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Before ‘Argo,’ there was ‘Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper’

Three decades before Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a Canadian TV film that also aired on CBS told the story of the rescue of six Americans that were being safeguarded at the Canadian embassy from capture.

The big difference? The film lacked the component that made “Argo” “Argo” — that is, the involvement of Tony Mendez, the CIA and Hollywood. On the other hand, it did show the captives getting drunk, as you can see in the clip above. 

PinsentLamont Johnson directed 1981’s “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” from a script by Lionel Chetwynd (story by Chetwynd and Stanley Rubin). Gordon Pinsent (“Away From Her”) played Ambassador Ken Taylor, the role portrayed by Victor Garber in “Argo.”It aired on CBS less than 18 months after the rescue.

And that film itself was preceded by a documentary, “Escape from Iran: The Inside Story.” Les Harris, a producer on the scripted film, was behind that doc as well

Generally speaking, the Canadian efforts get more credit for accuracy — aside from not having any of the details of the fake “Argo” movie that was concocted to aid the rescue.

“When I interviewed the hostages,” Harris said (to the National Post) as the Toronto International Film Festival was getting underway, “they told me the escape
plot involved them pretending to be part of a business group doing
research in Iran — what they didn’t tell me was that it was for a fake
movie called Argo.” So he had to make up the specific nature of
their business. “That’s the only aspect of my film that’s factually
wrong. It wasn’t until 1999, when the CIA officer in charge of the whole
operation wrote a memoir and revealed all of the details that I got the
real story.”

On the other hand, the Variety review of “Canadian Caper,” discusses storytelling deficiencies, not the least of which is the need to make the ending more dramatic — something that “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio certainly succeded at. 

… a detailed logistical account of the rescue may have been avoided because those events were in fact fairly mundane.

They resulted in an unsatisfying climax — the Americans simply answered a few questions at the airport and boarded their plane out of Iran.

Ordinariness of the conclusion was compounded by a series of quick cuts from scene to scene that robbed viewers of a well-defined struggle to the goal of freedom, and gave them only a few suspenseful snatches of that journey. …


Escape review

Earlier, Variety also had a brief review of the Harris documentary:

“Escape From Iran,” a documentary
reconstruction of how
Canadian Embassy staff in Tehran
smuggled six Americans out of
Iran, was timely and gripping fare.
Producer Les Harris recreated
the story well, with commentary by
all concerned and excellent camera
work by Vic Sarin and others
who filmed key location once they
were all safe at home.
It was a story that needed telling
and Harris and his team did it well.

In mid-1981, CAA ran an ad in Variety that showcased “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper,” a nice if unwitting bookend to the “Argo” ad that ran the previous year.

Argo ad
Escape Ad

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