The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and making excuses for older movies.

September 5, 2008

Dolly’s comment here, that Achmed “sounds like something I might not be able to swallow (what with all the “1926″ racism/sexism)” prompted such a long meta-analysis of my response to the movie, that I felt it needed its own post.

Because I didn’t have trouble swallowing all the sexism and racism. It didn’t outrage me at all, which it usually does. If anything atrocious popped up, I just took a screencap for the blog, and kept watching. I thought the whole movie was rather charming.

My question to myself: Why am I making excuses for an obviously sexist, racist movie just because it’s old?

There are two different components to this answer, I think. First, it’s actually not that much worse than some movies I’ve seen in theatres lately. Second, it seems unfair to hold old movies up to modern standards, since they didn’t exist back then.

So, one at a time: this movie isn’t that bad. Which is to say, it’s terrible, and blatantly sexist and blatantly racist. But so is Mulan, my favourite Disney movie. So is almost any other movie made in our messed-up, sexist, racist society. It’s pretty hard for a movie to escape being sexist and racist. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the princesses were par for the course (or maybe a touch better), sexism-wise, and the racist caricatures produced unacceptable appearances, but didn’t restrict the Witch’s actions. Sure, black people no longer look like horrific stereotypes in movies, but they die first. And they never get to kill the bad guys. So there are ways that Achmed is an improvement. It doesn’t balance out everything– it’s still a racist, sexist movie– but it does prevent it from being OMG RACIST!!1 when compared to modern films.

Which I guess brings me to reason number two: nowadays, despite the ways in which it exceeded my expectations, I would condemn this film for being unforgivably racist. But this film wasn’t made nowadays. It doesn’t deserve to be compared to modern films at all. The world was different in 1926, a lot different. Even my grandparents hadn’t been born yet. History was approaching the Holocaust, not the Civil Rights Movement.

So, yeah, made today this film is unacceptable. But why does that matter? This is a film made in Germany after World War I, and before World War II. Not a time or place known for being racially-conscious. I think Ms. Reiniger did the best she could, with some astounding culturally-enforced ignorance.

I suspect most of the problem of the caricatures had to do with the fact that a German woman in 1926 may have never seen a black woman, or a Chinese man, so all she could use as guides to draw them were racist caricatures.

I guess that’s really what it comes down to. She just didn’t know any better, and I can forgive that.


The Adventures of Prince Achmed, egregious racist caricatures, and the Witch of Fiery Mountain.

September 5, 2008

This movie is a racist movie. Rather stunningly so, in certain moments. But it’s also, somehow, not so bad, at least with the character of the Witch of the Fiery Mountains.

First, it’s important to note that everyone besides the main characters are racist caricatures.

The caliphs representation isnt great, but its one of the best.

The caliph's representation isn't great, but it's one of the best. (He's the one with the turban on the upper balcony of the elephant-podium.)

The Chinese emperor and his favourite son are a lot more obvious as cariactures.

The Chinese emperor and his favourite son are a lot more obvious as cariactures. (This is a shot of Pari Banu being forced to marry the son, by the way.)

Pari Banu

Pari Banu's serving girls are promiscuous black women. Achmed is happy to kiss them at first, but then they start fighting over him and he runs away.

But the character I really want to talk about is the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. She’s also a black woman, though she’s not lacsivious like Pari Banu’s serving girls; she’s enormous and apelike, and something of a Magical Negro with her voodoo powers.

Yes, she really looks like this.

Yes, she really looks like this.

She stomps up and down to use her magic; again, very apelike. A huge contrast to the graceful movements of the other female characters.

She stomps up and down to use her magic; again, very apelike. A huge contrast to the graceful movements of the other female characters.

Heres a close-up of her face...

Here's a close-up of her face...

And check out the exposed breast!

And check out the exposed breast!

Appearance-wise, there really isn’t anything redeemable in this character. I feel kind of bad posting these pictures, they’re that bad! And I am not defending them, or any of the other caricatures in this film.

However, I want to say that the Witch of the Fiery Mountains is not as bad as she looks. She’s practically the hero of the story from the moment she arrives, actually– Achmed meets her after he’s been beaten by the African magician, her mortal enemy, and she summons up some anti-demon armor and weaponry for him, and goes off with him to rescue Pari Banu. However, the rescue attempt is unsuccessful; the demons carry Bari Panu back to Wak-Wak, and Achmed will need Aladdin’s lamp to get through. Woe! He does not have Aladdin’s lamp! Joy! He meets Aladdin! Woe! Aladdin does not have his lamp either! It has been stolen by the African magician.

So the Witch of the Fiery Mountains kills the African magician (in a really cool battle sequence), and returns the “wunderlampe” to Aladdin! Aladdin and Achmed go off to rescue Pari Banu, but even with the magic armor and Aladdin’s lamp, they aren’t strong enough. They’re about to die, when the Witch comes to save the day again! She reclaims the lamp from the demons, and uses it to call forth hordes of good spirits, who destroy all the demons and traps them in a mountain.

Yep, the female sidekick got to kill the Big Bad! I dare you to come up with a modern movie in which that happens. Most of the time, women only get to fight other women, and if they’re fighting the main villain, even if they ought to be able to win (super kung-fu training or whatever), something will happen and the guy will have to step in to give the killing blow. I truly expected this movie to go the same route– Achmed had his magic weapons and armor, after all; while the Witch was distracting the African magician with her awesome fireballs, he could have snuck over and stabbed the magician. But no, he and Aladdin just cowered in the corner until the Witch had defeated all the demons!

It was also nice that she wasn’t motivated in any way by romance– she wanted to kill the magician because he was evil and she was good, and therefore he was her mortal enemy. She considers Achmed a friend because they’re on the same side, but she doesn’t particularly care about him. She’s just a person, with her own life and her own goals, which happen to partially overlap with Achmed’s. And she’s way, way more powerful than either of them– and they’re grateful for it.

py ending, and

Out supposed "heroes" wave goodbye the the true hero of the story, who continues vanquishing demons as they fly away in Aladdin's castle.

This is not to say that her character is unproblematic. Just that it’s not as bad as it looks.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and pretty pretty princesses.

September 5, 2008

Now, I don’t think there can be any question that this movie is both racist and sexist. But it was less so than I would have expected, from a movie made in 1926 Germany.

First, the sexism: there are only two women with names (plus a witch), and they’re there to be pretty, get kidnapped for their prettiness, then to get rescued and married (except for the witch, of course). Our women are:

Pari Banu, the princess of the magical Wak-Wak island (yes, that is its name.) Achmed watched her bathing, hides her clothes, chases her through the forest, and kidnaps her (the movie even uses the word kidnap!) only then it turns out that even though she ruled the demons of Wak-Wak island, she was trapped there (?) and so he had, in fact, rescued her. She gets kidnapped a good half-dozen times and Achmed faithfully rescues her every time, and they get married and live happily ever after. Hurray!

…and Dinarsade, Achmed’s sister, whom the evil African magician desires. She marries Aladdin after Aladdin finds his magic lamp, and she is very much a posession: when the African magician (who, by the way, has no name, only that description) takes his revenge against Aladdin, Aladdin complains to Achmed that, “Everything had disappeared– the palace, the princess, and the lamp.” (emphasis mine).

However, I thought Dinarsade was actually very interesting. Her marriage seemed a little less arbitrary than Pari Banu’s (she walked over to Aladdin’s house and presumably liked what she saw), and this is what she was doing when Aladdin got his first glimpse of her:

Playing chess! With another woman! (And, okay, also with a slave-girl fanning her. But still. Chess!) I expected her to be lounging around looking decorative, like Pari Banu, but no, she seems to have her own life and interests, and even a brain! In the realm of silent films, where nobody speaks unless it’s vital to understand what’s going on, this may even count as passing the Bechdel Test… if only her friend had a name. But still! It completely exceeded my expectations.

Okay, so the women were still primarily sex objects, emphasis on object, as in prize, but you know, that’s something people are still struggling with 90 years later. And actually, by showing all these women with female friends, and especially showing Dinarsade playing chess with a female friend, this movie gave us a more human princess than Disney does. Seriously, name a Disney princess who casually hangs out with a female friend. There are none! They all have male animal mascot friends, and ignore the other women around them. Actually, even “grown-up” movies tend to show women who are totally isolated from other women— I think this movie did a better job of showing women’s lives than the last movie I saw in theatre!

I don’t know if that’s sad, because we haven’t learned, or cool, because Lotte Reininger made a great film for her times, but it’s certainly something.

Tomorrow: egregious racist caricatures, and the Witch of the Fiery Mountains.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and watching old movies.

September 5, 2008

This is another spoiler-free review because I’m darn certain none of you have even heard of today’s movie: The Adventures of Prince Achmed. It’s actually the first full-length animated film, created in 1926, beating out Snow White (1937) by 11 years. A German woman named Lotte Reiniger used elaborate cutouts, animated frame-by-frame, to tell the story of an impetuous prince, tricked into mounting a flying horse which carries him far from home, as he makes a few friends, kidnaps a princess, battles the forces of evil, and eventually returns home.

It’s not a difficult story to predict, and it has some distinctly problematic themes (pretty princess prizes, the Magical Negro, terrible racist caricatures, and kangaroos in China) but a lot of that is easy to forgive. It is, after all, a movie made by a 23-year-old German, between the two World Wars, about places and races (and animals) she’d never seen. Things that would be unacceptable now I found myself turning a blind eye to (just had to keep repeating, “1926! 1926!”) and it actually ended up charming me.

The stunning artwork goes a long, long way towards redeeming this film. No, seriously, I was enthralled; just look:

Alladin finding his "wunderlampe."

Aladdin finding his "wunderlampe."

Using the lamp.

Using the lamp.

Okay, so Ms. Reiniger has clearly never seen an elephant. It was still a beautiful movie!

Okay, so Ms. Reiniger has clearly never seen an elephant. It was still a beautiful movie!

A happy ending for Alladin.

A happy ending for Aladdin.

And you’ve got to keep in mind, all these figures moved, with surprising grace. I particularly loved it whenever the women were on screen– as you can see in the last screenshot, they wore lovely gowns with tiny details cut out from them, and they were even more beautiful in motion.

This is a silent film (though with an excellent musical score), which may be a negative for you. I kind of enjoy having the language centers of my brain completely unoccupied so I can analyze a movie as I watch it, but it’s very easy to let your mind wander. Still, if you like beautiful things and old things, and don’t mind putting up with some ninety-year-old racism and sexism to see said beautiful, old things, check your local library for The Adventures of Prince Achmed. That’s where I found my copy– in the children’s section.

Man, people put a lot more effort into children’s movies in 1926.