Based on a novel by James Michener, whose sprawling stories set in exotic periods of history were better served by TV miniseries, Caravans features interesting cultural observations, resplendent production values, a romantic musical score, and a solid international cast. Undercutting these strong elements, however, is muddy storytelling. Not only is the nature of the relationship between the characters played by stars Jennifer O’Neill and Anthony Quinn maddeningly vague—are they lovers or merely friends?—but the dynamics coloring interactions between the various sociopolitical factions in the movie are hard to track. The root of this problem, of course, is the choice to set Caravans in a fictional Middle East country, necessitating inoffensive vagueness, even though everything about the setting and the story suggests the region in and around Afghanistan. Furthermore, because the main story is very simple, casual viewers can easily tune out the social-studies material, which is a shame—for while Caravans is primarily a story about a proud man clinging to outdated traditions during a moment of global change, the movie also attempts to dramatize the intrusion of America into foreign conflicts, the power struggles between different Muslim tribes, the smuggling of Russian guns, and so on.
Anyway, the main story goes something like this: Low-level American diplomat Mark Miller (Michael Sarrazin) is sent into the desert to find runaway American woman Ellen Jasper (O’Neill), who married a local military man (Behrouz Vossoughi) but then fled to join the caravan of a nomadic tribe led by Zuffiqar (Quinn). Predictably, the movie tracks Mark’s slow awakening to the beauty and savagery of an ancient culture. Just as predictably, the movie features a half-hearted attempt at romance between Mark and Ellen, a subplot that climaxes in a drab love montage set to the pretty “Caravan Song,” performed by Barbara Dickson.
Had the filmmakers either gone full-bore in Michener’s epic storytelling style or winnowed the source material down to just the core narrative, Caravans might have been more effective. As is, the movie feels too melodramatic for a depiction of geopolitical strife, and too complicated for a sweeping romance. The indifference of certain performances exacerbates these problems, with the lovely O’Neill—as usual—forming the weak link in the principal cast. Meanwhile, Quinn delivers an amiable retread of his Lawrence of Arabia performance, and Sarrazin struggles to identify what purpose his character serves other than to guide audiences into the narrative and periodically express “Oh, the humanity” shock. Among the Middle Eastern actors in the cast, Vossoughi provides intensity as the main villain, and Khosrow Tabatabai adds edge as a male dancer who plays sexualized mind games with men and women alike, causing considerable havoc.