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The Good, and the bad and ugly: Western Cinema Images
Oct 1, 1993

The image (rather than the word) has come into power as a result of technological possibilities not available before the second half of this century. First Western cinema and then Western television have been used to embed particular negative images of non-Westerners in the minds of their ever-growing audiences, non-Western as well as Western. The typical story-line of the popular movies represents the non-Western setting as the passive background for an ‘adventure’ in which all that is good, interesting and energetic, is done by the Western characters. How many movies have we not all seen dotted about with the corpses of blacks or ‘Indians’ in which the story never pauses to ask how these people come to be in this story and what their deaths might mean to themselves or to their loved ones? Where the non-Western characters emerge from their background role, it is as people who cannot (and will never) manage their own story: if they are allowed the dignity of having a problem, of being narratively interesting, it is only so that the American or European characters can show them the solution. All too obviously, these are the fantasy plots behind the very real imperial and colonial attitudes which persist in Western relations with peoples and cultures that are not Western.

Together with massive campaigns to promote Western products, such story-lines and images, perpetuate the inferiorized stereotypes that used to be taught openly in the nineteenth century. Films especially can be seen as an arm of economic domination: ‘Because every film is a part of the economic system, it is also part of the ideological system... cinema and art are branches of ideology. None can escape; somewhere, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, all have their allotted place’ (Nicholls, 1976, vol.1, p.24).

Because the US got the edge over the Europeans in the mass-market film industry, Hollywood and what it stands for have often been accused, even by Europeans, of cultural imperialism. The English as well as the French often complain that the norms of popular culture in their countries have been ‘taken over’ by the Americans. But the fact is that the success of American styles has been largely due to their commercial skill and power relative to English and French products. In no sense can it be claimed that the American popular culture industry portrays the French or the English negatively. By contrast, it is true to say that Western cinema, particularly American cinema, portrays Orientals, especially Muslims, negatively as a matter of course. All easy, popular stories have goodies and baddies, but must the baddies so often be foreigners and need the foreigners be culturally foreign? In order to be popular, popular films reinforce popular stereotypes-it is a vicious circle, at least for its victims. For those who manage such images, popular cinema is a powerful instrument of cultural suppression and domination. As one writer maintains, the virtual monopoly Hollywood has enjoyed for the last quarter century has made it the single most powerful advocate and purveyor of a simplified, homogenized American culture (Collins, 1989).

Within this Hollywood style in particular, there has been a consistent Middle Eastern stereotype-Arab or Arab-Palestinian, or Turk or Iranian-with negative physical and moral characteristics- lustful, fanatical, irrational, cruel, scheming, unreliable, often cowardly, and always outwitted and defeated. The adventurer-hero, once in the Flash Gordon style of noble warrior on the side of the good (in simple contrast to arch-enemy Ming the Merciless, an Oriental tyrant), is now, typically, a morally imperfect figure, nevertheless worthy of the audience’s full sympathy. The ‘James Bond’ character of the sixties and seventies remains by far the most successful hero-formula. He was designed for British and American audiences to identify with: ‘he is worldly, has diverse but specialized expertise, and has a passion for excitement. He is self-reliant, proud, wedded to privacy, honest, candid, loyal, a man of honour…’ (Simon, 1989). This figure exemplifies, in a form appropriate to the genre of comic caricature, the virtues and ethos which are supposed to give the British and the Americans their directness and sense of humour, their get-up-and-go, their problem-solving success. The villain-figures altogether lack positive characteristics, even any energy or wit they have is of a mad, evil-genius type; their characters lack any exposition; they have no past, their only present is to pose the challenge to the hero. It follows that no audience, not even the non- British/American audience can possibly do otherwise than identify, through the momentum of the story, with the hero and the ethos he represents.

Among recent historical films which have to do with Muslim lands and people, the most popular have been Lawrence of Arabia, Death on the Nile, Midnight Express, and Robin Hood. Of these, only the first has any substantial claim to be a serious, well-made film. In it, Lawrence, a British army officer, stationed in Cairo during World War I, works to ally the Sharif of Makka with the British against the Turks. The Arabs are presented as bumbling, loud, unruly primitives with some barbarian dignity but, in the end, easily bribed, easily tricked. The Turks are utterly vile and disgusting with no saving qualities of any kind. Indeed, the Turkish Pasha in Egypt is, in addition to being, ugly, foul and aggressive, a sodomite- characteristics flatly contradicted by historical evidence (Kirkbride, 1956). The fact that Lawrence was a British spy with very British images about the desert, about Arabs, Turks and Muslims in general, never enters into the film or the consciousness of its audience-there is not the slightest hint that the events might be presented from another point of view and so tell quite a different story. For all the undeniable beauty of some scenes, this film well illustrates the general point made by Raymond Williams that, in spite of their being artistic, works of art still serve an ideological function, that is, serve as propaganda (Williams, 1982). Embedded in Lawrence of Arabia there are all the usual distortions, political and cultural, which less artistic films present also, but crudely.

Midnight Express has been widely and continuously shown since its production in 1978. Though shot mostly in a nineteenth-century British barracks in Malta, the film is set in Istanbul which comes over as a most depressing place - a shock surely for anyone who has actually visited it. David Putnam, the director, freely admits that the film is based on a ‘dishonest book’ (Shipman, 1984, vol.2, p.1103). It wholly misrepresents what really happened to Billy Hase who was sentenced in Turkey for drug smuggling: the story implies that he was innocent; it makes much of his escape, though he was released under an amnesty agreement’ (ibid.). The quality of the director’s attention to the Islamic setting can be judged from the scene in which hairy- eared Hamidou (the actor is in fact an American) is whipping Jimmy with a leather belt while some other Turks are praying to Allah - Jimmy’s yells of pain provide the ‘music’ to the praying chorus (Kael, 1980, p.498).

Much the same kind of attention (and the same intention) is evident in the opening scene of Robin Hood: in a gloomy atmosphere the call to prayer rises from a minaret in Jerusalem, then an abrupt ‘cut’ to a filthy prison where an executioner is chopping off the hand of a prisoner - an illustration for the audience of Islamic justice. The point of these and similar devices of narrative and plot of setting, colour, tone and music - many examples could be given - is not only to present an image of Islam and Muslims that is as negative and humiliating as possible. It is also intended to contrast that negative with the positive virtues of the Western characters portrayed within the same story: the audience are required (and expected) to conclude that ‘the Americans, and the Englishmen and the Swedes, are civilized and sensitive...’ (Kael, 1980, p.498).


  • COLLINS, J. (1959) Uncommon cultures: Popular Culture and Post Modernism, Routledge, London.
  • KAEL, P. (1980) When the lights Go Down, Holt, Rinehart & Wilson, New York.
  • KIRKBRIDE, Sir As. (1956) A Crackle of Thorns: Experiences in the Middle East, John Murray, London.
  • NICHOLLS, B. (1976) (ed.) Movies and Methods, University of California Press.
  • SHIPMAN, D. (1984) The Story of Cinema, Hodder & Stoughton, London..
  • SIMON, S.R. (1989) The Middle East in Crime Fiction, Lilian Barber Press, New York.
  • WILLIAMS, R. (1982) The Sociology of Culture, Fontana, London.