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Retro Review: CARAVANS (1978)

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CARAVANS
(US/Iran - 1978)

Directed by James Fargo. Written by Nancy Voyles Crawford, Thomas A. McMahon and Lorraine Williams. Cast: Anthony Quinn, Jennifer O'Neill, Michael Sarrazin, Behrooz Vosoughi, Joseph Cotten, Christopher Lee, Barry Sullivan, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, Mohammad Taghi Kahnamooi, Jeremy Kemp, Duncan Quinn, Behrooz Gueramian, Parviz Gharib-Afshar, Parviz Jafari, Fahimeh Amouzandeh. (PG, 125 mins)

A costly flop for Universal in the fall of 1978, CARAVANS was based on a 1963 novel by James A. Michener and had been in development at various studios for well over a decade. Henri Verneuil, Richard Fleischer, and Herbert Ross were all attached to direct at different times, but the job ended up going to Clint Eastwood protege James Fargo, who had been part of the Malpaso inner circle for several years, serving as an assistant director on HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, BREEZY, THE EIGER SANCTION, and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. Eastwood eventually promoted Fargo to director on 1976's THE ENFORCER and 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, and in between Eastwood gigs, Fargo also logged time as an assistant director and production manager for Steven Spielberg on DUEL, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and JAWS. In short, two successful filmmakers could vouch for Fargo, which was probably the key to landing him the CARAVANS gig. But the film died instantly at the box office and Michener, whose novels were made into well-received films like THE BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, SAYONARA, SOUTH PACIFIC, HAWAII, and the epic 1978 NBC miniseries CENTENNIAL, didn't hold back in expressing his dissatisfaction with the finished product.


Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), the almost completely obscure CARAVANS (there isn't even a trailer on YouTube) is beautifully shot by the great Douglas Slocombe (THE LION IN WINTER, THE ITALIAN JOB, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), and as badly as it tanked, it still managed to nab one Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, losing to DEATH ON THE NILE. A US/Iranian co-production, it was shot on location in Iran during the waning days of the country being a friendly place for a movie shoot, just before the overthrow of the Shah and the takeover by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. In 1948 in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Zadestan, the US ambassador (Joseph Cotten) and a CIA official (Barry Sullivan) assign diplomat Mark Miller (Michael Sarrazin) to track down the whereabouts of Ellen Jasper (Jennifer O'Neill), the daughter of a powerful US senator. A free spirit, Ellen left her family and fled America, becoming one of the wives of feared Zadestan military figure Col. Nazrullah (famed Iranian star Behrooz Vosoughi), the nephew of the country's ruler Sardar Khan (Christopher Lee). Miller is granted permission by Khan to visit Nazrullah in his stronghold in the city of Bandahar, where the uncooperative colonel insists that Ellen is fine and that Miller will just have to take his word for it since she renounced her rights as an American and as her husband, he speaks for her. It turns out Ellen ran away from Nazrullah ten months earlier and he's been trying to find her as well. Following a lead on her possible location, Miller ends up crashing his Jeep in the middle of nowhere in the desert, where he's rescued by the Kochi, a nomadic tribe of gunrunners led by Zulffiqar (Anthony Quinn). Ellen has been hiding with the Kochi, who have welcomed her as one of their own and she has no intention of returning to either Nazrullah or her family in America. But Nazrullah, after learning Miller is traveling with the Kochi, correctly assumes Ellen is with them as well and leads his forces in hunting them down.


A tedious slog that feels twice as long as it is, CARAVANS ambles along with no momentum or sense of pacing whatsoever. An uncharacteristically blank Sarrazin is an unbelievably dull hero, and he's required to carry much of the film since Quinn and O'Neill don't even appear until 45 minutes in. Elsewhere, the other big names and familiar faces--Lee, Cotten, Sullivan, Jeremy Kemp--are relegated to cameos, but at least Lee gets to stroll around the visually stunning Shah Abbas Hotel, which was such a memorable location in the 1974 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS and functions here as Sardar Khan's palace (this would also be the first of three big-budget international duds for Quinn and Lee in a short period of time, the pair also appearing together in 1979's THE PASSAGE and 1981's THE SALAMANDER). A loving father eager to help his kids, Quinn also scored a prominent supporting role for his son Duncan Quinn as Zulfiqqar's ambitious son, though Duncan didn't inherit his dad's talent or onscreen charisma and his acting career stalled after small roles in just four films. It doesn't get any better when Fargo tries to shoehorn in some comic relief in the form of an oafish Kochi tribesman fighting with a stubborn camel, complete with wacky music and a punchline shot of the camel eating the tribesman's pants. And that's before the film deploys a feel-good montage set to the overwrought CARAVANS theme song "Caravan Song" performed by Scottish singer Barbara Dickson, which became a hit single in the UK. CARAVANS made a hasty retreat from theaters and was enough of a bomb that Fargo's Dipshit David Lean aspirations only resulted in the stalling of his directing career. EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE was already in the can and about to be released, but Eastwood effectively played the "James Fargo? Never heard of him!" card after that and never utilized his services again, and amidst TV gigs (including episodes of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING, THE A-TEAM, HUNTER, and BEVERLY HILLS 90210), forgettable B-movies (his last credit to date is the 2011 Casper Van Dien DTV biker movie BORN TO RIDE), and uncredited reshoots on the 1981 hit PRIVATE LESSONS, the only noteworthy film Fargo subsequently directed was the 1982 Chuck Norris actioner FORCED VENGEANCE.

Anthony Quinn, Behrooz Vosoughi, and Michael Sarrazin
can barely contain their enthusiasm on the set of CARAVANS. 


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