Novelist James Michener specialized in sprawling soap operas in exotic locales best served by TV mini-series although film adaptations of his work included Sayonara (1957) and Hawaii (1966), not to mention the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (1958). Adapted from Michener's 1963 novel of the same name, Caravans shifts the action from the original location Afghanistan to a fictional Middle Eastern country called Zakharstan. Here American diplomat Mark Miller (Michael Sarrazin) is tasked with locating Ellen Jasper (Jennifer O'Neill), the missing daughter of a prominent US senator. On an arduous albeit enlightening journey through the tumultuous desert nation, Miller learns Ellen abandoned her husband Colonel Nazrullah (top Iranian star Behrouz Vossughi) to live with a nomadic tribe led by charismatic elder Zulffiqar (Anthony Quinn). Deeply involved in resisting government plans to confine the tribe to a permanent settlement, Ellen refuses to come home. Even after Miller reveals Zulffiqar is funding his movement by trafficking guns for the Russians. Travelling with the tribe, Miller earns Zulffiqar's respect and Ellen's affection but a confrontation with a vengeful Nazrullah proves inevitable.
Ironically Caravans was filmed in Iran one year before the revolution and ensuing hostage crisis that rendered sympathetic depictions of Islamic culture in Hollywood almost unthinkable. Prior to then Anthony Quinn's stupendous turn as Auda Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) won him a fervent fan following in the Middle East that led to roles in films like The Message (1977), Lion of the Desert (1981) (part financed by Colonel Gaddafi!) and this. Once Quinn arrives on screen things liven up but this only happens after the interminable, rambling, starchy, ponderous tourist travelogue first half wherein Michael Sarrazin's colourless Mark Miller is our focal point. An oddly ineffectual protagonist, despite a halfhearted, implied flirtation with Ellen, Miller has no impact on the plot. His sole role is to gape through endless, wearying scenes where wizened locals explain how public executions, segregation and the concept of women as property are beyond criticism in a culture more than a thousand years old. James Fargo, whose eclectic film career includes the corny Clint Eastwood-with-an-orangutan-comedy Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and dismal Chuck Norris actioner Forced Vengeance (1982), attempts an immersive approach. Yet whereas John Milius' vastly superior The Wind and the Lion (1974) deftly balances a stirring adventure yarn with a satirical look at US-Arabic relations, Caravans indulges in all the old familiar trite Orientalist clichés. Much like Andrew V. McLaglen's later, even more risible Sahara (1983) the film absurdly romanticizes some archaic gender politics.
Caravans attempts to combine two frankly incompatible themes. One, the assertion of traditional Islamic values in the face of globalization and two, feminism. The plot casts Ellen as a 'liberated' woman who turns her back on politics, business and so-called civilization to seek spiritual truth in the desert, a very Seventies conceit only at odds with the reality of the political situation in the Middle East at the time. Jennifer O'Neill is strikingly beautiful. Yet her vacant smile fails to enlighten viewers as to why this supposedly gutsy, outspoken proto-feminist would choose to live in a society where, according to every male character of Middle Eastern descent here, women are worth less than camels. Although Ellen's warm, mutually respectful relationship with Zulffiqar is engagingly drawn and a break from convention, the film is reticent about whether they are lovers or surrogate father and daughter. Either way the ho-hum tragic finale fails to make much of an impact as with the exception of one significant casualty the tribesmen seem unfazed by the slaughter of numerous women. Stalwart character players like Christopher Lee and Barry Sullivan enliven the many dull scenes where Machiavellian types debate politics in picturesque settings though Joseph Cotten's cameo is so brief one wonders why he even bothered. The film was not well received by James Michener who took legal action over the many deviations from his novel. Mind you, if American audiences were hesitant to embrace Islamic protagonists surely Michener's original hero, a Nazi war criminal in love with Ellen, would have been an even tougher sell. Rather more successful was the stirring score composed by British pop stalwart Mike Batt including a hit song performed by Barbara Dickson.