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The Image of the Orient in Selected Hollywood Movies - The History of a Stereotype

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2005 16 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1 Introduction

2 Narrative Elements

3 Character Types
3.1 Villains
3.2 Sheikhs
3.3 Maidens
3.4 Egyptians
3.5 Palestinians

4 Subgenres and Landmark Fiction

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

For more than a century Hollywood has depicted certain “others” as innately strange and dangerous. The popular caricature of the average Arab is as mythical as the old portrait of the Jew. He is robed and turbaned, sinister and dangerous, engaged mainly in hijacking airplanes and blowing up public buildings. From the earliest days of film on up to the present the image of the Arab as a villain has prevailed in most Hollywood productions He is what he has always been – the cultural “other”. The stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. Filmmakers have collectively indicted Arabs as public enemy number one – brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics terrorizing civilized Westerners.

This paper argues for the existence of a genre of films termed the ‘eastern’ that deals with the Middle East. It will be shown that the kinds of images that are present in these films are more than just a random repetition of stereotypes. Films belonging to this genre share a number of character types, narrative elements and locale which will be dealt with in detail.

Subgenres of the ‘eastern’ will then be identified and the connection between the formation of new subgenres and specific historical events or encounters will be worked out.

Films being covered will range from as early as 1921 (The Sheik) up to the present. Due to the length of this paper I can only cover a very limited selection of films. Nevertheless, the films being dealt with will be representative for their genre and for their time so that in the end a chronological history of the stereotype should be established.

I will not deal with films set in Asia, since they do seem to share a number of narrative elements with the ‘eastern’, but do not appear to form a specific generic tradition. Besides that, different historical experiences have influenced Western expectations about China, Japan and India.

2 Narrative Elements

There are at least ten narrative attributes that are prototypically found in easterns: (1) Transgression, (2) separation, (3) abduction, (4) reduction, (5) induction, (6) seduction. (7) redemption, (8) revelation, (9) reaffirmation, and (10) mutilation.[1]

Not all of these attributes can be found in every eastern and not every film considered an eastern contains all of these attributes, but what is remarkable and what sets it apart is that the films in this class deal with the Middle East as a locale or with Arab characters, and they all share some of these attributes. Some may be more dominant in or representative for certain subtypes of the genre, which will become clear in the course of the paper.

The most prototypical instances of the first two attributes involve the American /European hero who is accused of a crime (transgression) and therefore forced to leave his home country and take refuge in the East (separation). The accusation of the hero is usually unjustifiable.

Abduction and reduction are two of the most central attributes in the eastern genre. They usually refer to either kidnapping or arrest of one of the principle characters, typically the female love interest, but also the male hero. This leads either to their enslavement or imprisonment (reduction).

The fifth attribute, induction, is symbolized prototypically in many easterns by a European or American character putting on Arab clothes (a kiffiya, a head scarf or a loose, robe like garment etc.), as in The Sheik or Lawrence of Arabia. Induction is a very important element of the narrative in most films of the genre and no matter in which form it may take place it always results in a change in identity and/or a change of social status. This identity change is at once a form of disempowerment as well as of empowerment. The European or American character gives up his identity for a nonprivileged one. By doing that he actually empowers himself and gains greater knowledge about the “other” and his own identity, becoming a better man. At the same time he shows the real others that he makes a better other than they do.

According to Eisele the different types of induction are important barometers of American attitudes towards the Middle East and Arabs, because they are a reflection of the tension between the two cultures represented by a single person.[2]

The sixth attribute of the eastern, seduction, is most clearly seen in the earliest subtypes, where the heroine or love interest is seduced by the hero or the other way around. These scenes are often accompanied by acts of force, such as an abduction. Seduction is a common narrative element in all kinds of narratives of rescue in which virginal white women are rescued from “dark” men. “The figure of the dark rapist, like that of the African cannibal, catalyzes the narrative role of the Western liberator as integral to the colonial rescue fantasy.”[3] In the case of the eastern, seduction also carries theological overtones of the inferiority of the polygamous Islamic world to the Christian world being represented by the celibate priest or the monogamous couple.[4]

In later subtypes, however, this attribute is less important if present at all. Sometimes it is shown in a different way so that the hero may be seduced by all kinds of temptations.

The redemption, the seventh attribute, usually takes the form of being rescued from slavery or being released from imprisonment. In the earlier films of the genre, typically numerous abductions and redemptions took place. In later films, however, this attribute was often extended to not just freeing hostages but destroying weapons, such as stolen missiles, thus redeem the West of the Oriental threat.

The eighth attribute is revelation and returns to the notion of identity. It is closely related to induction, since it reveals a characters true identity by the end of the film: the Arab Sheik turns out to be a European (The Sheik) or the thief is recognized as a prince, etc. The image of the veil is a central element of this attribute, since it has often been placed in front of the truth and the plot of the narrative is to reveal this truth. This aspect of the narrative reinforces the image of the Orient as a place of mystery and adventure whose mysteries in turn need to be revealed by the hero or heroine, who is mostly a European or American in disguise.

Reaffirmation, as the ninth attribute is basically the acceptance of the hero’s or heroine’s state. In its most prototypical form, the love between the hero and the female love interest is reaffirmed. The reaffirmation can almost always be understood as a reflection of the prevailing cultural values (i.e. marriage, social class structures).

The final attribute is mutilation. Unlike most of the other attributes, it can occur at any point of the narrative. It serves to give the film a certain atmosphere and often refers to the Islamic legal prescription to cut off hands of thieves. In its most prototypical form there is an amputation or a threat of an amputation of a character’s body parts usually symbolized in the form of a sword, knife or scalpel. Mutilation also serves to reinforce the feeling of powerlessness.

The meaning of these attributes and their realization might vary, but in short it is prototypically the European or American who is enchanted and seduced, but always returns home after having enjoyed a foreign country without ever questioning his own cultural values. He is reduced to slavery or imprisonment and dispossessed of his European/American self, but ultimately recovers from his travelling disorder to become the embodiment of the virtues of science, technology, and modernity.


[1] Vgl.: Eisele, John, The Wild East: Deconstructing the Language of Genre in the Hollywood Eastern, in Cinema Journal 41, No. 4, Summer2002, p. 73

[2] Vgl.: ebd.: p. 74f

[3] Shohat Ella, and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, New York 1994, p. 156

[4] Vgl.: Ebd.


ISBN (eBook)
501 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität zu Köln
Image Orient Selected Hollywood Movies History Stereotype Hauptseminar Orient America



Titel: The Image of the Orient in Selected Hollywood Movies - The History of a Stereotype