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Peter T Chattaway

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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Aslan confirmed the veracity of Bruckheimer’s historical appraisal. “Iranians are Aryans,” Aslan asserted. “If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era, all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal.” . . .

Well, if Aslan says so, it must be true. 8O I wonder if this means Gyllenhaal should be expecting a casting call for The Horse and His Boy.

Truth is, I was kind of wondering what the fuss re: J.G. in Prince of Persia was about for this very reason; unlike, say The Last Airbender, where a very real case could be made for whitewashing, this seemed like a fairly acceptable move. It's at least more acceptable than having John Wayne play Genghis Khan. (Then again, not being Iranian or in any way of Middle Eastern descent, perhaps my perspective is off).

I think the big difference is the passage of time and changing cultural expectations in a smaller world. Once upon a time Charleton Heston could play a Mexican. No longer.

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Truth is, I was kind of wondering what the fuss re: J.G. in Prince of Persia was about for this very reason; unlike, say The Last Airbender, where a very real case could be made for whitewashing, this seemed like a fairly acceptable move. It's at least more acceptable than having John Wayne play Genghis Khan. (Then again, not being Iranian or in any way of Middle Eastern descent, perhaps my perspective is off).

I think the big difference is the passage of time and changing cultural expectations in a smaller world. Once upon a time Charleton Heston could play a Mexican. No longer.

Or Mickey Rooney could play Asian.

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Truth is, I was kind of wondering what the fuss re: J.G. in Prince of Persia was about for this very reason; unlike, say The Last Airbender, where a very real case could be made for whitewashing, this seemed like a fairly acceptable move. It's at least more acceptable than having John Wayne play Genghis Khan. (Then again, not being Iranian or in any way of Middle Eastern descent, perhaps my perspective is off).

I think the big difference is the passage of time and changing cultural expectations in a smaller world. Once upon a time Charleton Heston could play a Mexican. No longer.

Or Mickey Rooney could play Asian.

The difference being that neither of those groups represent an historically Aryan people, whereas the Persians do (according to Wikipedia, the very name Iran comes from "Aryan"). That's not to say there's no room for concern* or that it wouldn't be better to have actors of Middle Eastern descent in the key roles; I would love to see more blockbusters with recognizably ethnic leads. All the same, with Prince of Persia the alleged "whitewashing" is less clear-cut than other examples cited (and even less clear-cut than The Last Airbender). At least, to me it is.

(btw, it occurs to me that the proper analogue to what's going on in PoP--in terms of genre--is less Heston, Rooney, or Wayne the elder, and more Patrick Wayne's turn as Sinbad the Sailor. The key difference being, again, that Sinbad is from the area covered by modern-day Iraq, is clearly presented as Muslim, etc etc etc.)

FWIW, here's the cover of the game The Sands of Time. Not sure it says much one way or the other re: "whitewashing," but it does provide a in-universe point of comparison.

*I think it's interesting that JG and Gemma Arterton play the "good" characters while the notably darker-complected Sir Ben Kingsley plays the villain--a move which does have its parallels in The Last Airbender. Then again, it may just be because Sir Ben Kingsley is a really terrific bad guy. :)

Edited by NBooth

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Speaking of this whole "Aryan" business, I'm not sure that the idea I've seen occasionally menitoned that ancient Persians were blue-eyed or fair-skinned isn't simply false. (I've always thought this likely but until just now never cared enough to investigate.)

My suspicion has its grounds in that as far as I know, the sort of waves of population movements that could cause such a change in the population demographics did not occur in Persia between the classical and modern eras. Now, I'm hardly an expert in this area, but in poking around Wikipedia, I did read a few things that are at least consistent with what little I know about this subject.

According to wiki, the term "Aryan" enters the English language in the 18th century as a linguistic term, describing a family of languages. By the 19th century, a racial theory was proposed that there were three basic races (white, black and yellow) and that all other races emerged by miscegenation, and which designated the white race as "Aryan". Now, this theory is entirely false, but it did lead to considerable confusion as to what it means to designate a people or nation as "Aryan": are you talking about the family of language they speak or their racial characteristics? As far as I can tell, the ancient Persians may have been "Aryan" in the linguistic sense, but there is no reason I know of to suppose that they were Aryan (i.e. white like Nordic Europeans) in any racial sense.

That a movie studio uses this idea to rationalize the long-standing Hollywood practice of casting white actors in non-white roles does nothing to persuade me that the idea is true.

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That a movie studio uses this idea to rationalize the long-standing Hollywood practice of casting white actors in non-white roles does nothing to persuade me that the idea is true.

I hope I didn't come across as in any way defending this long-standing practice. It's problematic in all sorts of ways, and it's perfectly possible that it's in play here as well (unconsciously, perhaps--like the Bechdel test, talk about "whitewashing" tells us more about trends than about the intentions of individual filmmakers). It just seemed to me that this could be a case where the alternate explanation is at least plausible.

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In fairness, I always like to point out that the era in which Charlton Heston played Mexicans (in Touch of Evil) and Hebrews (in The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur) was ALSO the era, more or less, in which Omar Sharif -- an Arab -- could play the Russian lead character in Doctor Zhivago.

(And what do we do with an Irish-Mexican like Anthony Quinn? He's best known for playing Zorba the Greek, but he also played Arabs and many other ethnicities as well. Would we necessarily categorize him as "white", full stop, simply because half of his ancestry could be labelled as such? And then there are all the Jewish actors who played Gentiles of one sort or another, e.g. Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, etc. Which reminds me: Prince of Persia co-star Ben Kingsley -- birth name Krishna Pandit Bhanji -- is half-Indian and quarter-Jewish.)

Anyway, that's all to say that ethnicity-blind casting goes both ways, and always has, to a degree.

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I wrote:

: Which reminds me: Prince of Persia co-star Ben Kingsley -- birth name Krishna Pandit Bhanji -- is half-Indian and quarter-Jewish.

Hmmm, following the links at Wikipedia, it seems we can go even further with this. Kingsley's father "was born in Kenya of Gujarati Indian descent", and the Gujarati are "an Indo-Aryan ethnic group". Though in this case, Indo-Aryan is "an ethno-linguistic term", not a racial one, so we may or may not be able to say, "Hey, look, there's an Aryan actor playing at least one of the major Aryan characters in this film."

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Regarding the whitewashing issues, it was the first thing to come to my mind when I watched the trailer, "Gyllenhaal playing a Persian? Where is Paul Mooney when you need him?"

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Anyway, that's all to say that ethnicity-blind casting goes both ways, and always has, to a degree.

Yeah, to a degree like 99.99% vs. 0.01%. Find me one Hollywood studio western, for example, where all the white roles were played by native american actors. The reverse was the rule for decades. Heck, it was considered an important breakthrough in 1970, in Little Big Man, when a native american got to play a major native american role.

Edited by bowen

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bowen wrote:

: Heck, it was considered an important breakthrough in 1970, in Little Big Man, when a native american got to play a major native american role.

And even then, it was actually a Native Canadian who played the Native American role! ;)

(Chief Dan George was a big, big deal here when I was growing up. I think he might have even visited my school -- but if not him, then a member of his family; he died in 1981, around the time I was starting Grade 6.)

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(Chief Dan George was a big, big deal here when I was growing up. I think he might have even visited my school -- but if not him, then a member of his family; he died in 1981, around the time I was starting Grade 6.)

CDG had great screen presence. Very like a movie star in that he was too distinctive to vanish into a role, but he was very hard not to be the guy you watched when he was in a scene.

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It's not really white washing because they didn't change anything from the games, in which the Prince is portrayed with dark hair and blue eyes. Visually, Gyllenhaal is a good fit.

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Yeah, I thought of that when I linked to the game-cover a few posts back. Unlike, say, the Sinbad movies (where authentic Arabian folklore was the--no doubt remote--basis, and whitewashing is a very real problem) or even The Last Airbender, PoP is based on a video game with established style, look, etc--so that faithfulness to the source material might look very different than it would for either of those movies. Of course, we might say that that pushes the problem back a step onto the game designers, but that just goes to show that concern about "whitewashing," while a problem, is less a guide to evaluating individual movies and more about pointing out a more general trend.

Edited by NBooth

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The reviews are trickling in now, and Prince of Persia opens midnight Thursday in some theatres, and it's already Thursday a.m. in some time zones anyway, so I guess it's safe to say this much:

It's Green Zone meets The Mummy.

And Alfred Molina effortlessly steals every scene he's in. I now almost have hope that Molina might make the NEXT Jerry Bruckheimer film, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, somewhat bearable.

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The concept of whitewashing doesn't have as much traction in game design, I think. Games in general are more ahistorical, acontextual, and freely speculative than films or books (excluding games obviously rooted in history). For instance, what would we call the frequency with which we see predominately light-haired, light-eyed characters in Japanese games, set in Japan or some pseudo-Asian milieu? Maybe Prince of Persia, being an American game, is still vulnerable to the charge of whitewashing. Personally, I don't see much issue with games having whatever sorts of characters they please, as long as they're consistent about their anachronisms. It's hard to complain about a character not being plausibly Persian when nothing else about the world is plausibly Persian either.

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My review.

Gaming fans may enjoy watching a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, October Sky) impersonate the acrobatic prince from the game, here called Dastan. As a leading man, Gyllenhaal succeeds only in reminding you [a.] how much Brendan Fraser or Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie brings to the party and [b.] how much more you would like being at that party.

Dastan moves like the Jackie Chan of ancient Persia, leaping, climbing and swinging around like, well, a video-game avatar. Today this is called parkour, but once upon a time, it was just what Jackie Chan did. Parkour can be great fun to watch. If only director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) would let us watch it. Instead, Newell (or his editors) assemble action scenes out of countless fragments of close-up motion devoid of context.

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My wife's assessment (and she likes the movie): Crouching Persians, Hidden Dagger.

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Ignatiy Vishnevetsky @ Mubi:

At under 2 hours, Prince of Persia is pretty short and concise for a Bruckheimer picture, but Bruckheimer movies do need efficient directors. Our pal Jerry B. has these archetypes and subjects—which you would call fixations if they seemed motivated by anything other than box office potentional (they are, however, actual fixations for the genuinely neurotic Michael Bay)—that he manages to build his big projects on again and again: likeable scoundrels, regal leaders, characters on the run from the government and the invariable plot point of dynastic / family honor, which unites movies about pirates, robots, middle school American history factoids and time-traveling Persians by giving their protagonists an unhealthy obsession with clearing the family name (this often plays into the large number of absent fathers in the Bruckheimerverse). A lean Bruckheimer film ends up consisting (as Prince of Persia does) of these tenets; what the films need, then, even to just be entertaining, is fat, an excess of scenes or scenery-chewing or scene-stealing, and the only time this movie actually comes close is when it cribs from Pirates of the Caribbean and makes a detour to fake bandit / ostrich-racing magnate / conspiracy nut Alfred Molina's desert tax haven. Bruckheimer franchisee / professional Nicolas Cage wrangler Jon Turteltaub would've made something more fun out of the movie's straight-faced silliness, heavy on dramatic eyeshadow, and Gore Verbinski would've at least cared about the editing and the images. Diagnosis: insufficienat mayhem. Newell has been given the tools to go Chuck Jones but he goes Hanna-Barbera instead, all formula, no (comic / dramatic / satirical) substance. Oh well, at least there's still The Sorceror's Apprentice to look forward to.

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FWIW, Jordan Mechner has posted the June 2005 draft of his screenplay for this film.

John August, who was involved in this film in its early days, comments:

You’ll notice many story and structural changes between this draft and the finished film. One of the biggest is in the opening: the movie adds backstory setting up Dastan as a fair-minded orphan adopted by the king. I prefer the original, which let him be the reckless gambler with no real responsibility, since he was third in line to the throne.

It’s the difference between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and sets a very different tone for the story.

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I found it of interest that when my niece was visiting and went to Disneyland that she said there is no sign of Prince of Persia to be seen.

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