- Movie Rating -

Caravans (1978)

| November 2, 1978

Caravans is the kind of movie made by, and for, people who constantly say “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore,” and then when you see them you realize why.  As throwbacks go, it seems like a noble effort but how soon we forget that certain ideas, certain styles, certain ways of making things eventually goes out of style for good reason.

If this movie were striving to be a throwback to the old days of epics like Lawrence of Arabia then there has to be a modern touch that keeps it from feeling like a creaky old retread of a formula that is no longer in fashion.  Sure, the actors look great, the desert looks great, the leading lady has spent sufficient time with her personal beautician, but the movie feels like old furniture – that kind that finds itself up for grabs at the end of the driveway.

The story is pried from a page of an over-stuffed novel by James A. Michener and is a prime illustration of exactly how difficult this author is to adapt.  His work is so dense that it is nearly impossible to cram it into a narrative that doesn’t have the audience squirming – in this case, a rather brisk 127 minutes.  That’s asking a lot for a movie that doesn’t have much to fill the time.

The story takes place in 1948 in the fictional country of Zakharstan (too many troubles in the real world to admit that its Afghanistan) and involves a lifeless dolt named Mark Miller (Michael Sarazyn), a young functionary of the United States Embassy who is charged with tracking down Ellen Jasper (Jennifer O’Neill), the daughter of a U.S. Senator who has run off into the desert to marry a certain Colonel Nazrullah (Behrouz Vossoughi) and hasn’t been seen since.  When he catches up with her, he realizes that she has run off to be with a group of desert dwellers led by Zulffigar (Anthony Quinn) and doesn’t want to go back.  Fine.  But then it appears that Zulffigar is wanted by the government for his association with a rebel named Shakkur (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz) who is involved in trafficking arms with Russia.

The film’s long, boring mid-section is that old bit in which the sheltered white American lives among the natives and learns their customs, earns the respect of Zuffigar and maybe, just maybe the heart of the girl that he has come to take back home.  In the meantime, there are stereotypes a-plenty.  Women are treated like dirt.  There’s a question of eye-for-an-eye.  And the kid learns the unappetizing ways of the local cuisine.

I must admit, in the midst of being bored to tears by a story that I already know by heart, the locations look convincing.  The movie was shot in Iran, and you can feel the desert heat and you can practically smell the sweat off the camels, but what is in front of that authentic feel is, again, a movie that is about 25 years out of date.  In 127 minutes, the story bogs down into ‘Will the young American girl return to the safety and comfort of America, or stay with a people that she has chosen to be with’.

Well, of this, you don’t really care.  Jennifer O’Neill gives such a banal, lifeless performance that its hard to really care what happens to her.  Does she fall in love with the young man who has come to bring her back?  You already know the answer to this.  In fact, nothing in this movie surprises you except for the information that you can bake bread over dried camel shit.  That I didn’t know.

[reviewed February 8, 2021]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Drama