Some kind of ridiculous fever got into the systems of certain fair-skinned actors of yore when they applied face-paint and pretended to be ferocious African or Middle-Eastern or Indian warlord types. I’m thinking of Laurence Olivier as the Madhi in Khartoum, Herbert Lom as General Ben Yusuf in El Cid, and Eduardo Cianelli‘s Thuggee “guru” in Gunga Din.

Their performances were campy and racist in a kind of minstrel-show way, but they were so outlandish their performances went beyond the mere chewing of scenery. They didn’t inhabit the realms of excess and absurdity — they feasted on them. They made demonic possession almost into a form of comedy…but not quite.

Many of today’s boomer-aged neocons probably received their first images of aggressive Islamic fundamentalist wackjobbery from Olivier and Lom’s brown-skinned messengers of Allah.

I’m not sure when white actors began to think better of playing African or Middle-Eastern guys, but I think it was sometime in the late ’70s. The last time a major actor dared to pull it off was when Sean Connery played Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli in The Wind and the Lion (’75). I do recall that Alec Guiness‘s portrayal of an Indian wise man named Godbole in A Passage to India (’84) was seen as fairly ridiculous.