The Military Figure in Comedy: Ismail Yassin’s Films
We now move on to another significant site of popular representations of the military figure, and that is the comedy film genre, as it reveals how this medium helped in furthering the popularity of the military regime in Egypt after 1952. Ismail Yassin was one of Egypt’s most popular actors and comedians during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a monologist and singer. He acted in numerous works, including a series of films carrying his name in the titles where he played the role of a soldier or a conscript in the army, the military police, the air force and the navy. He also made two films where he played the role of a police conscript or trainee: Ismail Yassin fi al-Police (Ismail Yassin in the Police, 1956) and Ismail Yassin fi al-Police al-Sirri (Ismail Yassin in the Secret Police, 1959). However, in the following discussion, I focus on the four films which were made about the armed forces.
The Ismail Yassin series of films were overall the fruit of cooperation between the actor and his two friends, the veteran filmmaker Fateen Abdel Wahab and the dialogue-writer Abul Sa‘oud al-Ibyari, although some of the films in the series were written by other scriptwriters. Together, Yassin- Abdel Wahab-Ibyari, became a famous trio. Ismail Yassin fi al-Geish (Ismail Yassin in the Army) was produced in 1955. In the opening film credits, the film crew express their gratitude to the armed forces for their support in facilitating the production of the work. The story opens with a group of men from the same hara (alley) being recruited by the authorities to train as conscripts in the national armed forces. Among them is Termis (played by Yassin) who does not want to leave his home and join the Gihadiyya, the expression which was commonly used to refer to serving in the army since the days of the Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali and literally means to ‘fight’ or to ‘struggle’ for a certain cause (in this case, one’s nation). During the course of the film, and through many humorous situations within the army training camps, Termis and the other new conscripts learn that Gihadiyya is a great honour and they come to believe in sacrificing their lives for the nation. His sweetheart, Samira, also encourages him to be brave in his new role, because she ‘does not like weak or cowardly men’. Termis is in rivalry with Officer ‘Atiyya, who also wants to marry Samira. ‘Atiyya (played by the gifted actor Riad al-Qasabgi) comes to appear in all the film series (together with Yassin). They form a popular comedic duo, where we find al-Qasabgi acting a variety of roles but always following Yassin and giving him a hard time in the training camps. His role has become iconic in these films, and Egyptian viewers are well acquainted with ‘Shawish (Officer) ‘Atiyya’ and the hilarious dialogues he has with Yassin in the films.
In Ismail Yassin in the Army, we see Termis as the kind-hearted character and ‘Atiyya as the bully, so Samira is in love with Termis. The film paints a highly positive image of the army training camps, showing their orderliness, the discipline and respect amongst the army officers, and their unrelenting efforts in pushing the new conscripts to toughen up and become ‘real’ men: steadfast in using the weapons, masculine, disciplined and unconditionally obedient to orders. The conscripts receive training in the use of the different military terminology in order to follow the rules, which should never be broken. On the other hand, the higher-ranking officers, such as ‘Atiyya, are required to look after the new conscripts and treat them with respect. This humane aspect of the army is emphasised in the film through several comic episodes, so as to make the military figure win the hearts and minds of the viewers. A Hollywood-style musical performance is embedded in the film, where Yassin sings to indicate that the senior army officers also care about the psychological (not only the physical) well-being of their soldiers. As Termis proves to be remarkably obedient to the rules and regulations, he is rewarded and promoted by his superiors and hence comes to occupy a respectful position amongst the other soldiers. The film finally triumphs for the kind-hearted Termis who is reunited with Samira.
Ismail Yassin fi al-Ustoul (Ismail Yassin in the Navy) was made in 1957, also directed by Fateen Abdel Wahab, and written by Hassan Tawfiq and al-Sayyed Bedir. As in the previous film’s opening credits, the crew express their gratitude to the navy and all the officers who supported the work and facilitated the making of the film. The plot revolves around a love story between Nadia and her cousin Ragab (played by Yassin). Nadia works as a nurse in one of the hospitals run by the navy. She wants to marry her cousin but is concerned about his lack of courage and inability to take responsibility in difficult situations. In order to prove his love for her, Ragab decides to volunteer in the navy and become a trainee. As in the previous film, we follow many scenes in the navy training camps, and how Ragab and his colleagues learn to become disciplined and obedient in following the orders. They come out at the other end as ‘real’ men: ideal soldiers in heroism, courage and discipline. Their experience as trainees in the navy transforms their characters into responsible citizens who are able to protect their nation and people.
The next film in the series, about another military unit, was Ismail Yassin fi al-Police al-Harbi (Ismail Yassin in the Military Police), which was produced in 1958. The script was written by Ali al-Zurqani and directed by Fateen Abdel Wahab. Unlike the previous two films, here the viewers do not get to know what the military police actually do or what their tasks are. There is footage of the training camps to demonstrate the orderliness and organisation within this unit, but the plot is centred around Ismail who is called upon by the authorities to join the military police as a conscript. This decision comes about against his will. We see him unable to fit in with the training scheme and always seeking ways to get out of it so he can go back home to his wife and son. He becomes the ‘misfit’ and, through a series of comic episodes, he leaves the camp, but the film ends with the soldiers bringing him back to complete his training period. What I find interesting about this film is that the role of the military police as a unit remains ambiguous and unclear, unlike the other two films where we see much footage within the camps showing the training that the actual officers and soldiers go through on a daily basis. While the previous films aim to provide an insight into the life of the army and navy soldier, Ismail Yassin in the Military Police offers a rather humane portrait of a citizen who simply did not want to join the Gihadiyya.
In 1959 Ismail Yassin fi al-Tayaran (Ismail Yassin in the Air Force) was produced—also directed by Fateen Abdel Wahab and written by Abul Sa‘oud al-Ibyari. Here, the story is about two identical twin brothers, Hussein and Ismail. Hussein works as an officer in the air force. He is disciplined, hardworking and takes pride in his job and his uniform. The interesting element in this film is how the different characters are attracted to Hussein’s navy officer uniform, as it symbolises heroism and patriotism. Yet the episodes in the film are situated within a humorous context. Hussein’s brother, Ismail, works as a body-double for actors, and then falls in love with the beautiful dancer Suhair. When she learns that his brother works in the air force, she expresses her desire of always wanting to marry a ‘hero’ from this military unit. This prompts Ismail to imitate his brother’s status and puts on his uniform in order to be with Suhair. In the first part of the film, there are very few shots of the airport where Hussein works; but in the latter part, footage of a celebratory day at the air force unit is shown where the soldiers and the pilots in their uniforms display their training on the new planes. Suhair and many other guests attend this celebration with pride, and the film ends on a melodramatic note when Ismail decides to volunteer in the air force so he can marry his sweetheart, Suhair.
It comes as no surprise that the above four films were made just before or after the Suez War. The messages of patriotism and heroism of the armed forces which permeate the films are underscored over and again, and the stories are contextualised within the light comedy- melodrama genre to make them accessible to a large cross-section of viewers. Yassin’s films were famous for their entertainment quality and easy access to viewers across different age, class and gender groups. Therefore, we find in them much emphasis on the visual display of the effective capacity and combat skills which the different army units possess in terms of the large number of soldiers as well as the force itself, with its ships, planes, tanks, guns, ammunition and so on. In addition to Ismail Yassin as the main hero, the four films star other prominent actors and actresses, hence their production budgets were quite substantial. Besides the continuous screening of Yassin’s popular films on a variety of channels all over the Arab world, a search on YouTube will also show that the numbers of viewers amount to hundreds of thousands. Through such a cinematic genre as comedy, the viewers were reassured of the power of their national armed forces.
Yet there is another significant element which these films aim to demonstrate in my view: all those characters playing the roles of the conscripts, volunteers and trainees in the armed forces, and within its different units, are ordinary men and women who comprise al-sha‘b. It is these people who constitute the foundation of the army and the fundamental base on which it is built to defend the nation. Once again, we can imagine here the metaphor of ‘The Army and the People are One
Hand’ at the heart of these films. The story of the army, the people and the Egyptian nation is re-energised through comedy.