So about a billion years ago I started to review Omar Khayyam (aka The Lifes, Loves, and Adventures of Omar Khayyam, 1957, dir. William Dieterle), but then I got sidetracked by the awfulness that is Gods of Egypt, as well as by a small mountain of exams. Having finally dug my way through that mountain, I can finish my review of the movie about the Persian poet.
The central plot of the film is inspired by a story that Omar Khayyam made two close friends during his youth, Hasan-i Sabbah and Nizam al-Mulk, and that they promised that whichever one of them was successful, he would promote the other two. (I haven’t been able to track down the origins of the story, so I can’t confirm that it’s historical fact, or that it’s even a medieval story. But all three men are Persians and contemporaries, so it’s certainly possible.) Nizam was appointed vizier by the Turkish sultan Alp Arslan, a post that allowed him to virtually rule the Turkish state for 20 years, and he supposedly offered Omar and Hasan court posts. Omar rejected the offer, but agreed to let Nizam construct an astronomical observatory. Hasan accepted the offer but then had to flee when he tried to arrange the assassination of Nizam. Nizam was eventually assassinated in 1092.
At the start of Omar Khayyam, the film establishes the friendship between Omar (Cornel Wilde), Hasan (Michael Rennie) and Nizam (Sebastian Cabot), who arranges places at court for both of them. The film doesn’t understand that Hasan-i Sabbah’s given name is ‘Hasan’, the ‘i’ being part of the descriptor ‘the bright’ (or literally, ‘the morning’); instead, throughout the film he’s called ‘Hasani’.
Hasan is historically a far more interesting figure than Nizam. Raised in Persia, some time around 1070 he converted from Sunni Islam to the branch of Shia Islam known as Ismailism and swore his loyalty to the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, whom the Ismailis acknowledged as the Imam.
I don’t have room to explain in detail what the Shiite Islam is, but here’s the short version. Sunni Islam maintained that after Muhammad’s death, the Islamic community should be led by a caliph, a successor to the Prophet’s political and military authority, but not his spiritual authority. This caliph did not have to be a personally moral man, only a leader who could ensure the stability of the state so that Muslims could worship properly. Nor did he have to be related to the Prophet. The minority Shiites, however, argued that the caliph, or as they preferred to call him, the Imam, inherited Muhammad’s spiritual authority as well as his secular authority, and that therefore the office could only pass to one of Muhammad’s descendants by his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. As the Shiites see it, the Imam was a divinely-inspired moral examplar as well as a political leader.
Because they were in the minority, the Shiite view did not win out, and the Sunni understanding of the caliph came to dominate. After the Sunni caliph Yazid I engineered the death in battle of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, Shiism became a religion of protest, rejecting what it saw as the corrupt leadership of the Sunni caliphs in favor of allegiance to the Imam, a politically powerless spiritual leader descended from Hussein.
In 765, the sixth Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq died, and the Shiite community split over who was the seventh Imam. One branch maintained that Jafar’s dead son Ismail was the rightful Imam and that the Imamate should pass through him to his son Muhammad ibn Ismail, while the other branch chose to follow Jafar’s still living younger brother Musa ibn Jafar. These two branches came to be known as Sevener Shia (also Ismailism) and Twelver Shia. Today, most Shiites, such as the Iranians, are Twelver Shiites. But in the 10th century, a branch of Sevener Shiites took power in Egypt, claiming to be descended from the Muhammad ibn Ismail, establishing the so-called Fatimid Caliphate.
The Fatimids actively worked to promote the Ismaili doctrine as a way to strengthen their rule, and Hassan-I Sabbah becames one of their earliest missionaries. In 1088, he seized control of the fortress of Alamut in Persia and developed it into a base from which he and his followers could operate.
Sabbah built a religious order dedicated to advancing the Ismaili cause against its Sunni (and Christian) opponents using a variety of tactics, but the one they are most known for is assassination. In fact, they were commonly referred to as the Assassins, which is where we get the word from. One rank of the Assassins was the Fidayin or ‘sacrifices’, who were operatives willing to die in the course of an assassination. Their standard method was to kill a key political figure in a very public way, thus eliminating an enemy and sowing maximum fear and confusion. Sabbah and his successors to his leadership used the Fidayin very effectively, although they were never able to achieve actual victory.
There are two persistent questions/rumors about the Assassins, and they’re connected. Where did this group get its name and how was Sabbah able to achieve such a high degree of loyalty that his men were willing to undertake what were essentially suicide missions for him? (For those who don’t know, there is an extremely strong prohibition against suicide in Islam, modern suicide bombers not withstanding) The legend is that Sabbah used hashish on them, drugging them into a state of unconsciousness, and then having his men smuggle them into a special garden where they experienced all sorts of pleasures before being drugged again and smuggled out. Sabbah then supposedly told them that he could guarantee their entrance to Paradise if they committed an assassination for him.
Unfortunately, these stories are highly suspect. They seem to derive from later Christian attempts to understand the group’s name as well as anti-Ismaili Muslim authors who wanted to demonstrate the group’s immorality. The stories paint Sabbah in a deeply cynical light and suggest that he held nothing sacred. A commonly-repeated story holds that as he was dying, he said, “Nothing is true; all is permitted.” For a religion with strict laws forbidding things such as alcohol and pork, that’s a shockingly immoral statement, and that’s the point of the story. And there is absolutely no historical evidence that the Assassins used hashish to train their men. In fact, there isn’t much evidence that the Assassins were highly trained, only that they were willing to die in performing their killings.
So where does the name come from? It does derive from hashashin, meaning ‘hashish users’. It was first applied to them by one of the Fatimid caliphs in 1122, but it’s not evidence they used hashish. Rather, it’s an insult, roughly the same as calling someone a ‘crackhead’ today. The term was intended to denigrate Sabbah’s followers as dangerous, violent, and irrational, not as a statement that they actually used drugs. But the meaning of the name has proven an irresistible temptation to people to elaborate on the order’s supposed training techniques. The recent Marco Polo Netflix series used this drug angle in its first season.
The Assassins survived into the 1250s, when they made the mistake of targeting the Mongols. In 1256, the Mongols successfully laid siege to Alamut and captured it, essentially destroying the main force of the group. A splinter branch survived in Syria until the 1270s, when the Egyptian sultan Baibars took control of the group. At that point it seems to have degenerated into simply a group of killers for hire. The group, or at least legends about the group, persisted down into the middle of the 14th century.
The Assassins in Omar Khayyam
The main plot of the film revolves around the Assassins and their nefarious plot to replace the unnamed Shah with his son Ahmud, with the assistance of Ahmud’s traitorous mother Queen Zarada. There’s much talk early in the film about the Assassins, and they assassinate the Shah’s brother Tutush, which establishes how ruthless the Assassins are.
Omar learns from his slave girl that there is a man who left the assassins hiding outside of town. This man tells him that the Assassins are based at Alamut. So Omar goes there on the pretense of making astronomical calculations to correct the calendar for the Shah.
Rather inexplicably, instead of killing him, this ruthless secret society of assassins just lets Omar stroll into the castle, where the Prior welcomes him, gives him a room, and shows him around the castle, showing him their entire training process. As the film explains, the Assassins train their recruits to be absolutely obedient, showing a room where the men must fill a cistern using a pot with no bottom (in other words, they do the task even though it’s pointless). Then the Assassins systematically teach the men that their faith is meaningless, and then cynically use hashish to trick the men into thinking they’ve been to Paradise. This way the men unhesitatingly obey any command they’re given. The Prior orders one of the men to jump to his death and he does it.
The whole sequence is poorly handled. Why does the Prior let Omar wander around the castle? Why does he give Omar a guided tour of their secret training process, which isn’t going to stay very secret if they treat Alamut as a tourist attraction for every wandering astronomer who passes by? If the Prior has worked his way up through the ranks, why isn’t he a mindless drone like those below him? The whole sequence is so expository, it feels like someone inserted a medieval news reel into the middle of the film.
Some of the details of this sequence, such as the man jumping to his death, are drawn from genuine medieval European stories about the Assassins. The purpose of the sequence is to show us that the Assassins are really just cynical, power-hungry men who abuse those who place their trust in them. It strips away all pretense of religion and the film never bothers explaining what the historical Assassins actually believed. There’s no discussion of the Sunni/Shia rift in Islam, and in fact virtually no mention of Islam in the film at all.
Hasani eventually shows up, revealing himself to be the Grand Master. He tries to persuade Omar to join his plan to overthrow the Shah, but Omar refuses and leaves the castle. The movie could have tried to humanize Hasani a little bit by showing him sparing Omar’s life because of their friendship. But instead he just inexplicably allows Omar to leave Alamut to warn the Shah about the plan to ambush his army and kill him.
The film concludes with the siege of Alamut. Omar takes advantage of the fact that he saw naphtha in the caverns under Alamut to tunnel into the caverns, light the naphtha on fire and blow up Alamut, Hasani, Zarada, and all the Assassins. It’s about 150 years too early, but it’s a happy ending because after the bad guys all die, the Shah dies too, thus freeing up Sharain to be with Omar.
Overall, Omar Khayyam is a frustrating movie. Someone did enough research to learn a lot about the historical poet. The film tries to shoe-horn in every historical scrap of information about Khayyam and what he was interested in, and it deserves props for knowing about his calendar. And it uses a bunch of his poems, even though it uses the rather free FitzGerald translations; that was the version everyone knew at the time, so it’s forgivable. But the screenwriter couldn’t be bothered to learn anything else about the period or the issues, or even that there was no such thing as the Persian Empire in this period. It can’t be bothered by the fact that its ending is outrageously anachronistic. It can’t be bothered to use actual Persian or Arabic female names, or even spell ‘Ahmed’ correctly. It’s sort of like the screenwriter got halfway through the research process and then said, “Ok, I’ve got enough information about Omar. Ugh, that was a lot of work! Fuck it, I’ll just make the rest up.” Honestly, given when this film was made, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that’s what happened.
Want to Know More?
The standard book on the subject is Bernard Lewis’ The Assassins. It’s short and concise and very readable. But it’s getting old now. Another good, but long-in-the-tooth book on them is The Secret Order of Assassins, by Marshall Hodgson. A more recent book, which focuses more on the legends than the facts, is Farhad Daftary’s The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis which looks at the development of the myths around the Assassins, both in the Islamic world and Europe.