The story has nothing to do with Casablanca at all nor does it have any specifically native characters being entirely concerned with the fate of Europe and the West in its confrontation with the Nazis. The film is shot almost entirely on interior sets. There are just three exteriors using stock footage, emphasising the traditional souk and casbah, to reinforce the evocative associations of the named city. Only one featured character is content and anxious to remain in Casablanca: Ferrari, played by Sidney Greenstreet, owner of the Blue Parrot club who has always wanted to buy Rick’s much more salubrious and desirable night club. Appropriately enough Greenstreet specialised in molles, the effeminate and corrupt nefarious character. What we see of the Blue Parrot, dirty, fly blown and frequented by Arabs emphasises the undertones Greenstreet brings to his character. Before and after Casablanca many films use the establisher of Muslim cities as the backdrop for spy stories: Tangiers (1946) where the opponents are Nazis or Tangiers Incident (1953) where the opponents are Russians. In such films the city is neither incidental nor mere exotic location. The city is a marker of lurking danger to the West, the festering sink, in which threats are expected to be found because they are places where intrigue flourishes.

Casablanca is the quintessential story of the crisis of western civilsation and the eventual triumph of liberty, freedom and justice in the face of the onslaught of barbarism. The desert provided Hollywood with another establishing location for retelling this basic story. The US Cavalry of the westerns is replaced by the equally romanticised French Foreign Legion. In place of Fort Apache enter Fort Zinderneuf, the lone and beleaguered outpost of a fragile and imperilled civilization that must fight for its very existence against an implacable barbaric enemy: the basic scenario in the various film versions of Beau Geste (1926, 1931, 1939, and so on). In these films it is the function of the enemy to be slaughtered profusely in numbers uncounted; the inevitable, appropriate punishment for opposing the march of western civilization. Some 23 legionnaire features were made in the 1920’s and 30s, culminating with the 1939 version of Beau Geste. Its star was Gary Cooper, an iconic hero of the western genre. The film was an immediate box office hit and has become an enduring cinema classic. It was one of four movie greats of that year chosen in 1990 for commemoration on US postage stamps.

The freeze frames also explain why Hollywood had little need to develop screenplays of the Crusades, the direct confrontation of the West with the Muslim World. Indeed, the Crusades have had comparatively few cinematic outings after their first appearance in 1908 and 1911. The Hollywood pioneer Cecil B de Mille made two crusades epics, The Crusaders (1935) and King Richard and the Crusaders (1954). The second of these is an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman. It arrives on screen significantly garbled: literary licence married to historic inaccuracy and the internalised sensitivities of the Production Code. But most of all the narrative is presented within the conventions of the freeze frames and the loaded cinematic literacy they convey. The Holy Land becomes a place of desert wastes and golden sand dunes. Dissension among the Crusaders leads to an attempt on Richard’s life. Instead of fever he must be cured after being shot by an arrow that just nicked his heart. Enter Saladin, unbeknownst to the entire company, passing for a doctor. His cure of Richard is effected by the ‘magic’ of the talisman rather than the Muslim speciality science of medicine. While in the Crusader camp, Saladin becomes enamoured of a Christian maiden he is anxious to add to his harem. In the earlier movie Saladin sets his sights on Richard’s Queen, Berengaria, in the later Richard’s cousin, Lady Edith. However sympathetic a pose Saladin may strike he is still marked by the essential traits of his origin. In the closing scene of King Richard and the Crusaders, after helping his adversaries overcome the Castillaines, Saladin announces ‘A Muslim I remain’ and rides off. By setting its story in the midst of intra European dissension and in the world of chivalry both Crusader epics manage to have their cake and eat it thanks to referencing the conventions of the freeze frames.

King Richard and the Crusaders is a deeply flawed film. But the same cannot be said of the other big screen epic to focus on a crusade theme, the Oscar winning El Cid (1961), which has achieved the status of a movie classic. El Cid is a retelling of the original chanson of Spanish literature, a saga of the Reconquista whose hero, Roderigo Diaz de Viver became immortalised as the quintessential hero. A hero needs the landscape of great events but most of all a hero needs an adversary. To be an epic the adversary must match in scope of evil, villainy and menace the nobility, virtue and inherent goodness ascribed to the hero. As a movie El Cid struggles to accommodate the complexities of the cross cutting relationships and alliances between Christians, Muslims and Jews that characterised medieval Spain. But in constructing its villain it had no such problems. This big screen version is faithful to the cultural predicates of its medieval forerunners in constructing the arch enemy, the Moorish leader Ben Yusef, played with consummate malice by Herbert Lom. Always swathed in black robes, Ben Yusef is more than mere product of convention for he anticipates future villains in being the essential religious fanatic, both intriguing and craven, while exhorting his followers to fulfil his dreams of domination:

The Prophet has commanded us to rule the world…Let your doctors invent new poisons for arrows. Let your scientists invent new war machines and then, kill, burn…I will sweep up from Africa and let the empire of the one God, the true God , Allah, first spread across Spain, then across Europe, then the whole world.

After Ben Yusef, the Muslim terrorist marches onto the screen as a logical consequence of history. And as such becomes a necessary construct to fuel the narratives and drive the plots of movies set in contemporary times.

The terrorist genre, represented by such modern films as True Lies and Executive Decision, works by gathering into itself, referring to and feeding off all the conventions and association of ideas that have gone before[8]. The impersonal generic turbulent warriors led by their fanatic, cruel and despotic leaders who stocked movies of the quest for empire and conquest become the massed ranks of a new/old metaphysical enemy of first resort. From the 1960s onwards a new minted genre of action movies becomes what Eric Lichtenfeld has called a ‘celebration of empire and conquest.’ In cinematic terms the stock Muslim/Arab terrorist who provides the foil in so many of these action movies emerges less from the world of political reality than from the freeze frames of the western imagination. Movies have invested terrorists with a capacity ‘to use force and violence to coerce and intimidate’ on a scale and with a regularity that far exceeds anything known in the real world. The movies summoned this enemy to answer a problematic of the western zeitgeist long before international terror by non state groups prompted a ‘global war on terror.’ The movies were conditioning the expectations of cinema audiences, defining cultural literacy on the issue of terrorism, for four decades before the moment the issue became the context of real events and political rhetoric.


Cinema is more than just entertainment. Cultural products, whether popular or high art, are not incidental to how society forms its tastes, impressions, understanding and reaction to the world, indeed, how it conceives of its very self. Cinema literacy has become a dominant force in cultural literacy over the course of the 20th century. How films and television manipulate the eclectic spirals of the western imagination has come to be a prime agent in informing and shaping the preconceptions of the mass audience about the world around them. The threads of plot and narrative woven around the Muslim World, as this review of old films argues, derive from earlier literary tropes. Much more importantly the coherent signs and symbols of the freeze frames form a latent set of ideas waiting in the popular mind to create a pernicious context for understanding contemporary events and thus shape political debate. What Hollywood has been giving the cinema-going public is a parade of narratives whose concision in tight time slots relies on the emotive and evocative power of imagery and stereotypes to be effective. They have been constructed out of the cultural and social dynamics of history that has framed perceptions of Muslims and Islam in a series of freeze frames. The conventions conjure a world that is both timeless and yet wedded very specifically to ancient times and perspectives. Souks, ancient cityscapes of palaces and minarets laden with the scents of spices, dust and the decay of ages through which walk robed, tobed and jalabiahed men and veiled women mark a world that has never broken free of tradition and whose imminent contemporary threat comes from its desire to hold fast to its defining tradition; here Islam is a religion that condones violence.

The reality of Muslims and the Muslim World exists beyond the scope of the freeze frames. But, given the potency and hold they have on popular attitudes, how is the wider picture to be made visible and audible? The coded conventions of cinema and the cultural attitudes they represent and shape are set against a global political problematique that today is broadcast as the dominant issue of our times. Yet questioning how representative are the representations through which we imagine, think and debate these issues is foreclosed by the longevity and incoherence of the freeze frames. As it has always done, the freeze frame constructs images of people who exist only as figments of western imagination.


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[1] Elsewhere we have called this process ‘constructed ignorance’ which is based on knowledge and information. See Sardar and Davies 1990.

[2] Cardini notes that throughout the genre of the epics the Muslim adversaries ‘are rarely depicted as mere human beings, but endowed with a ferocious, contorted kind of humanity: in general they are either superhuman, inhuman or anti-human. (Cardini 1999:79)

[3] Foucher accompanied and chronicled the First Crusade. Of the recapture of Jerusalem, he writes: ‘What happened there?  If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief.  So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.  Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies’.

[4] Two noted humanists were Tommaso Parentucelli (1397 – 1455) and Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), both ardent advocates of new crusades, which they saw as reviving the martial heritage of the Caesars. Both were elevated to the Papacy, Parentucelli became Nicholas V (1447-55) and Piccolomini, Pius II (1458-64). The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 was the moment of ‘Christian emergency’ which exercised the humanist Popes. Piccolomini wrote one of the most lurid accounts of the Turkish capture of the city: ‘virgins having been prostituted, boys made to submit as women, nuns raped, and all sorts of monks and women treated wickedly’.(Bisaha, 2004: 63) He also gave currency to the legend of Mehmed II raping a Byzantine princess on the high altar of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Bisaha suggests he saw in this legend a neat reprise of the rape of King Priam’s daughter at the sack of Troy. In a letter to his friend Piccolomini, Pope Nicholas V said of the fall of Constantinople ‘It is a second death to Homer and Plato.’ For a more historical account, see Malouf 1984.

[5] Shaheen’s book is an invaluable resource, its lists over 900 films as clear testimony to the insistence on consistent themes and devices in representation. However, it is partial in focus, Arabs only, and far more a product of the culture of complaint that has become the standard response by which Muslims circumscribe themselves within the freeze frames than a genuine analysis of film. His insistent concentration on instances of offence leads Shaheen to miss much of the conceptual import of how movies stereotype Muslims and Islam. But the detail Shaheen accumulates along the way is required reading.

[6] For a detailed analysis of how Hollywood shaped the American psyche and promoted the pursuit of happiness see Sardar and Davies 2004. For how films maintain American domination of the globe, and serves as the engine of empire, see Sardar and Davies 2002.

[7] For a detailed analysis of how Disney represents native Americans see Sardar, ‘Walt Disney and the Double Victimisation of Pocahontas’ in Inayatullah and Boxwell 2003: 127-156

[8] For an analysis of these more recent terrorist films, see Sardar 1999.