The obituaries for Omar Sharif have understandably focused on his performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. Over his long career, Sharif may not have done quite enough films, whether notable or not, to stand as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, but very few actors other than the great ones have given two iconic performances such as his portrayals of Sharif Ali and Yuri Zhivago–never mind two such performances within such a relatively short time span so early in their careers.
Although I am aware that the film failed to live up to expectations, I have personally enjoyed Behold a Pale Horse, and I have found Sharif’s performance as the Spanish priest, Father Francisco, to be especially compelling. In 1964, the same year in which Behold a Pale Horse was released, Sharif was part of the large “all-star” cast for the triptych film, The Yellow Rolls Royce. I had not seen the film—had not even been aware of its existence—until about a year ago, when it was shown on Turner Classic Movies. Playing a Yugoslav partisan named Davitch, Sharif exhibited the sort of relaxed confidence that made his performance stand out even among those of an “all-star” cast.
Indeed, the ability to play a broad range of nationalities as if he were drawing on his own personal heritage and experience may have been the defining quality of Sharif’s screen persona. Perhaps this is not surprising, since Sharif was born in Egypt but to parents who were of Lebanese and Syrian nationality and members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. After studying languages at Victoria College in Alexandria, Sharif earned a baccalaureate degree in mathematics and physics from Cairo University—and then studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Well-traveled, blessed with striking good looks, projecting an air of worldly sophistication, and fluent in six languages (Arabic, English, French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish), Sharif looked very much at home in a multicultural world—well before the term “multicultural” ever became a buzzword.
Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in my favorite film starring Sharif, The Night of the Generals. In it Sharif plays Major Grau, an investigator with German military intelligence during World War II. I am willing to admit that this film may qualify as a “guilty pleasure.” But, besides Sharif, it does star Tom Courtney as an ordinary German soldier caught up in the savage crimes committed by the officer for whom her serves as a driver and personal aide and Donald Pleasance as a German general caught up in the nearly successful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Most memorably, Peter O’Toole plays General Tanz—a soulless, cadaverous-looking Nazi officer whose personal psychopathology seems a metaphor for and yet somehow singularly distinct from the brutal excesses of the regime that he serves. General Tanz is a serial murderer of prostitutes, and over the course of the war and in shifting locations across Nazi-occupied Europe, Sharif’s Major Grau slowly closes in on the killer. Unfortunately, just as Grau is about to accuse and to arrest Tanz, the assassination plot against Hitler fails and Tanz, the loyal Nazi, is able to summarily eliminate Grau along with the conspirators. But, several decades later, a French police investigator named Morand, who owes a debt to Grau for not exposing him as a member of the Resistance during the war, links the serial murders of several prostitutes to Grau’s old case. He closes in on Tanz, confronting him at a reunion of Tanz’s old Panzer division, and this time Tanz’s only avenue of escape is suicide.
The film is adapted from a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, and it synthesizes elements of the historical novel and the action, espionage, suspense, and detective genres. Released in 1967, the film also anticipates the intense cultural fascination with psyhcopathology of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s.
When I was an undergraduate, I earned baccalaureate degrees in both English and history. In both disciplines, I was very interested in the first half of the twentieth century—and especially interested in narratives, both nonfiction and fiction, of the two World Wars. At a used-book sale, I happened across a hardcover copy of one of Kirst’s Gunner Asch novels. The novels focus on an ordinary German soldier’s experience on the Eastern Front, from the invasion of Poland to the last-ditch defense of Germany against the overwhelming Soviet offensive to the post-war political partition of Germany. There have been so few novels in English about that theater of the war that, when I discovered that Kirst had written a a series of novels featuring Asch’s name in their titles, I immediately ordered all of them through inter-library loan: The Revolt of Gunner Asch; Forward, Gunner Asch; The Return of Gunner Asch; and What Became of Gunner Asch. At the time, I was working as a security person on the overnight shift at a home for emotionally disturbed children, and I still vividly recall reading one novel each night over most of one work week. I later discovered that there was a fifth novel in the series, Party Games. But shortly after reading the four novels with “Asch” in their titles, I read Kirst’s other novels that had been translated into English and had become bestsellers–most notably, The Wolves, The Affairs of the Generals, Last Stop, Camp 7, and, of course, The Night of the Generals. So I undoubtedly came to the film very predisposed to enjoy it.
Interestingly, unlike Asch, Kirst received a battlefield commission and became an officer for his performance in combat. He was a member of the Nazi party, but later claimed, “’One did not really know one was in a club of murderers.’” However dubious I find that claim, his Gunner Asch novels do exhibit an acute awareness of what military life and war are like for an ordinary soldier who is largely just trying to survive and whose perspective on the broader ideological meanings of the war does not extend very much beyond the immediate horizon.
The more cosmopolitan sophistication of Sharif’s screen persona probably would have prevented him from playing Gunner Asch convincingly. Yet, paradoxically, in his most signature roles, Sharif did play characters whose personal integrity and personal yearnings were swallowed up in, and yet somehow not entirely obliterated by, sweeping historical events.