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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 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.

Plot: French peasant girl encounters mysterious man in the woods

Before becoming a filmmaker Michel Mardore - the nom de plume for Michel Jean Guinamant - worked as a critic for Positif, les Cahiers du Cinéma, Les Lettres Françaises, Lui, Pariscope, Cinéma and Le Nouvel Observateur. For many years he contributed film criticism to the radio station France Inter (Le Masque et la Plume) and he’s regarded as one of the foremost film critics in the country. He also wrote a handful of novels in the sixties and seventies and worked as a photographer. Leading man Horst Buchholz was an actor that primarily worked in German television and cinema. He was a fixture in World War II movies of various stripe. Buchholz appearead in offerings as diverse as The Magnificent Seven (1960), John Sturges western take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Umberto Lenzi’s macaroni war epic From Hell to Victory (1979), and Roberto Benigni’s Academy Award winning historic drama La Vita è Bella (1997).

Receiving an “introducing” (or rather “for the first time on the screen”) credit was Muriel Catalá. Catalá, who played some Lolita roles in French sex comedies and coming-of-age dramas, was often cast for her dashing looks. In Michel Mardore’s World War II drama The Savior (1971) Catalá debuted in a role that Isabelle Adjani auditioned for but didn’t end up playing. Catalá and Adjani did end up working together on Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972), the directorial debut for Nina Companeez. The turning point for Catalá came when she appeared in the period drama the Nuns of Saint Archangel (1973) with Anne Heywood, Ornella Muti, Martine Brouchard, and Claudia Gravy. In the decade that she acted she shared the screen with Alain Delon, Brigitte Bardot, Donald Pleasence, and Sophia Loren. A good portion of her earlier roles tended to focus greatly on her physical attributes while she was actually tolerable as a comedic actress. Had Catalá been offered something different than comedies and coming-of-age dramas she probably could have acted long than she did. That isn't to say that she was the French Gloria Guida or a star-in-the-making the way Edwige Fenech, or Barbara Bouchet were. She could probably have carved out a career as a giallo babe or as a supporting actress in Italian and Spanish genre cinema. As limited as an actress as Muriel was not even she deserved to end up in the muck of exploitation quite the way she did. No wonder she quit acting.

In the summer of 1943 somewhere in the South of German occupied France young peasant girl Jeanne Lambert, who everybody simply calls Nanette (Muriel Catalá), finds a slightly injured but strapping soldier named Claude (Horst Buchholz) walking in the woods one day. He claims to be an Englishman looking to get in contact with local forces of la Résistance. Coming from a family of Pétain supporters Nanette is initially reluctant to offer help to the foreigner, but agrees to hide him out of sight in one of the more remote barns on the family farm. Her father (Roger Lumont), mother (Hélène Vallier), and brother are far too occupied with the farm to pay her any mind. Claude introduces Nanette to the intellectual arts and their conversations challenge her limited worldview. As she tends to his wounds and brings him food a bond starts to develop between the two. As time goes by Nanette finds herself increasingly drawn to the beautiful and worldly Englishman and soon she uninhibitedly enjoys being naked in his presence. She offers her body to him at various points but Claude never reciprocates her bodily affections. Some time later Nanette introduces her mysterious houseguest to monsieur Flouret (Henri Vilbert), the local councillor and a known supporter of the Allied Forces. Claude promises to whisk her away to his far-away home in Great Britain once the war has ended, so that the two can finally enjoy their lives together. Then one day Claude tells Nanette out of the blue that he’s ready to put his secret mission in motion, and with that he promptly disappears as a thief in the night leaving the young maiden with a nigh on irreparable heartbreak.

Embittered she betrays the Englishman to monsieur Monette (Michel Delahaye), a known Nazi collaborator, in an act of self-preservation and vengeance bearing consequences so far-reaching that Nanette is barely able to foresee at such tender age. One day the sounds of explosions and gunfire render the peaceful silence of the countryside. Nanette is swiftly captured by SS soldiers and without much of an explanation brought before their commanding officer. When she lays eyes upon the officer it is him, Claude; the man who she believed to be an Englishman. Claude, ever so eloquent, explains to young Nanette that she has committed two grave crimes. First, she betrayed a hero to the enemy. Second, she is now complicit with the Nazi as she assisted German forces in annihilating hidden maquisard troops and assorted Résistance fighters among the populace of her inconspicuous and sleepy farming village. As a final act of betrayal Claude orders Nanette to instruct the execution of the entire village; including her parents, and even monsieur Monette, now no longer useful to the Germans. With a gun pointed at her head Nanette is left no other choice but to indulge Claude’s sadistic bout of Faustian corruption and she’s soon reduced to a sobbering mess from all the horror.

Twenty years pass and a distinguised-looking automobile rolls into the remodeled village. A sharply-dressed businessman disgorges from the expensive vehicle and shares that he loves the quiet serenity that the region is known for. A local (Jean-Pierre Sentier) informs the man about the history of the region, how the entire village was razed to the ground during World War II and had to be rebuild, and how he inherited an old family farm quite by happenstance when he met his wife. The man introduces the suave stranger to his demure and shy wife Nanette (Danièle Ajoret), now ravaged from age and from silently brooding over that one cursed day in her youth. The three engage in respectful chit-chat over a bottle of wine until it dawns upon Nanette who this swanky gentleman is. Barely able to pour the last glass Nanette storms away leaving her husband without nary an explanation. She returns brandishing a shotgun and as Claude begs to forgive her for what he did in the past, Nanette vows to right that one immeasureably terrible wrong of her youth. “For you, Englishman!”, she utters as she coldly shoots Claude who dies in dismayed silence.

The most interesting aspect of The Savior is that an actual historical event served as the basis for Mardore’s screenplay. On 10 June 1944 a regiment of German soldiers under command of major Adolf Diekmann massacred 642 civilians in the town of Oradour-sûr-Glane, in the Haute-Vienne region of France, and subsequently razed the entire village to the ground. After the war Charles de Gaulle visited the remains of Oradour and named it a national monument. De Gaulle ordered a rebuild of the village nearby. In 1953 the new Oradour-sûr-Glane was completed with the remains of the original remaining a historical site. What exactly led to the purge has never been truly explained as it was overshadowed by the Dilice, Czechoslovakian purge of 10 June 1942. It is widely believed to be a retaliation against a Resistance bombing just two days earlier, on 8 June 1944, that killed a colleague (and personal friend) of Diekmann. The Savior might be a drama but it primarily serves as an indictment against the atrocities and the horrors of war. Nothing is more terrible and ravaging than war and how it pushes otherwise good people to become immoral monsters. The Savior makes a very strong argument.

Muriel Catalá is ravishing in her debut role as nubile peasant girl Nanette. It’s a very physical role and that it required a fair bit of nudity at least gives credence to the idea that Catalá was serious about her craft. For the longest time Catalá was cast in coming-of-age dramas and sexy comedies and she never was able to quite make it. The Savior is a tour de force for Horst Buchholz. It was screened on the Cannes film festival in 1970 with both Muriel Catalá and Buchholz attending. The Savior was prescient how culture would evolve in decades to come and how its ugly ideology would rear its head once again. It’s a frightening piece of foreshadowing if there ever was one and it has lost none of its power. The Savior is low on action and World War II is always far in the background, but the picture it paints is damning. It is a protest against the machinations of war, of the politics that profit from it and all the lives it shatters in the process. It constantly looms on the horizon. The ghosts of war always come back to haunt us. It was bold screenplay, even for the 1970s – and The Savior has lost nothing of its power or the relevance of its message. It’s as topical now as it was then. If there ever was a European equivalent to Dalton Trumbo’s Vietnam war epic Johnny Got His Gun (1971), or an antecedent for Summer of '42 (1971), Sophie's Choice (1982), or The Reader (2008), this is it.