The untimely death of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1980 at the age of 60 caused a political tsunami: thirty-eight years later, the world still flounders, trying to control its political ramifications. Where Western countries once enjoyed a friendly ruler, today’s Iran has a nuclear program and is a known state sponsor of terrorism. The chain of events leading to the Iranian shah’s political fall and his death is examined in a moving documentary by first time filmmaker, Bobak Kalhor.
“A Dying King: How One Man’s Death Changed the Course of History,” directed, written and narrated in a straightforward and unadorned style by Kalhor, asks the viewer to pay attention while he considers his subject from political, social, economic, medical viewpoints. Meticulously researched, the documentary recently had truncated November runs in New York and Los Angeles and now heads to Europe. DVD’s are not far behind. The film is worth waiting for: spending seven years on the project, Kalhor has collated a wealth of archival footage as well as shooting fresh interviews in assembling never-before-told details of a medical travesty while documenting an important slice of history.
One can’t help but notice the absence of input from still-living Pahlavi family members, and while it’s a gaping hole, Kalhor notes that he approached the family three times, trying to earn their participation. In the end, their reticence to contribute likely results from decades of carrying the weight of unnecessary pain.
The documentary opens with a slightly dry recapping of the Peacock Throne’s origin in 1925, when Mohammed Reza’s father, Reza Shah, is placed on the throne with assists from the United States and Great Britain, whose support is influenced by their thirst for the country’s oil.
Kalhor then unspools Mohammed Reza Shah’s rise to the throne at the age of 21 – and his evolving relations to the West, his efforts to reposition Iran on the world stage, his successful bid to improve Iran’s literacy, his imperial-sized ego and his stubborn naiveté, which exposes him to manipulation by the very world leaders he’s certain are friends.
The film’s pacing surges after the shah falls ill and the fog of intrigue envelops his world. He struggles to hold onto the Peacock Throne amidst a blur of indecision, lies, false shows of support from the United States and Great Britain and the malpractice of his own doctors.
Concluding that the shah now has become a liability, President Jimmy Carter pulls the Persian rug out from under him, indirectly advising the king to take “a long vacation.” On January 16, 1979, Shah Pahlavi pilots his own plane out of Iran, to Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat welcomes him; however, not wanting to impose on the Egyptian leader, the shah and the queen stay but six days before departing for Morocco. President Carter privately considers a U.S. supported military coup to fill the vacuum that will be created by the shah’s departure. But Carter erroneously decides that the Ayatollah Khomeini will continue to protect American assets if he is returned from exile in Paris.
Even as the shah begins his 19-month-long circuitous journey toward death, U.S. Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan secretly engages in negotiations with Khomeini’s representatives for the Ayatollah’s return. Thus the once powerful Mohammed Reza not only is a man without a country, he is the globe’s hot potato, politically toxic and with barely a friend, except for Sadat.
As the noose tightens around the shah’s life, “A Dying King” becomes as horrifying as it is lean-forward in-your-seat-fascinating. The shah and family members bounce from Morocco to the Bahamas; then to Mexico; finally to the United States, then to Panama and finally back to Egypt, where Shah Pahlavi dies.
This final section of the film is a well-woven tapestry of medical experts connecting the dots to draw a disturbing, ludicrous picture of the shah’s medical treatment. Pahlavi has endured disjointed treatment in several countries and is misdiagnosed more than once. Besides his cancer, he has gallstones and his spleen urgently needs to be removed.
“… Because there were too many doctors, too many interpretations, (the shah) endured much too much for too long,” states Leon Morgenstern, MD, Professor Emeritus and Chief of Surgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Splenic Surgeon Specialist and author of “The Shah’s Spleen.”
While in Panama and again in Egypt, and despite highly qualified local splenic specialists, American Michael DeBakey, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon and physician to celebrities, is flown in to do the surgery.
Iraj Shaham, DeBakey’s assistant and anesthesiologist in Houston, Texas, shares his reaction to DeBakey’s selection: “The first thing I say, (sic) is ‘Why God they chose (sic) him? He’s not the man for this procedure.” Shaham is correct: DeBakey badly botches the surgery and the shah becomes desperately ill. As his health deteriorates, so too, do relations between Revolutionary Iran and the U.S., with the hostage taking of the American embassy’s staff.
Jorge Cervantes, MD, a General Surgeon at American-British Cowdray Hospital in Mexico and a U.S. State Department Medical Advisor, who treated the shah in Mexico, sums it up: “The whole thing is a book of malpractice, from the point of view of Hemotology, Oncology, surgery, handling the complications …”
Politically, the world is still very much “handling the complications …”
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