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This time, Baghdad isn't a soundstage

March 31, 2003|Howard Rosenberg

Baghdad. The ruler there is ruthless and sadistic, using fear and torture to keep his subjects in line. Smiling and appearing full of confidence, he greets his advisors and generals.

Meanwhile, the forces for good assemble outside the city, preparing to assault the enemy and overthrow the evil tyrant.

The Baghdad of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in 2003?

Hardly. It's the Baghdad (actually a sound stage) of Hollywood in Universal's "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," a 1944 movie that I taped when it ran on television some years ago.

It stars Jon Hall as Ali Baba, the rightful caliph of Baghdad seeking to regain his throne from the evil Khan, whose Mongol hordes have overrun his Arab Kingdom. Maria Montez plays the comely Lady Amara, who loves Ali Baba despite being heavily courted by the Khan.

"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" is 87 minutes of 10th century escapism. Although gloriously corny, it's also a reminder of juxtaposed realities in wartime.

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Filling the TV screen is an immense cloud of dense, pinkish smoke that dwarfs Baghdad as it rises from the Iraqi capital that U.S. planes are pounding again now that the bad weather has cleared.

"Bunker busters" hit central Baghdad, Peter Arnett reports on NBC about the pair of 4,700-pound bombs -- the biggest of the war so far -- that struck government communication centers and "really shook the city from late evening to morning [and had] families cowering in their homes and journalists, to some degree, cowering in their hotels."

Now to the latest propaganda video from the Iraqis, starring Saddam Hussein with his Cabinet, smiling, seemingly confident, the intended message (whenever it was taped) being that he and his regime are stiffening against the U.S.-led campaign building toward an assault on the city.

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Bald, squinting and dressed in rich robes, the Khan sits on his Baghdad throne and grins maniacally while ordering punishment for a pour soul who has displeased him: "The role of a conqueror is never an easy one. But I feel it's hardest dealing with you traitors." To his guards: "Take him away!" Meanwhile Ali Baba and his color-coordinated 40-man force hide in a secret cave, making their plans.

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"Allied troops are gearing up for a pivotal battle of Baghdad that may come in just a few days," says "The Early Show" anchor Harry Smith on CBS.

Now to reporter Jim Axelrod with U.S. forces in the desert, talking about "the push to Baghdad" and a chemical alert that had troops rushing for gas masks. "It turned out to be an Iraqi pipeline that had been hit instead," he says.

Now to reporter Bob Woodruff, embedded with Marines, who suffered a casualty when one of them was mortally wounded in an Iraqi artillery attack. "They are in a place where the Iraqis know where they are," Woodruff says. "For the first time since this war began, they have put up camouflaged tents in the desert, indicating they are here to stay."

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Tension is building back in the cave as Ali Baba vows to stop the Khan's impending marriage to Lady Amara. "You would storm the wall of Baghdad and face the Mongol armies single-handed?" asks a comrade.

As it turns out, he doesn't have to. Just as a coalition is helping President Bush and the U.S. fight Hussein, Ali Baba's 40 thieves volunteer to join him in Baghdad. The plan is for Ali Baba to show up disguised as a rich businessman bearing wedding gifts for the Khan.

And here he is ... announcing himself as a merchant from Basra.

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BBC reporter David Willis is on ABC mentioning "a series of attacks from Iraqi forces." He points to the vehicle of one of the attackers. "A single shot through the windshield shows how the driver died." He adds: "Suddenly no one is above suspicion, even those who surrender. The greatest challenge now for allied forces is separating foes from friends."

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Ali Baba is discovered. But just as things look grim, the 40 thieves rush in and -- supported by the kind of general uprising of Baghdad citizens that the Pentagon now hopes for -- they defeat the Mongol troops in a rousing swordfight.

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On MSNBC, Iraqis able to flee are shown streaming from besieged Basra. Now to Bill Buesing, father of fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Rory Buesing, who says about his son: "He's in our hearts forever."

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The Khan ends up with a spear through his chest, a new flag is hoisted, and that is that. If only today's real conflict were as uncomplicated, with Iraqi Arabs seeing things through American eyes and, like those of Ali Baba's world, rising up against the evil tyrant.

If only war were as clean.

In the sealed-off realm of Hollywood's Baghdad fantasy, opposing soldiers stab each other with swords bloodlessly, as if killing and dying were precise and pristine. But on TV, we're now seeing the casualties of actual war, whether twisted bodies on both sides of the conflict or families of slain and captured U.S. troops fighting back tears while recalling loved ones.

An escapist movie is what you'd prefer these days. But the real world gives you bombs, not Ali Babas.

*

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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