I was seven years old and living in Boston with my mother ... occasionally my aunt Carolyn would take me out to give my Mom a break for a few hours. She had taken me to events such as the Ice Capades at the Boston Garden and other kid-friendly events, and thought I would enjoy going to the movies - she had NO idea what she was about to unleash. If I had to guess, in retrospect I think her reasoning was more that SHE wanted to see the film with "dreamboat" Tab Hunter and thought that taking her nephew along would be a perfect excuse to go see it. Both of us left the theatre surprised - her because she was probably expecting something along the lines of the Steve Reeves 'sword and sandal' films which were popular at the time, and me ... because I had never seen ANYTHING like that!
Before you ask, yes, I HAD seen shows (and possibly movies) on our old black-and-white television set, but that was small and in the living room ... and safe (i.e., something familiar and just the right size). THIS was a WHOLE Different Animal: in TECHNICOLOR, in STEREOPHONIC SOUND and on a GIGANTIC SCREEN ... I was almost catatonic by the sensory overload of it all. By the time the film ended, Carolyn asked me if I had liked it and I just numbly nodded yes. When we got home, my mother asked my aunt if I had enjoyed the movie, and she answered (rather dubiously), "I ... think so ..."
I soon became a film junkie, even at that young age, watching any and all movies I could see, of all kinds. I would pore through the weekly TV Guide to see what was on in the upcoming week, circling anything that sounded good, especially fantasy or science fiction or horror. It helped ENORMOUSLY that this was the early 1960s and I was one of the original 'latchkey' kids, living in an apartment complex in Boston with a Mom who was a nurse who usually worked a 3:30 - midnight shift. I knew everyone in the building and was the only kid there, so everyone watched out for me and I knew whose doorbell to ring if I ran into trouble. My Mom would call me at 9PM to make sure everything was all right and tell me to go to bed. I would let her know the status of things, say goodnight and head right to the living room to watch movies, half the time passing out in front of the TV, where she would find me in a completely dark apartment, wrapped in a blanket in front of a snowy screen (this was before the all-night programming, so most TV stations went off the air around midnight. Mom would get home around 1AM to this scenario, night after night).
Imagine my surprise a couple of years later to see the listing in the TV Guide for THE GOLDEN ARROW! For some reason, I thought at the time that there were TWO types of film: those they showed on television and the "special" films you went to the movie theatres to see! Once I understood the idea of selling movies to TV after their theatrical release, I shifted into high gear: like a number of other "Monster Kids" of the time, I had expanded my repertoire of film knowledge through the (forbidden in my house) WONDERFUL magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, published by James Warren and edited by Forrest J Ackerman. Warren also published the seminal horror comics of the '60s, CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA, but that's an entry for another time. Thanks to my beloved Grandma Ruby, who would buy the issues of FM at the corner drugstore for me, I would stare slack-jawed at the pictures of films I HAD to see! All the Universal Monsters, the films from other countries and the sword and sandal/beefcake films with their monsters, dragons, cyclops, etc. were calling my name. I started making lists and comparing them to the TV Guide, checking them off when I would see one, getting the next issue of FM and adding to my 'must-see' list, hiding the issues, having my mother FIND the issues where I'd hidden them and throw out "that trash", while telling Ruby not to buy me anymore of them ... and Ruby and I starting the whole cycle up again the following month. My Mom finally gave up and grudgingly relented, knowing on some level that it was a losing battle (especially with an enabling grandmother) and let it slide.
His co-star was the GORGEOUS Rossana Podesta, a stunning redhead with a string of admirers all her own. The studio thought (rightly, as it turned out) that Dad would take the kids along so he could ogle Rossana for an hour-and-a-half while this kiddie flick played out. While my word may be a bit biased on her beauty, no less a director than Robert Wise chose her from a worldwide beauty contest when he made his 1956 movie and cast her in the title role (dying her hair blonde) of HELEN OF TROY. She worked in film for four decades, finally retiring in the early '80s, with one of her last roles as Hera in the Lou Ferrigno version of HERCULES.
But what about the film itself, you ask? Happy to oblige! Damascus,in the time of the Arabian Nights. A contest has been announced to suitors far and wide to see who is worthy of wedding the beautiful Jamila (Rossana Podesta) and becoming the next Sultan. This contest takes place before the entire assembled populace of the city and consists of proving one's worth by mastering Allah's gift to the Sultan: an ebony bow and a magical golden arrow, which when shot, always returns to its master. Only one who is chosen by Allah himself as the rightful heir may pull back the bow and shoot the arrow. Three Princes arrive to partake in the contest, and all three fail. Just as well, as Jamila has no interest in any of the three.
Disguised in the crowd is the bandit leader Hassan (Tab Hunter ... I TOLD you this was a fantasy film!) - he and his crew have arranged themselves among the crowd for some quick thievery, but not before he plays out his most daring scheme. Doffing their nondescript robes, they follow Hassan as he presents himself to the Sultan, begging forgiveness for his late arrival and calling himself the Prince of the Island of Fire. Jamila is instantly smitten with him, and the Sultan graciously allows him to compete. Of course, the first three Princes have no luck even bending the bow: when Hassan steps up, the bow bends (to his astonishment) and the arrow flies true to the target. As the crowd watches in awe, the arrow disappears from the target and flies back to Hassan's outstretched hand!
His bandits see this as a sign to attack and begin an all-out rout of the Princes and the populace, stealing everything not nailed down ... including the Princess. During this time, the Golden Arrow (with a mind of it's own) shoots out of the bow and flies off into the distance, refusing to return. Off the bandits ride to their oasis to discuss if the Princess is pretty and how much ransom she will be worth. Hassan replies that looks do not matter - the Sultan will pay any cost to have her back, just for her title alone. He goes into her tent and confronts the furious Princess, who has slapped a thief who has taken her veil. All thoughts of ransom go out the tent flap as he is awed by her beauty. He forbids any more talk of ransom from his confused men, and in the cover of night, sneaks away with Jamila by horseback to take her back to the city.
Allah responds by sending her three genies - they go to the dungeon and save Hassan from his demise (a watery pit that fills to the floor level where he is chained, bringing up with the water hungry crocodiles). They also inform him that he is the TRUE Prince of Damascus, which is why Allah alowed him to pull the bow and release the arrow. We find out that Hassan's father, the earlier Sultan, had been murdered and the infant Hassan placed with the bandits to hide him and save his life. The genies agree to help Hassan regain his throne, but he MUST forego all his previous thieving ways and lead a good life to get their assistance. They also explain that when Hassan tried to rob the people at the beginning of the film, the Golden Arrow rebelled at this base act and fled "to the top of the mountain where the Sun is born". So on top of all his other trials and tribulations, he must now retrieve the Arrow, as well.
He readily agrees, then instantly scampers up the balcony to find Jamila and pick up the kissing that he left off of at the gate. The genies are having none of that foolishness and tell him to get his rear in gear or his trials will be harsh. Sending them away, he keeps making time with Jamila when the head genie, now totally cheesed off, tells him his first trial will be that of disobedience. With that, they disappear, leaving him to outwit and escape the castle guards and the city by himself.
Jamila, showing a LOT more sense than Hassan throughout the film, delays her arranged marriage by assembling the three Princes and announcing that since they all failed the Golden Arrow test, she was going to give them a second challenge ... each of them would have one month to bring back the most beautiful gift in the world as a wedding gift. The one who has the best gift is the one she will wed. We all know better, though, and it gives Hassan one month to finish his quest.
The genies lead him out of the caves through a different exit, where Hassan discovers his horse and three donkeys (the genie's mode of transport). They head to the resting place of the Golden Arrow ... and the site of his next trial. The next set of ruins they come upon are strangely quiet and the lead genie thinks Hassan has something to do with it, which he denies. They are set upon by a magician who turns one of the genies to stone (see below) and demands that they move an obelisk blocking a temple entrance. Hassan makes his next mistake. Taking the ruby necklace from his belt, he tries to tempt the magician with it. It has the exact opposite reaction, with the mage screaming it was stolen from his hoard ... and the lead genie giving Hassan the hairy eyeball. "I knew it!", he yells. "Now you have to undergo the trial of theft and lying!"
During the feast, Hassan starts his 'smooth with the ladies' flirtatious speech to the Queen. The lead genie decides to remind him who he REALLY loves and knocks him out with the potent drink served to him. Hassan then astrally projects back to the palace at Damascus and the lonely Jamila in her courtyard. The Vizier (who is in league with Prince Bassora (Renato Baldini) counsels her that she should marry Bassora ... and soon (the Prince is already planning to take Damascus by force, if necessary) - the Vizier would say more, but Hassan is poking at him with a feather and a knife which makes him take his leave. The reformed thief then astrally kisses Jamila, telling her he loves her and to wait for him. His memory refreshed as to why he is on the quest, he and the genies take their leave of the Queen - she is sad to see them go, but loads them down with the treasure the magician was seeking, including a bag of "the tears of my people", i.e., perfect diamonds.
The other three Princes are now at their destinations for their one-of-a-kind gifts: Bassora and his henchman have found a hermit who has a phial of water that will restore life to anyone who has died. When he refuses to sell it to Bassora, the Prince decides to try it out by stabbing the hermit to death ... then bringing him back to life. Seeing that it works, he heads out - leaving his henchman to tie up loose ends for good.
Prince Aleppo (Rosario Borelli), the jolly fat suitor, berates his men in the marketplace for not finding a unique gift that will make HIM the victor. Hearing his remonstrations, a certain merchant calls him over and tells him HE has exactly what the Prince needs: the flying carpet seen earlier in the film!
The three Princes meet up to compare gifts, with the third Prince's gift being a magical jewel (read: crystal ball) that can see anywhere in the world. Bassora demands an example of the jewel and they look into it to find Jamila in a coma and dying (thanks to a drug by the Vizier). Using Prince Aleppo's flying carpet, they fly to her bedside, where Bassora gives her some drops from the phial and brings her back to life. He then claims he has won the contest, demanding Jamila be his wife. She refuses, saying that all three Princes' gifts were working in concert to save her, so the contest is a tie. Bassora has reached the end of his rope and takes the other two Princes prisoner. He tells Jamila they will marry in the morning and rouses his men to be ready to march on Damascus.
But what of Hassan? Upon leaving the Queen of Rocky Valley and her retinue, he and the genies travel to the nearest oasis, where they are fallen upon by his former bandit clan. Thinking the treasure they are carrying to be the ransom for Jamila, they tie Hassan and the genies up and plan to torture them. One of the genies has had enough and sends the firebrands from the campfire flying in all directions, either knocking out or lighting on fire the bandits until they beg for mercy. Quickly untied, Hassan gives his former men the treasure and they continue on their way. Making their way to the Nile, Hassan gets another tongue-lashing from the main genie. He replies he can not do ANYTHING right in their eyes - he gets yelled at if he steals, he gets yelled at if he gives the treasure away, etc. Telling them to go away, they warn him he will have to finish the quest alone, but that they will return once he has retrieved the Golden Arrow. As he turns around to reply, he finds them flying away over the Nile, leaving him alone.
This would be a good moment to take a break and mention one of the most striking aspects of this film and one that I did not appreciate until rewatching this as an adult; namely all the locations the filmmakers were able to shoot at. From the Temple of Karnak at Luxor and shooting on the Nile to the final resting place of the Golden Arrow (the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut on the West Bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings - see photos). Filmmakers would never be allowed to film in some of these locations today, and it makes for a richer looking movie. The shot of Tab Hunter running up the steps of Hatshepsut's Temple is astonishing, especially in today's day and age when you realize this is NOT CGI or some other special effect.
The final scene has Hassan and Jamila on the flying carpet saying goodbye to the genies and thanking them for their help - as the genies fly back to Allah, Hassan and Jamila share a kiss and fly into the sunset. Of all the special effects shots in the film, they saved the worst for last as EVERYBODY (the genies, Hassan and Jamila) are BLUE in this, due to a very poorly-done blue-screen process shot! :)
One final word about the making of the film. I was excited when back in 2006, Tab Hunter's biography came out (called TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL). I was in for a bit of a shock when I got to his thoughts on the making of THE GOLDEN ARROW - at the beginning of Chapter 26 he said, "Rossana Podesta draped herself against a date palm in the desert oasis. In her diaphanous gown, she oozed sex appeal. I tossed the loose end of the burnoose over my shoulder, adjusted my sword, and descended on her. She rose slightly, inviting my kiss.
A million flies swarmed into our hair, our eyes, our mouths. They were all over everything, everywhere.
"Cut!" screamed director Antonio Margheriti, in Italian, his native tongue.
We were on location in Egypt, shooting a sword-and-sandal spectacular for the Italian company Titanus Studios. Margheriti stormed around, spewing lots of vowels, gesturing wildly at the mostly Egyptian crew.
"What's he saying?" I asked Rossana as we battled the insect invasion ... "Antonio is asking how to say shit in Arabic", Rossana explained, spitting flies.
At times like this, I doubted the wisdom of putting everything I owned in storage ... and accepting the lead role in La Freccia d'Oro, aka The Golden Arrow."
Tab goes on to call it an 'enjoyable stinker', giving him a free expense-paid trip to Rome and Egypt, as well as "racing a purebred Arab horse across the desert, ala Errol Flynn". He also talks about re-working his lines, but it didn't matter in the end, as his voice was dubbed in by another actor! Finally, he mentions that the film (with it's high budget) almost sank Titanus Studios and it was years before they bounced back from the financial hit. Director Margheriti went on to many other films, in all different genres - his name was 'Americanized' on releases in the States as 'Tony Dawson'.
So ... after this exhaustive write-up, you must be asking yourself, "Where can I get a copy of this gem?" The bad news is as of this writing, you can't. The film has not had an official DVD release yet, although you can find copies of it on the 'grey market'. Your best bet? Keep an eye on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) - they have a copy of it and will occasionally run the film. The last time was on Tab's 80th birthday (July 11th) of this year, during a marathon of his films, they ran a BEAUTIFUL widescreen version of the film (where the above photos are from) - granted, they ran it at 4:15 in the morning, but that's what DVR's are for! :)
So there you have it - the film that started the never-ending snowball that is Conjure Cinema. Just take one wide-eyed boy, add a flavorful Arabian Nights fantasy, and ... voila! See the wonders that can happen!
Next Time: Just in time for Halloween, we take a look back at the darkest day on the calendar ... BLACK SUNDAY! Be there or be haunted forever!