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Camels play against type

Films often use the beasts to low-comedy ends, but two illustrate a touted docudrama's message.

June 06, 2004|Steven Rosen | Special to The Times

Camels often have served as easy punch lines in the movies. Sometimes literally so -- future Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger punches one out, for no particular reason, in 1982's "Conan the Barbarian." This unexpected move, cruel as it may seem, gets a big laugh -- one of the film's few intentional ones.

Other movie stars also have relied on camel humor to get a quick laugh. In 1942's "Road to Morocco," as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby apply their brand of goofy anarchy to some Arabs at a ceremony, two befuddled camels look on from the side of a tent. Then, unexpectedly, one's lips move -- and a male voice says, "This is the screwiest picture I was ever in."

In 1987's "Ishtar," an attempted update of "Road," Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman -- singer-songwriters adrift in Morocco and the adjacent fictional nation of Ishtar -- buy a blind camel with a mean groan and a bad toothache. They quickly discover themselves stuck with one heck of a contrary dromedary. It plows into people in a marketplace and refuses to budge in the desert when they're under attack from helicopters.

Then there is 1976's "Hawmps!" about a mix-up over some "fine Arabian mounts" sent to U.S. soldiers in Texas in the 1850s. When a dusty sergeant discovers they are camels, not horses, he shouts, "A bunch of raunchy, mangy hawmps!" (Apparently that's supposed to be "humps" with a Texas accent.)

Overall, Hollywood's irreverence for these useful if inelegant beasts is enough to make a grown camel weep -- which actually happens in the new "The Story of the Weeping Camel." (It opens Friday.) It is the most sincere and heartfelt camel movie in years -- maybe ever. Indeed, its camels -- mother Ingen Temee and baby Botok -- get star billing over the human cast.

And it is most assuredly not a Hollywood product. It is co-directed by two documentary students at the Munich Film School, the Mongolian Byambasuren Davaa and the Italian Luigi Falorni. A docudrama, it's been a success on the international festival circuit and distributor ThinkFilm has high hopes for it theatrically.

It chronicles efforts by Gobi Desert nomadic herders to persuade one of their camels to nourish and love her newborn infant. The hostile mother has rejected her all-white offspring after a very difficult birth -- documented on screen in graphic detail. When all else fails, the nomads send for a violinist to play a transfixing melody while a wordless song is sung. The music makes the mother weep -- and accept her calf. It is the film's emotionally cathartic and most anthropomorphic moment. Such events apparently are a Mongolian ritual; Davaa was inspired by an educational film about the subject she saw as a child.

"Its story provided a perfect parable for the universal need of love, to which any being -- human or animal -- can relate," Falorni, who speaks English and writes with wry humor, said via e-mail from Munich. "The desert, in which the story is set, also provided a strong visual metaphor for how life feels when one is abandoned by the whole world.

"A buyer [a potential distributor] who saw the film in Toronto said, 'Wow, that young camel is like Jesus. It's like he came to Earth to save all of us.' Well, I wouldn't go that far. But I'm glad that the metaphor gets received and people see in Botok, our protagonist, more than just a cute little camel."

Camels are amazingly valuable animals for desert travel and labor -- their humps store excess food as fat to allow for long journeys in sparse terrain, they run with a steady gait that can allow "racing camels" to carry a rider 80 to 120 miles a day, and they kneel and sit to allow riders to mount and dismount.

But they have their drawbacks. As the Oakland Zoo's camel-information page puts it, they "spit foul-smelling stomach contents when annoyed." And people can easily annoy them with their work demands. And they also look, well, weird -- "hawmps" on animals tend to have that effect on people.

Jonathan Burt, the British author of "Animals in Film Vol. 1" who also edits a series of books on animals, has ideas about why camels are such a rich source of movie humor.

"They look like they have a kind of smile when looked at from underneath, but they also have a dumb-animal sense about them," he said via e-mail from England. "Their status reminds me of donkeys, which similarly cross the lines between clown/dumb animal/beast of burden. Camels also, notoriously, have terrible breath and can be extremely recalcitrant."

One of Burt's premises is that animals played an important role in motion-picture development -- because their movements were fascinating for early audiences to watch.

"The only interesting camel films I saw when researching my book were early 20th century silent travelogues of things like camel races, where they were treated very roughly," he explained. "But in their ungainliness and apparent stupidity, I expect audiences might have found them extremely funny."

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