Plot: Sheherazade tells tall tales on the day of her execution.
In 1990 the peplum, or sword and sandal genre, was all but extinct. In that barren wasteland of a ten-year period the last and dying embers of the peplum revival of the seventies – and Paul Naschy’s The Cantabrians (1980) utter failure at the box office a decade earlier had already signaled that there no longer was a market for grand historical - or expensive costume epics. Not even the troubled big budget Terry Gilliam production The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) could stave off the inevitable. Just like the swashbuckling adventure and Oriental fantasy movies in the fifties and sixties, the sword and sandal genre no longer found an audience in the cineplexes. The 90s were unkind to any number of genres, and 1001 Nights would be (and, in all likelihood, is) an obscurity if it weren’t for the presence of one actress who would become a beloved Hollywood superstar and celebrity a decade hence.
1001 Nights was released, to little fanfare and acclaim, in 1990. It was a firmly tongue-in-cheek send-up to the Arabian Nights adventures of the fifties and sixties. Apparently the subject of some budget principal photography took place in France with additional location shooting in Malta, Morocco, and Tunisia and production lasting from April 17, 1989 to August 1, 1989. For 1001 Nights special effects man Christian Guillion had 8 million French francs at his disposal and the costumes were inspired by 19th century paintings.
Everybody has a skeleton or two in their closet. In case of Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones there are, well, more than a few. The at the time 21 year-old Zeta-Jones was performing at the West End theatre in London when she was spotted by director Philippe de Broca. 1001 Nights was her first major role, long before The Phantom (1996), and The Haunting (1999) sullied her reputation. We all start somewhere and before Catherine Zeta-Jones was in The Mask Of Zorro (1998), High Fidelity (2000), Traffic (2000), Chicago (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Terminal (2004), The Legend Of Zorro (2005), and No Reservations (2007) she played Sheherazade in a little seen and zany subversion of the classic Oriental fantasy adventures of old. If it’s remembered for anything, it’s for Zeta-Jones’ wide array sexy costumes and one spectacular nude scene.
Philippe de Broca was a French director that made a name for himself as a specialist in breezy comedies and riveting action/adventure romps. De Broca began as an intern under Henri Decoin, and from there worked his way up to assistant directing under the aegis of domestic masters of cinema Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Pierre Schoendoerffer. Among de Broca’s most remembered titles are his films with Jean-Paul Belmondo, including the swashbuckling adventure Swords Of Blood (1962), the spy-action/adventure romps That Man From Rio (1964), as well as The Man From Acapulco (1973) and Incorrigible (1975). De Broca often worked with Jean-Pierre Cassel, Philippe Noiret and Geneviève Bujold. In the late eighties and nineties Philippe de Broca primarily helmed a number of TV movies, of which 1001 Nights was one. 1001 Nights (or Les 1001 Nuits as it was domestically released as) was the only Arabian Nights production that de Broca ever helmed and it allowed him to play up to his penchant for comedy and high-octane action/adventures set against an Oriental fantasy background. Whether director de Broca intended it as a spiritual successor or homage to 1001 Nights (1968) with Luciana Paluzzi is presently unclear, but the similarities are striking indeed.
In Baghdad around the year 1000 astronomer Jimmy Genious (Gérard Jugnot) defies Allah by insisting that his destiny lies in the stars and not on Earth. Allah decides to teach Jimmy a lesson by sending him to 20th century London, England where he’s cursed not only with perpetual rainfall, but is locked in said time and location unless someone summons him back to Baghdad with the magic lamp wherein he's imprisoned. Around this time Sasanian king Shahryār or simply The King (Thierry Lhermitte) decides to take more wives besides his Queen (Farida Khelfa). One of the candidates for that position is the daughter (Florence Pelly) of Grand Vizier Ja'far ibn Yahya (Roger Carel). The Grand Vizier shrugs off his daughter’s idea as he considers her not attractive enough for the King’s liking. The Grand Vizier summons The Executioner (Georges Montillier) to the court, who brings his two kids Aziz (Faycal Smaili) and Azaz (Omar Zerrei) with him. Brought to the public square and before her executioner Sheherazade (Catherine Zeta-Jones) decides instead of undergoing her fate to spin a wondrous tale of how she came in the king’s harem. Each tale leads into a new one and at one point Sheherazade has to admit that the grand tale she has been spinning has turned “a bit episodic.”
As a courtesan in the king’s court Sheherazade is expected to satisfy the King’s carnal needs, something which she doesn’t look forward to. Instead she decides to do a sultry dance which the King doesn’t mind. As a token of appreciation she is given a jewel-encrusted ring while continuing to spur the King’s advances to consummate their relationship. One day Sheherazade flees the court and escapes into the dusty streets of Baghdad. There she’s promptly bought by a slave trader (Abdelkader Lofti) but she’s able to sneak away long enough to offer up her ring as collateral to a benevolent stranger as a means of regaining her freedom. In the streets she comes into an old lamp that she decides to clean up to obtain some much-needed currency. In doing so she releases Jimmy Genious from bondage, who will prove vital to her survival.
The benevolent stranger introduces himself as Aladdin (Stéphane Freiss), an aspiring young philosopher, but Sheherazade leaves him to fend for himself when things start to get too hot and heavy for her liking. Meanwhile she has to continually escape the royal guards who the King has sent to look for his prized possession. “I am very good at running away,” chirps Sheherazade at one point. Fortunately Jimmy Genious is on hand whenever Sheherazade’s womanly wiles, strong legs and quick wits are not enough to keep her out of harm’s way. After one such daring escape Sheherazade ends up naked in the lap of Sinbad (Vittorio Gassman), a full-time drunk and over-the-hill sailor who due to seasickness prefers to imagine his travels across the open seas rather than to actually undertake them. How Sheherazade ends up in Sinbad's lap is one of the production's greatest gags.
Sheherazade, beautiful and in an absolute minimum of fabric, performs another sultry, hip shaking dance that causes middle-aged Sinbad to faint in awe. In company of Sinbad, Sheherazade reinvents herself as a fearsome pirate queen. Sinbad, who isn’t the sailor as the stories have made him out to be, is rescued from dying at sea by Jimmy on multiple occassions. Her conquest of the seven seas brings her on to the shores where the King is camping out. Believing her perished in the sea Sheherazade finally gives herself to him and together with Jimmy and Sinbad they form a travelling roadshow in a soon-to-be very famous showgirl / magician double-act. At long last Sheherazade has realized her life-long dream.
Sheherazade’s traveling roadshow extravaganza becomes such a rousing success that they draw the attention of the Grand Vizier who sabotages her show when they land in Baghdad. As through no choice of their own The King and Jimmy are thrown back to contemporary London, The Grand Vizier condemns Sheherazade to death on trumped up charges of regicide. In the absence of a ruler The Grand Vizier crowns himself king and orders Sheherazade to be executed. The Executioner refuses to behead the lovely courtesan and everything comes to a head when Sheherazade finishing her story coincides with the belated arrival of Jimmy and The King in Baghdad by helicopter. The King ousts the scheming Grand Vizier, putting Jimmy Genious in his stead, and crowns Sheherazade to be his queen. Supposedly, although it’s never explicitly mentioned, all live happily ever after.
To her credit Zeta-Jones worked her way up from television to the big screen and avoided the early pitfall of doing the typical cheap horror film early on in her career. It wouldn’t be until The Haunting (1999), a loose adaptation of the Robert Wise 1963 original, that Zeta-Jones indirectly worked with legendary American exploitation – and pulp producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. Like most big budget, special effects-driven Hollywood horror movies in the nineties The Haunting is infinitely inferior to the original and maddeningly mediocre otherwise. In a rather interesting decision Zeta-Jones was dubbed in 1001 Nights despite her being fluent in four languages, including French. And let’s be honest, nobody is going to see 1001 Nights for the story. Just like nobody endures 1001 Nights (1968) voluntarily for the story, but rather to see Luciana Paluzzi. The only reason to even search out 1001 Nights is Catherine Zeta-Jones before she became a megastar – and does it ever deliver. Whether she's performing sultry dances as a harem girl, charming her way out of a bind, or parachuting from a biplane whilst losing her clothes, 1001 Nights is all about Zeta-Jones and her frequently disrobed shenanigans. It does everything that the earlier Arabian Nights adventure with Paluzzi couldn’t.
As far as early career embarassments go a young actress could fare far worse than 1001 Nights. There’s a child-like innocence about the project and as a spoof of the Arabian Nights genre it works wonderfully well despite, or in spite of, its light science fiction zaniness. For a spoof to work the most effectively it needs a screenplay that understands the conventions of the genre it is parodying. 1001 Nights writer Jérôme Tonnerre understood that and by making it a pastiche of several known Arabian Nights properties he and director de Broca effectively satirize the conventions of the genre while staying faithful to the source material. The screenplay is also largely a preamble to put Catherine Zeta-Jones in whatever colorful, sexy or crazy outfit the writers could dream up. Zeta-Jones takes it in stride and 1001 Nights combines her love for dress up, song and dance into one. No wonder she chose this part as her first major role. It's everything an up-and-coming theater actress could dream of, even if it required her shedding fabric at one point.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that 1001 Nights even got made in the first place. The peplum had been extinct for a decade by that point and it wouldn’t be until Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) ten years later that the genre experienced a brief big budget resurgence. Gladiator proved not strong enough to revive the genre and neither did surrounding productions Troy (2004) and Kingdom Of Heaven (2005). No wonder then that 1001 Nights is has been relegated to a footnote in the genre and is completely forgotten otherwise. Catherine Zeta-Jones has since become a Hollywood darling and in most of her official biographies 1001 Nights curiously isn't mentioned while her work in the London theater, the very thing that led to her discovery, is. Everybody has to start somewhere and Catherine started here. Even here it was clear that she was destined for superstardom.