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Arabs in Hollywood : Orientalism in film Dajani, Najat Z. J.


Early representations of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood productions were largely drawn from the literary works of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They, in turn, were inspired by depictions found in Elizabethan manuscripts, which took their cue from the Middle Ages. Films like The Sheik (George Melford, 1921) and The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, 1926) present the Arab as a barbaric savage, not yet cultured by civilization. These 'desert romances' started a filmic tradition, which lasted for a number of decades. Portrayals of the desert Arabs in The Sheik also left their mark on 'historically based' films, like Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) and Khartoum (Basil Dearden, 1966). By the late sixties, however, representations of Arabs and Muslims had changed in a drastic manner. No longer seen as romantic and erotic, Arab/Muslim portrayals in Hollywood films were influenced by the politics of the day. Islam not only posed an ideological threat to Christianity, but was also staking territorial and nationalistic claims, in the form of the Palestinians fighting for self-determination. Depictions from Hollywood followed suit, with films like Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer, 1977), opting to take Israel's side, in its fight against the Arabs. Today's world, which calls for a peaceful resolution to conflict has once again, brought upon a change in Arab/Muslim representations found in Hollywood productions. A nostalgic search for the exotic foreigner can once again be seen in films like The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999). Just as they did after the Vietnam War, American filmmakers are now reflecting upon past actions in the Gulf, through such films as Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999). Much as Professor Edward W. Said and other post-colonialists have done, I will concentrate on singling out the negative aspects of Orientalism, with regard to the chosen films. I will trace the origins of Arab/Muslim images in Hollywood since the early days of film to the present day. Films are also analyzed and viewed through historical, political and cultural contexts to show why these images prevail, and what changes, if any, have been presented on the screen.

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