John Milius is one of the most under appreciated and under utilized film directors working in Hollywood. For one thing, unlike Spielberg and Stone, Milius is very politically incorrect. He is a proud member of the National Rifle Association and has on occasion described himself as a “Zen fascist”, no doubt to needle his more liberal acquaintances. Of course, had he toed the Hollywood line more, his body of work would have been larger, if not more entertaining. One of his first films, The Wind and the Lion, is also one of his most enjoyable.
This film takes place in Morocco in 1904 and is based on a real life event in which an American named Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped by a Berber chieftain named Raisuli. The two actually became friends and eventually Perdicaris was released unharmed.
No doubt for dramatic reasons, Milius changed the sex of the hostage from male to female, naming her Eden Perdicaris, played in the movie with spunk and fire by a pre Murphy Brown, pre Boston Legal Candice Bergen. She has two children, who are also carried off in a daring raid by a band of Berber nomads led by Mulay Achmed Mohammed el-Raisuli the Magnificent, played with panache by Sean Connery.
Raisuli soon finds that he has a handful in his female hostage. At one point, defiantly, Mrs. Perdicaris asks if he prays. Five times a day, replies Raisuli. Mrs. Perdicaris wonders how he finds the time with him kidnapping women and children and cutting peoples’ heads off all the time. “If I miss the morning prayer, I pray twice in the afternoon,” Raisuli replies without missing a beat. “Allah is very understanding.” This sort of banter really enlivens the movie.
Raisuli kidnapped Mrs. Perdicaris in order to embarrass the rulers of Morocco, whom he considers corrupt and in the pay of European colonialists. But then he finds that he has another problem-a big one. He has aroused the wrath of President of the United States Teddy Roosevelt, played by the late Brian Keith, never a good idea. Roosevelt sends a fleet of warships loaded with Marines and an ultimatum, “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead”, much to the rage of Raisuli and the amusement of Perdicaris.
There’s a series of scenes in which Perdicaris and her children (who think they are on a grand adventure) escape from Raisuli’s fortress, fall into the hands of real desert bandits, and are rescued single handed by Raisuli himself with rifle and sword. As he bears her back to the fortress, he tells her not for the last time, “Mrs. Perdicaris, you are a lot of trouble.”
Meanwhile, the Americans, having lost patience with the government of Morocco, decide to intervene militarily. In a remarkable mirror image of the Berber raid at the beginning of the movie, a company of Marines and sailors march through the streets of Tangiers in close, disciplined ranks, sweep aside the palace guard with rifle fire and bayonets, and seize the Bashaw, the nobleman who is the real power in the country.
They do this before the shocked eyes of European soldiers and diplomats who doubtlessly then, as now, were clucking their tongues at the impetuousness of those Americans. Remember, this film came out in late 1975 when the fall of South East Asia had cemented the conventional wisdom that all military intervention was folly.
A deal is struck. Mrs. Perdicaris and her children will be exchanged for gold and certain concessions. Raisuli and his followers bear their hostages to a remote village where a garrison of German troops and US Marines await. The Germans welsh on the deal, take Raisuli captive, and Mrs. Perdicaris and her children are placed in the custody of the Marines.
In a strange twist, Mrs. Perdicaris demands of the Marines that America’s honor means that Raisuli needs to be set free. This sets up a bizarre battle between US Marines and Raisuli’s Berber followers on the one hand, and the Germans on the other.
Of course, in the end, the damsel in distress is rescued, Raisuli is rescued, and American honor is maintained in the face of European perfidy. The film is shot full of gorgeous scenes of the desert and set piece battles worthy of anything out of Lawrence of Arabia. Other stand out performances include those of John Huston as Secretary of State John Hay and Steve Kanaly as Captain Jerome, USMC. Even today, The Wind and the Lion is a wonderful, politically incorrect movie that celebrates martial virtues, honor, and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. Too bad there are not more like it.