Previewing an ABC movie with a title like "Harem" might seem an exercise in redundancy. But it's necessary in the case of the latest illegitimate offspring of the February sweeps (airing tomorrow and Monday night at 9 on Channel 7), if only to tip off potential viewers that a fairly engrossing, albeit totally incredible historical romance is tucked away behind the shameless pandering of the program's basic theme.
The movie opens with an explanation that during the decline of the Ottoman Empire there were reports of foreign women kidnaped and forced to live as members of the sultan's harem. You can just picture the network "idea" man drooling as he came across this nifty fact in the history books. And although the characters in this romantic adventure pay lip service to the tale's historical authenticity by continually referring to the Soooltahn's hahreem, it's tough to ignore the basic message in ABC's advertisement: "Harem. Where pleasure is an art. Love is a duty. And passion is a weapon."
But ignore it you must: The only lovemaking in the four-hour saga flashes by in Hour 3 when the heroine allows her suitor to run his hand up her leg from ankle to knee. Fortunately the Byzantine plot has taken enough twists and turns by this point to hook anyone who ever stayed up to finish a trashy novel.
Newcomer Nancy Travis plays plucky American Jessica Gray, who travels with her veddy British fiance' to his new diplomatic post in Damascus. Before the happy couple have a chance to consummate their love, Jessica sneaks off on an excursion into the desert with a dowdy tourist and her bored husband. Jessica's hapless fiance' wrings his hands in despair while the charmingly Bohemian Lady Ashley (Sarah Miles) tries to calm the young man by asking, "What could be tamer than a little outing supervised by a middle-aged woman wearing very sensible shoes?"
Ah, but this is prime-time television. So before you can say "belly dancer," the lass is kidnaped by a dashing Turkish rebel (Art Malik of "The Jewel in the Crown") on a white steed. The Turk repeatedly throws fair Jessica on the ground and lowers his face dangerously close to hers. But before this exciting couple have a chance to consummate their love, the young rebel sells her to the sultan's eunuch in exchange for the release of some of his men.
Poor Jessica! Before long the decadent sultan's wife (Ava Gardner) tries to have her competition killed to keep the lascivious sultan (Omar Sharif) from taking a new bride. It's worth staying tuned to find out if the potentially royal couple ever consummate their love.
The scenery is breathtaking, the costumes lavish. Gardner, Miles and Malik deliver outstanding performances and Travis makes the most of her meaningful glances. Even Omar Sharif manages to maintain his dignity while rushing around in something resembling a dress. The only wretched performance comes from Yaphet Kotto, who, as the sultan's eunuch, gives new meaning to the word monotone. He speeds through his lines so quickly, one can't help but wonder if his salary was calculated in words per second.
Yet there is much that entertains in this romantic adventure. So it's particularly unfortunate that the entire second hour is devoted to the ludicrous training of young Jessica in the art of giving pleasure. ABC should have heeded the advice of Jessica's teacher, who admonishes, "Aphrodisiacs are tricks that rarely get results. And if the trick fails, where are you if you haven't got the skills?"