Open Thread: The Prince of Persia Movie

The movie poster for Prince of Persia. It shows Jake Gyllenhaal in leather armor with a red sash holding two scimitars. The tag line is 'Defy the future.'

The movie poster for Prince of Persia. It shows Jake Gyllenhaal in leather armor with a red sash holding two scimitars. The tag line is 'Defy the future.'

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened this past weekend in the US. The movie is based very loosely on the critically acclaimed 2003 Ubisoft game of the same name and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince (named Dastan in the film). There is a lot to criticize about the film, particularly from an anti-racism standpoint, so I thought it would be a good idea to host an open thread to discuss the film.

My spoileriffic thoughts behind the cut.

First of all, the whitewashing is ridiculous. It’s embarrassing from the first few minutes, which shows a plucky young white boy (Dastan as a child) standing up to the cruel Persian guards who beat another street orphan for getting in the way of a horse. Naturally, this act of heroism causes the kindly King to adopt him as a son (in addition to his two biological sons, although their mother is never mentioned at all).

The only people of color in the film are villains, except for Dastan’s plucky sidekick, who is killed off in the first 15 minutes and immediately forgotten about. (There are some white villains, but there are no people of color who are heroes throughout the entire film.) Some of the villains are redeemed, only to immediately die. This happens a lot, particularly in Disney movies (I’m thinking particularly of Pirates), and it is seriously lazy writing. As soon as someone who has done some bad things redeems themselves by helping the hero or saving his life, they die. They never have to actually deal with whatever bad things they’ve done. This happens three to four times just in this movie.

In addition, the heavy-handed Iraq war analogies are downright offensive. The Persian army invades the city of Alamut because the king has been led to believe that Alamut has been making weapons for some undefined “enemies of Persia.” We later find out that Alamut doesn’t have any weapons! The evidence was forged by the king’s brother, who wanted to take over Alamut in order to find for his own benefit an extremely valuable substance hidden beneath the city! (THE SANDS OF TIME ARE LIKE OIL, YOU GUYS, DO YOU GET IT???)

There’s only one actual female character, and the rest of the women in the movie are sexy harem girls or servants. So of course it fails the Bechdel Test spectacularly. Princess Tamina is repeatedly held captive throughout the first hour of the film and is vaguely threatened with sexual violence (you know, in a Disney-fied “I like a girl with spirit!” sort of way). And how hilarious is it when Dastan trades her off to Sheik Amar (who is apparently a Teabagger, constantly complaining about taxes screwing over the small businessmen!) without knowing what he’s going to do with her–and it turns out he puts her in a skimpy outfit to serve drinks to the men attending his ostrich races with a bunch of other women? Answer: NOT HILARIOUS AT ALL.

Also, we first meet adult Dastan shirtless and wrestling another man to show us what a manly man he is in a scene almost exactly like the boxing scene in the new Sherlock Holmes, but without the awesome calculating part. Later on, there’s a scene where Dastan figures out what the Dagger of Time does, and here’s what happens: the princess attacks him, he uses the dagger to go back, he is shocked and she attacks him again, he uses the dagger AGAIN, then he stops her from attacking him and then mansplains what the fucking dagger does just in case we hadn’t figured it out by now. The princess is the guardian of the dagger, dude, she knows what it does!

Also: the supervillains with evil magical powers are called AS-SAND-SINS. WHAT THE HELL.

The “best” part is the ending because basically everyone dies, but then Dastan manages to use the Sands of Time to go back to when he first got the dagger, just after the Persians took over Alamut, and avoids the entire fucking story by managing to kill his uncle before anything happens. YEAH. And somehow he still gets to marry the princess, even though she doesn’t know him and has every reason to resent being forced to marry him by an invading army, but this is all okay and supposed to be a happy ending because we KNOW they’re DESTINED to be together because it happened in an alternate timeline. The ending isn’t completely out of place because the Sands of Time are established as a thing pretty early on, but it is still a cop-out because it erases basically everything that happened in the movie.

As for good things, the action scenes are great: both the parkour and the fighting are very fun to watch. The best fight scene is the one between an As-sand-sin and Seso (a knife-thrower who chases after Dastan for most of the film and then redeems himself by fighting the assassin and retrieving the dagger right before he dies), which was quite intense. Also, at the beginning there is a cute meta moment where Dastan and his pals are sneakily invading Alamut and the camera zooms ahead to show us where they have to go, just like in the original Sands of Time game.

That’s enough of my rambling–have you seen the movie? What did you think? What problematic elements have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty.

35 thoughts on “Open Thread: The Prince of Persia Movie”

    1. Oh, sorry, a Teabagger is a member of the Tea Party movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_Party_movement They complain about taxes and wanting the government to get out of their Medicare, etc.

      Mansplain: http://kateharding.net/2010/01/27/me-a-mansplainer-let-me-mansplain/

      I felt like Dastan was mansplaining how the dagger worked not only to the princess, who was the guardian of the dagger and knew all about it already and was in fact attacking him so she could get it back, but to the audience, who at that point had already seen it in action, twice!

      1. Ah I see. Yes, that would definitely be mansplaining.

        And this Tea Party is the new name of the USAian liberal/conservative party? (that’s the extremer right wing one, right?)

        1. Nah, it’s just a bunch of conservatives and economic libertarians who whine a lot about how the government is going to kill everyone with socialism (eg: the government isn’t pandering to the rich *quite* as much as they’d like).

        2. The Tea Party is not actually a political party, but more of a movement, in which conservatives from different political parties participate. Tea Party people are generally extremely right wing, white, and they believe in “taking back” the government–from whom, I have no idea. Many of the Tea Party people exhibit racist views and lack of empathy towards people who aren’t wealthy white people.

          Sorry for the derail. Back on topic. :)

        3. In addition to what other folks have said, the rank-and-file members of the tea baggers are mostly poor white people who have been screwed by deindustrialization, or the “free mark” exporting American jobs to sweatshops. The left has done a bad job reaching out to them, so they’ve been duped into thinking the government and/or immigrants/people of color are to blame. A lot of them hate corporations and the bailouts, although the party is kind of controlled by rich libertarian types AND organized white supremacists too I hear…

      1. You’ll be glad to know they were actually Hassansins (scroll down the cultural references). They were apparently Hashshashins lead by a guy named Hassan-i Sabbah. I can see why people might think they were saying Assandsin, but they did put a helpful Hassansin lair label on the screen the first time you see them.

  1. I’m surprised you liked the action sequences so much. After seeing David Bell’s work (he was the stunt coordinator, I think…) in other movies, it seemed like a lot of the action in this movie was cut just a little too fast, so that we missed seeing just how amazing parkour can be. I just wanted them to let us _watch_ Dastan flip all over the place and do amazing stuff, instead of cutting every time he was about to do something sweet.

    I think it’s entirely unsurprising that the only villains who are coded as nonwhite are Ben Kingsley (half-Indian, half-British) and Alfred Molina’s shady ostrich guy (he’s half-Italian, half-Spanish, so he’s only “ethnic” by weird casting standards).

    Also, I was wondering if you found the ending (right before the giant rewind) entirely fucking incomprehensible. First the princess died, but then she was inside the giant fire-rock-knife-time thing! Then Ben Kingsley stabbed the giant sand rock and Dastan opened the knife (or did Kingsley?), and shit was _bad_, but then the knife closed, and things rewound. I had no idea why this was happening, and I stayed awake for the whole thing, unlike my brother.

    I’d be disappointed, if I hadn’t expected it to be incredibly bad, I guess. Also, the soft rock in the credits with “Eastern” sounds deserves a special shout-out. No more soft rock in credits!

    1. Well, I am not exactly an action movie connoisseuse ;P

      I think the princess being in the sands was just it showing that time was going backward, but yeah, it was otherwise impossible to tell what happened. Didn’t they say if they used the sands of time it would undo everything? Or did that not happen because Temina sacrificed herself? I have no idea. It was probably DESTINY or some other lazy bullshit.

  2. Also, Mechner has story-writing credits on the movie, but one assumes the script was doctored in some way, right? I really, really hope that this final product isn’t his work, because this was an entirely wretched movie, in many ways.

  3. The movie is just a fucking travesty in every aspect; I too noticed (and commented vociferously during the movie) about how lily white the whole thing is, how the black character is pretty much silent for the entire film, and how butchered the already just-OK-for-a-videogame story was.

    What’s especially terrible to me is the fact that I’ve played the entire series and still had no clue what was going on unless it was beating me over the head with its stupid Iraq war allegories. And the movie felt short, but in a rushed way, not in a, “wow, that movie went fast” kind of way. I think this had to do with the ridiculous over-editing that happened in every scene, not to mention the fact that there’s no character development or, um, actual dialog. Seriously, half the movie is action happening, and the other half is characters explaining (or mansplaining) what just happened or what’s going to happen. It’s just a movie for idiots and should be avoided at all costs (especially opening weekend costs – what was I thinking?)

  4. And to clarify – Mechner provided the “screen story,” meaning the idea that the story was based upon. He doesn’t actually have any screenwriting credits, and is simply listed as an “Executive Producer,” meaning that I don’t think his involvement was too detailed except that he received his royalty cheques (natch).

  5. Just a minor clarification: the assasins are called Hashshashin and not As-sand-sins The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin, or Hashasheen from which the word assassin is thought to originate), was the Persian designation of the Nizari branch of the Ismā’īlī Shia Muslims during the Middle Ages. Unable to mount a conventional military army, the Nizāriyya developed a form of asymmetric warfare transforming the act of political assassination into a system of survival and defense against their foes. From wikipedia

    1. I knew about Hashshashins, but it really didn’t sound like that’s what they were saying. I could be mistaken, of course!

  6. Wow, even if I could get past the whitewashing seems like the story itself would drive me up a wall. Add that in with the sexism and racist tropes and I’d be vomiting in the movie lobby.

    -Ani8

  7. The problem with Prince of Persia as a story concept is that it plays both historical and fantasy cards, and never answers for either. That is, as you write, a staple of Disney films as well.

    But seriously, we’ve known Gyllenhaal would be playing the hero here for years. Is anyone actually surprised that he plays an Anglicized incarnation of the Prince?

    1. Of course no one is surprised. But we’re talking about it now because the movie just came out. This blog didn’t exist when the casting was first announced. Also, the whitewashing (and other issues relevant to this blog such as the appropriation and sexism) goes beyond Gyllenhaal’s casting.


      1. Brinstar:

        I’m puzzled by your comment. I honestly don’t get your point. I’m surprised that you’re asking the question of whether anyone is surprised that they whitewashed Prince of Persia. Please don’t derail this comment thread by calling into question whether Alex’s entire post is valid. The point of this blog is to discuss these sorts of issues, and the points she raises about race and gender in Prince of Persia are perfectly within its scope.

        Agreed, and point conceded.

    2. Does it actually matter if anyone is surprised? Would that somehow detract from the legitimacy of their criticisms of this aspect of the film?

      (FWIW, Alex has been engaging in discussions about the whitewashing of the Prince for years so, uh, what was your point again?)

  8. I have no desire to see this movie, considering all the criticism surrounding it.

    I’ve attempted to discuss the white washing in various net communities, but I got shut out and shut down by having it “explained” to me with the usual bingo of middle-ages Persians were caucasian/”I know an Iraqi and they say the movie is fine”.

    Sigh.


  9. Brinstar:

    Please don’t derail this comment thread by calling into question whether Alex’s entire post is valid.

    Did I do that? I don’t think I did. I actually am amused by how absurdly whitewashed it is, and Alex’s post drove that home.

    It falls into what Harry Shearer would call the category of “amazing, but not surprising.”

    Is that any clearer?

  10. Great article! I agree on all but one point. It may have been tired or out of place, but how were the Iraq War analogies offensive? A person or organization deceiving the leaders of a nation to go to war with another nation has been done before in movies countless times. With respect, what makes this different?

    A side note on the super-assassins: I also went “WTF?” when I heard what they were called. If they had said hassasin, then that would be much better because they were an actual group (even if they weren’t around in ancient Persia). Obviously that movie did not intend to be historically accurate, but that was such a simple and easy thing to do that would have been much neater (especially since the assassins in the movie were inspired by the hassasins).

    1. Well, I found it pretty tasteless to throw in an anti-Iraq-war morality story in a movie that takes place in fantasy-Persia but has an almost completely white cast and does some obnoxious Orientalist appropriation.

      Also, if we read the analogy all the way through, the movie is basically saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go back in time and kill Dick Cheney and take over Iraq peacefully instead of waging a pointless war for years and years?” Dastan doesn’t actually go back and stop the invasion of Alamut, he saves the king from being killed, leaving the marriage to be arranged so that Persia can take over Alamut without starting a full-on war. This works out great for Persia, but not so much for Alamut!

      There are probably other readings, but that’s how I saw it.

      1. To be obnoxiously unnecessarily fair to the movie (particularly as I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to), there’s no way of telling that it wouldn’t work out great for Alamut. It could theoretically happen that the culture of Alamut eventually became the dominant one in fantasy Persia…though it is unlikely and I’m probably just suggesting this to be contrary and I enjoy history that plays out like that, seriously though, you’d think people would eventually realize that military conquest /= your preferred culture actually succeeding in the long run

      2. I was also annoyed he ONLY went back to after the invasion. Can’t he control how far back he goes? ‘Cuz his evil uncle wanted to go back to childhood. If Dastan would have stopped the invasion, he wouldn’t have been in the situation to force the princess to marry him!

        1. At first I thought he could only go back to the point when he obtained the dagger, but yeah, then his uncle wouldn’t have been able to go back to when he wanted to go. Buh? Either way, Dastan could have done more to show that the invasion was a mistake in the first place.

  11. Tina at The Hathor Legacy wrote about Princess Tamina. Definitely read the comments.

    I do think Tamina is a lot better than most action/fantasy movie damsels/princesses, but she’s only one step above Elizabeth Swan (to continue with the Pirates comparisons, which I find to be appropriate). The idea that “but she DOES THINGS!” is worth getting excited over is just depressing. And the fact that she is the only woman with speaking lines in the entire film is kind of inexcusable.

    In the comments section, The Other Patrick links to his review at Heroine Content, which I pretty much completely agree with (he talks a bit more about Seso and articulates why I had mixed feelings about the character).

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