The spirit of Genghis Khan—scourge of Asia and hope of Hollywood—is not dead. It is alive and throbbing on the great steppes of northern Afghanistan where descendants of his Mongol cavalrymen play a game known as buzkashi, which is a cross between dirty polo and open rioting. In all likelihood the game is the most brutal and violent in the world. Certainly Columbia Pictures believes so; the company has just spent $4.5 million producing a flick about it entitled The Horsemen. Instead of whacking a ball around, the riders fight over the sand-stuffed, 120-pound carcass of a goat. Perhaps the riders, called chapandaz, are becoming civilized; in the old days of the great Genghis they used to fling a live prisoner around.
The rules of the game and the plot of the movie are simple enough. About 60 chapandaz, divided into two or three teams, assemble on a grassy field about the size of the state of Illinois. After trumpets blare, the goat carcass is thrown down on the ground in front of them. The riders all jockey for position, and finally one of them crazy enough to grab it snatches it up and attempts to make off around two distant flagpoles and then to a circled goal. An Afghan will do anything to get another Afghan's goat.
A chapandaz is permitted to slam into a rider with his horse; he is encouraged to smack a fellow chapandaz across the face with a whip loaded with lead, jam a knee in the groin, thrust an elbow in the belly or stick a mess of fingers into an eye. The horseman with the carcass is fair game for all-out assault, particularly since he can't fight back with his hands, which are occupied holding on to the goat. In fact he's so busy clutching the goat he can't even grab the reins of his horse, which makes for some exciting accidents, to say nothing of cinematography. The chapandaz are so eager to seize the goat that they often go dashing into the ranks of the crowd, which is all part of the fun of the game except for the king of Afghanistan, who customarily watches a royal buzkashi from behind a protective ditch.
Buzkashi has seldom been photographed, and the pictures on these pages were taken by Photographer Bob Willoughby during the filming of the movie, scheduled for release this June, which is now being hailed as Columbia's top picture of the year.
May 16, 1971
Director John Frankenheimer is big on sports and games. He is proud of two films, The Gypsy Moths, about skydivers, and Grand Prix, which dealt with auto racing. "Many of my films present man at his limit," he says, "and I think sports do this terribly well."
To film The Horsemen, Frankenheimer and company journeyed to Afghanistan, which is still mostly in the 12th century. "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen," he says. "We didn't have to look for any locations, they were all there." The picture was the first ever made in the country, and the government was extremely cooperative. Frankenheimer enlisted the top chapandaz from the steppes, no trouble since he hired in the summer off season, and brought in his own stars, Jack Palance and Omar Sharif. Palance is sort of off to the side of the action. He portrays the elderly and bitter Tursen, master of the horse and the leading scorer of his day, a kind of sour Mickey Mantle retired in obscurity to an Oklahoma hamburger stand. In dramatic contrast there is his son Uraz, a brilliant rider, the new star of the steppes. Palance is jealous as hell, and he secretly prays his cocky kid comes a cropper in Kabul. As a Columbia press release puts it, "Theirs is a timeless generation gap."
Artistic license aside, Sharif was made for the role of Uraz. Born Michael Shalboub, an Egyptian Roman Catholic, he began riding at four years of age on tourist horses trotting around the pyramids. In his 20s he made it big in Middle Easterns after landing the role of leading man to Faten Hamama, the Shirley Temple of the Arab world, whom he later married after turning Moslem. Now well fixed in the manner of a mod Turhan Bey, Sharif spends his leisure time playing first-class bridge and buying promising thoroughbreds. His main hopes, aside from movies, rest on a European-bred filly named Pink Pearl. "I paid over $100,000 for her, and she is really gorgeous," Sharif says. "The stable is much more important to me than cards because it means a lot more money. Bridge doesn't cost me any money."
Sharif had a notion that the role of Uraz was going to be rough on his backside, and when he went on location in Afghanistan he brought along an American masseur to attend to prospective bruises. He was right. "After two days I had sore muscles in my back, in my arms—everywhere," Sharif says. "I was sore because I wasn't in good training. The Afghans were very good about teaching me the buzkashi. They were rather attracted to me because they thought of me as a Moslem and spoke Arabic to me. I was not an infidel in their eyes, which made me a sort of protégé. They really wanted me to be good at the game."
Besides toting along a masseur, Sharif had the foresight to show up a month before the cameras started rolling. He needed the practice. "The horses used for the game are trained to run in a straight line forever or until they drop," he says. "Instead of regular bits, they have just a piece of iron in their mouths. In order to turn them you have to hit them in the neck, and to stop them you have to saw at their mouths."
In order to film the buzkashi and the clashing chapandaz from above, Frankenheimer brought a helicopter to Afghanistan. At first he feared the whirlybird would spook the horses, but instead it rattled the chapandaz. When they calmed down, Frankenheimer faced the task of stopping them from maiming Sharif. "Take Habib," Frankenheimer says of one massive rider. "This guy's a real monster. He's killed people! He plays Maqsud the Terrible." Given sweet talk, Maqsud the Terrible turned out to be a very tractable chapandaz, doing just what was needed for the film. Ordinarily a team of chapandaz will play buzkashi two or three times a week, but to get the needed footage of film, Frankenheimer had them play every day for 30 straight days. It was so hot and dusty the buzkashis had to take place at dawn or in the late afternoon, and at the end of a day's shooting calling roll for the cast was like compiling a casualty list. "Guys were being taken to the hospital all the time with broken legs, broken arms and concussions," Frankenheimer says. "The thing that saved me was a Polaroid camera. With that I could get them to do what I wanted. In a buzkashi they'll change horses if they have to. A chapandaz would go from a white horse to a black horse, and I'd say, 'You can't do that, because it would spoil the scene.' They loved having their pictures taken with the Polaroid, and so I'd say to one of them, 'You have to get back on the white horse again, otherwise no Polaroid today.' We ran out of Polaroid film halfway, and I had to have an emergency shipment sent in."
Sharif performed well on horseback, but on occasion a chapandaz who resembled him would be called in for an especially tricky bit. Frankenheimer says, "Up until this film I had never asked an actor to do what I wouldn't do. Of course Burt Lancaster has done some fantastic things, but then he was trained as an acrobat. But in this film I wouldn't do what Sharif did for me. He is a man who approaches his work professionally prepared, and he is a very brave man. He had to be able to hang on to the side of a horse with 50 horses right behind him. It's one thing for an actor to fall off a horse accidentally, but it's another thing for an actor to know that if he did he'd get trampled by 50 horses behind him."
Of his part as Uraz, Sharif says, "I did almost all my own riding, and I'm rather proud of it. I think I did some good things on a horse. I think the chapandaz were not too rough on me because they knew I was an actor, and they are quite sensitive people, really. Directors are supposed to prefer stunt men, but since this film is really about the game and the riders it was important that you see it well. Frankenheimer wanted everything to be close up because it makes it more exciting when you see the rider, the horses, everything, close up, which you cannot do with a stunt man."
Because of problems of logistics, not all of the film was shot in Afghanistan. About a third of it was taken on a plain in Spain. In Kabul no Afghan had the temerity to play the king at the royal buzkashi, but in Spain Frankenheimer found an eager Spaniard who looked startlingly like the real-life king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. To keep continuity, the director even had a dozen chapandaz flown to Spain from Afghanistan. "They'd never been on a plane before," he says, "and Mecca was in the opposite direction. For a while they kept facing New York, and I thought that's pretty good, because New York is where the money is. They hated the food in Spain, and so they cooked their own. Once I took them to a restaurant for dinner, and for 12 of them I ordered 50 trout, 30 chickens and five cases of Coca-Cola. They love Coca-Cola. Being Moslems, they don't drink alcohol. For dessert they ate seven watermelons."
In retrospect, Frankenheimer regards the chapandaz as "the toughest, strongest men I have ever seen. I would take a team of 11 chapandaz and put them against the Baltimore Colts. I would show them the goal line and tell them they had just four tries to get the ball across."
Indeed, Frankenheimer has become so hipped on the chapandaz that he has discussed bringing them over to the U.S. to hold buzkashis in places like the Astrodome. Impresario Sol Hurok is interested. Maybe The Horsemen will prompt the start of an American chapandaz championship, with Pete Rozelle as commissioner. Frankenheimer is never sure what results his films may have. Shortly after he finished Seven Days in May, an account of Army generals seizing the White House, he was asked to send a print of the film to a general who was a friend of a friend in South America. Frankenheimer did so, and after studying the putsch in the movie the general overthrew the Brazilian government.