It is unusual to describe an actor as intelligent, for we are accustomed to descriptions such as creative, able, or “a star.”
Farid Shawqi, who died on 27 July 1998, can be described as all of the above, and he rightfully deserves to be called “The Intelligent Artist.” Intelligence was a characteristic that shone in him for more than half a century.
Shawqi succeeded with distinction in reinventing himself several times and was able to reach out to his fan base at any time he chose, not withstanding his participation in films unworthy of his stature.
What’s more, he had the skill and ability to stir the anger of his audience when he put on the mask of evil, receive their applause when he was a wronged man defending his rights with force, raise laughter when he acted the comedian, or elicit their tears when he fell victim to fate.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Yehia Chahine, Shukry Sarhan and Ahmed Mazhar, who accepted that their roles would be marginalised after a certain age, Farid Shawqi remained at the forefront even in old age.
Shawqi appeared in around 350 films throughout his career in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, and this number makes him perhaps the most prolific Arab actor ever, alongside Mahmoud El-Meligy.
Within this massive body of work he naturally played a variety of role types, as if rebelling against a successful mould. At first, he was clever at playing the villain, but he was a special kind of villain, not like the one to which the Arab cinema audience was accustomed; instead, he relied on wile and guile to drive a wedge between the films’ protagonists.
His famous films in this context are: The Eagle (1950) directed by Salah Abu-Seif, The Count of Mount Cristo (1950) by Barakat, People’s Secrets (1951), and his most famous villain role, Conflict in the Valley (1954) by Youssef Chahine.
Shawqi was so successful in this role that by the end of 1954 he had acted in 84 films, an average of 11 films a year.
This phenomenal success can be attributed to several factors. The villainous stars at the time such as Mahmoud El-Meligy, Stefan Rosti, and sometimes Zaki Rostom had grown too old to play these roles, characterised by covetous designs on a poor, helpless girl.
As a result, Shawqi began to grab many of these roles, although he left some for Mahmoud El-Meligy, especially if the events were set up in a popular milieu.
Shawqi also had a well-built physique that enabled him to play the “gangster” and participate in action scenes, whether the setup was historical, religious, rural or urban.
In addition, the numbers of melodramatic films grew steadily thanks to directors like Youssef Wahbi and Hassan Al-Imam, providing a suitable setting for scheming and villainous characters—and an increasing demand for Shawqi.
He played such roles in eight films directed by Al-Imam, the most prominent being Parents Unknown (1950), A Cupful of Pain (1952), Scandalmonger (1953); and in three films by Wahbi, including Bayoumi Effendi (1949).
He also acted in dozens of melodramas with top directors like Barakat, Ibrahim Emara, Hussein Sedki and Helmy Rafla.
From absolute villainous roles, Shawqi began to move towards what could be called justified villainy, or shady roles where benevolent characteristics were still present, despite the character’s deviant behaviour.
The turning point in this direction was The Foreman Hassan (1952), directed by Salah Abu-Seif, who cast Shawqi as a humble worker aspiring to a well-off life at the expense of his class’s values, encountering harsh realities in the process.
Other films can be added to this type, for instance Hamido (1953) directed by Niazi Mostafa and They Made Me a Criminal (1954) by Atef Salem.
Smoothly and gradually, like a circus acrobat, Shawqi began move from the absolute evil roles to roles embodying goodness and sometimes associated with gallantry and strength.
During this part of his career, he began to win nicknames such as “The Lion of the Screen” and “The Groundlings’ Favourite,” as he starred in films such as Dock No. 5 (1956), Midnight Driver (1958) and Night Devils (1966), all of which were directed by Niazi Mostafa, as well as Cairo Train Station (1958) by Youssef Chahine and A Hero until the End (1963) by Hossam Eddine Mostafa.
However, Shawqi’s most important film at this stage, and maybe his best ever, was The Strong Man (1957), directed by Salah Abu-Seif. It was a daring attempt to shed light on the market mafia through a rustic man, Hareedy (played by Shawqi), who was transformed by market rivalries from a protector of the weak into a monster trying to swallow everybody, particularly the weak.
The film’s massive success was in part due to Shawqi’s desire to reinvent himself, coinciding with the climaxing artistic maturity of Mostafa, the most skilful action director in Egyptian cinema.
The starting point of Shawqi and Mostafa’s collaboration was The Strong Men of Al-Husseinya (1954), through a treatment by Naguib Mahfouz, and it resulted in a number of the most famous action films in Egyptian cinema, such as Sultan (1958) and Abu-Hadeed (1958).
This trend’s popularity was tremendous, to the extent that Shawqi kept playing this role in films not directed by Mostafa.
The most notable of these are Port Said (1957), directed by Ezzeddine Zulfikar, The Giant (1960), by Mahmoud Zulfikar, and Slaves of the Flesh (1962), by Kamal Attia, to name but a few.
Moreover, the star’s uniqueness wouldn’t have materialised if Shawqi weren’t endowed with undeniable special physical abilities in leaping, fencing and horse-riding.
There is also a psychological or even political reason that can’t be ignored while examining the Farid Shawqi phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s.
Egypt at the time was witnessing a kind of “political machismo” due to Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s leadership and Egyptians’ inclination towards heroism or machismo.
Thus, a cinematic equivalent arose to represent this mood. We can interpret Shawqi’s shift to action films in Dock No. 5 (1956) as coinciding with Nasser’s consolidating power and his political victories in the same year, especially after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the end of the tripartite aggression.
Marking another phase of his career, in the early 1960s Shawqi began to move into light comedy roles, learning the rules from his acting master, Naguib Al-Rihani.
Despite his early attempt at comedy in He Stole My Wife (1954), which was directed by Hassan El-Seifi, the shift only began to gain momentum after he starred in The Swindler and My Wife’s Husband, both released in 1961 and both directed by Niazi Mostafa.
After Shawqi’s success as the star of Naguib Al-Rihani theatrical company, he decided, in a commercial shrewd move, that these plays be adapted for cinema.
These plays included, among others, His Majesty (1963), adapted from the play The Counterfeit Prince, and directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab.
Shawqi’s success in comedic film roles relied heavily on being a successful comedy actor on stage; he used Al-Rihani’s plays as a springboard to other comedy films that didn’t have Al-Rihani roots.
He was also a good fit, alongside Fouad El-Mohandes, for the trend of family comedies, which coincided with the middle class audience dominating the cinemas of the 1960s.
These films included The Game of Love and Marriage (1964), The Honourable Family (1964), and The Bachelor Husband (1966).
Shawqi’s genius for self-reinvention reached its pinnacle in the beginning of the 1970s when he searched for roles suiting his age.
He took human roles, starting with A Word of Honour (1972) directed by Hossam Eddine Mostafa, in which he played a wronged lawyer who was unable to prove his innocence even to his own wife.
This film’s success had an impact on his other films for more than a decade.
Once again, he opted to change. Unlike the wronged men he played in the 1970s and early 1980s, he began to portray a stony-hearted businessman in Women’s Wile (1983), an all-powerful tycoon in The Ghoul (1983) and a domineering father in The Law is an Ass (1985).
Continuous success can’t possibly be built on coincidence. Therefore, Shawqi’s decision to move to human roles and other subsequent ones was a deliberate one. He was a main player in making most of his human roles, whether as a story-writer, co-scriptwriter or a producer. This stage was marked by his films A Word of Honour (1972), Abu-Rabie (1973) and Les Misérables (1978).
His success drove producers to ask him to play the leading role in films he hadn’t produced or written. This happened in Tawheeda (1976), Enough for My Heart (1977), The Damned (1979), among others.
Shawqi was fortunate that his final stage of reinventing himself coincided with the economic and social upheaval that Egypt had been experiencing since the 1970s. When Shawqi began to shift to more humanistic roles with A Word of Honour (1972), it suited the public mood after the 1967 defeat in the Arab-Israeli war, and facilitated eliciting the audience’s tears.
After the 1973 victory, Egypt entered the age of Anwar Sadat’s Open Door Policy, where the rich became richer and the poor became poorer.
In this atmosphere, Shawqi chose to portray one of the new tycoons in The Ghoul (1983), directed by Samir Seif, and a crushed person in Marzouqa by Saad Arafa in the same year.
He also portrayed a middle-class role in The Civil Servants on Earth (1985). In the face of this social duality and the individualistic inclination among the poor to seize their rights from the rich, the audience’s mood was prepared to accept a series of films about strong men in which Shawqi found a prominent place.
Thus, he participated in films such as The Strong Men of Boulaq (1981), The Devil Sermonising (1981) and The Queen Bee Honey (1985) all of which are adapted from the works of Naguib Mahfouz, who was fascinated by the world of strong men.
In addition, there was The Strong Man of the Down-Trodden (1984) and Saad the Orphan (1985) which weren’t adapted from the works of the Nobel Laureate but had similar themes.