Review by Ashley Chapman
Decadence and Downfall: The Shah of Iran’s Ultimate Party, Storyville, 2015-2016 now showing on the BBC iPlayer is about how Shah Pahlavi of Iran spent the entire state budget, over $600 million dollars, in 1970 on a lavish party in the fabled city of Persepolis, while his people, battered by the fearful exigences of his secret police, the feared SAVA, wallowed in deprivation.
“The guests, beneath yards and yards of suffocating pink satin sit in the banqueting marquis, served exquisite Gallic food prepared by Maxim’s of Paris…while outside the locked-out millions watched on TV the noisy emptiness of it all.”
The Shah’s dreadful vanity is captured unambiguously, and events play out in this documentary of archival material as a premonition for his inevitable exile into merciful obscurity. The political farce Pahlavi presides over at home, shown in Decadence and Downfall, eventually meant that any possible return to credibility for his regime became increasingly remote, as prisons swelled with those who questioned his grandiose but ultimately despotic backward-looking rule.
Interviewed by BBC’s David Frost, the Shah when asked about torture appears coy on camera, talking about psychological interrogation methods, but behind the scenes the the film shows us how oppressive his regime actually was. As witnesses line up to describe how they were treated by his henchman. But the film has many lighter moments. In one such, a matron from the ruling elite recalls that her own staff were so embarrassed, as she addressed them in a bikini, they would turn away. She had forgotten, she recalls animatedly, that she lived in a Muslim country. Less funny, but equally poignant, was film of a former dissident removing his socks forty years after the event to reveal his still scarred feet beaten with bull whips. It all got a bit out of hand. The wealthy shah clearly losing the plot. Shah Pahlavi comes across as a a monarchical tyrant who is remote, dull and unimaginative, and weirdly remorseless. Uninterested in real effective modernization for Iran through shared power, he is nonetheless obsessed with turning it into an epic Babylonian pageant. The celebrations of Iran’s undoubted 2,500 year-old past historical glories were, as the film shows, so far removed from the aspirations of the majority of Iranians, they may as well have occurred on another plane of existence, and more dangerously rankled with them as they sat stupefied, watching the excesses on television.
The best is when Shah Pahlavi, standing before of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, attempts to align his failed regime with the glory of the former before his assembled guests; you get a tremendous sense of the Shah’s hubris. Cyrus, it transpires, known as a founding father of human rights, was actually a great unifier who embraced the cultures and religions he conquered. The incredibly pretentious Pahlavi was not really of that ilk. The Iranian activists interviewed for the documentary and the people you see sitting on mats watching events unfold on the goggle box were clearly all too aware that Shah Pahlavi lacked any real credentials. But there he is invoking Cyrus the Great, as swirls of dust rise with him — literally, two dust devils in the blood-red sand. His arms raised, you know with the benefit of hindsight, his magik will go very poorly for him, as all the pomp and ceremony in the entire world, and at that moment he has it all, will never bring back the heights of Persia’s past…Instead, just eight years down the line, the revolution of 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini, another Supreme Leader, but cut from sober-black cloth. And actually when one compares Pahlavi’s lavish disregard for precedent, the history he admired but clearly did not understand, to speeches written by Khomeini, a cunning and deceptive, but nonetheless knowledgeable and elegant proselytiser, a realization becomes dawns. Iran has had to pass through all the political isolation of recent years to distance itself from the failings of the Pahlavi dynasty: its rank corruption, its insipid weakness, and its total lack of imagination in the modern era; a regime, so ineffectual it had a consortium of Western companies run its commercial affairs, without a single representative ‘allowed’ on its board. Things just had to change, and of course, finally they did, if unexpectedly for an Islamic state.
Now, watching this illuminating footage, the ‘ultimate’ party seems like a dream solemnly unfolding under ghastly plasticised dessert tents. Invited were 62 heads of state from around the world, representing the great and the good, including Prince Philip and Princess Anne, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, King Hussein of Jordan, and even, making a rare appearance, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; and the not so great, like Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, Tito of Yugoslavia and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. All crammed into an endless velvet hall to commemorate the pseudo re-enactment of Persia’s unrivalled past triumphs. The guests, beneath yards and yards of suffocating pink satin sit, in the stuffy banqueting marquis, served exquisite Gallic food prepared by no less than Maxim’s of Paris — with, of course, no expense spared even though Persia has a culinary culture to match any in the world — while outside, the locked-out millions watched the noisy emptiness of it all on TV, aghast. But the little man who liked to call himself the ‘King of Kings’ seems blithely unaware of how increasingly loathed he was, enjoying his moment in the shadow of his fore-bearers, while without, the gathering dust storm howled its rage.
8 thoughts on “A Party Too Far — The Shah of Iran’s Ultimate Downfall.”
While the celebration was a good illustration of how the absolute monarch made himself unpopular with many Iranians, the reasons for his downfall were manifold. Juxtaposing it with the witnesses who suffered at the hands of SAVAK was the most illuminating part, that and the former servant whose disarming frankness about her own ignorance of the true nature of the people Pahlavi ruled. One other fact that emerged went some way to explaining the seemingly crazy notion may Iranians now have that the British were responsible for the eventual clerical dictatorship that followed was the fact that Mosadegh (who we helped remove) wanted to keep the Shah as a titular monarch rather like the one we have. If that had happened there may have been no basis for the Islamic revolution. As you say in your critique, this showed how out of touch Pahlavi was with the realities of Iran. He was indeed trying to follow his father, who we engineered into power and later helped depose because he was mates with Hitler. Made me laugh how the radio telephones were thieved by the staff after the party!
Yes, some really interesting points raised. Pahlavi was a curious figure. In addition the Horizon doc. he comes across as really out of touch. The details about SAVAK were really grim. He really had an opportunity, but blew it by wanting so much power. An Iranian friend of mine thinks this should have all ended in the 1953 coup, perhaps a shame it didn’t.
(as you know) my wife is Iranian and I’ve been to a few parties here where people get a little groggy and bring up the Pahlavi anthem on YouTube. Thing is their ‘good old days’ sentiment is only because the revolution didn’t suit them, and if asked if they seriously think a return to monarchy would be good or even a possibility they say no.
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Just had a conversation with Naeem about all this…a friend. Something really struck me about Pahlavi. It seems that he was still caught up in the fascism of his father. He says that he learnt from him to listen to his own counsel. When you see him standing in front of the tomb of Cyrus the Great invoking him, you get this tremendous sense of his own folly. Cyrus, I read, was actually a great unifier who embraced the cultures and religions he captured. Pahlavi was not really of that ilk. The people you see sitting on straw mats watching events unfold on the goggle box were clearly all too aware that he lacked any real credentials. There he is invoking Cyrus, the swirls of dust seem to rise with him as he raises his arms, but you know the magik will go very poorly for him, as he had no-where to go with it all…revolution in 1979 and the Ayatollah. And actually when I see this, and then compare it to the speeches I’ve read written by Khomeini, thanks to my student, I realise how Iran has had to pass through of all this to rid itself of all associations with the failings of the Pahlavi dynasty, its rank corruption, it’s weaknesses. Imagine, a consortium of Western companies running its affairs, but with not a single representative on its board. I mean, things had to change, and of course, they did because this pretender had little to offer…
Yes, that ball has definitely left…They seem to be heading in the right direction. But it takes time to move on…
It is the multiplicity of Iranian culture and tradition that has pervaded the world over for so very long. Surely the ‘special relationship’ between the Shah and his people, which he professes to be the case in one televised interview, would be expressed in earnest through the promotion of Iran’s rich heritage of culinary practice, as opposed to the transatlantic services of Maxim’s haute cuisine. A missed opportunity, for not only would this have brought the pluralist society of Iran one step closer to their aspiring leader, but also would have created a much needed opportunity for socio-economic integration and development among the impoverished masses. After all, charity begins at home. In addition, would it not have been more productive to construct a new city in and around Persepolis?! Think of the job creation and its impact on local society, not to mention the prospects of national tourism. The slaying of snakes and scorpions by the truck load is surely less effective in the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem than a well-planned scheme for urban development. If only they’d thought of that before sending out sixty-odd invitations!
No exactly, you’re right. There’s so much that could have been done. I put in your bit about the food. I had to, so I’ve hopefully brought it up-to-date with bits from your and Rob. But I think Iran has come a long way, even if I think it still has a way to go…but what an idea. That the money spent on Maxim’s could have been spent on building a proper themed town around the great city of Persepolis.
I really enjoyed it