Two warring Arabian leaders – Nesib (Antonio Banderas) and Amar (Mark Strong) – agree a shaky detente when the former “adopts" the sons of the latter in a traditional peace deal. However, when Nesib breaks the conditions of the treaty and allows American prospectors to drill for oil in the disputed ‘Yellow Belt' the boys – one a red-blooded warrior, the other a mousy academic - must decide whose side they are on. Quest For Fire director Jean Jacques-Annaud brings a widescreen sensibility to this complex story of intrigue and double-dealing, fired by the coveted "black gold" of the title.
Power-hungry desert warrior Nesib, Emir of Hobeika (Banderas) observes that "Arabs are the waiters at the banquet of the world."
Determined to right this catering wrong he imposes a treaty on bloodied arch-rival Amar, Sultan of Salmaah (Strong), a deal which means Amar's two sons Saleeh (Gazi) and Auda (A Prophet's Rahim) move into his household as sons/hostages.
The two men fell out over an apparently worthless piece of desert - the Yellow Belt - but soon Nesib learns its value when a Texan oil prospector tells him it could be churning out a hundred $1 barrels of the finest crude every day.
He soon conveniently forgets the agreement with Nasir and the oil revenues are soon propelling his kingdom into the civilised 20th century with the building of hospitals, schools and - of course - a modern army.
Meanwhile, Saleeh, seething at the deception of his real father, is killed while heading home and Auda - a speccy librarian - is speedily hitched to Nesib's daughter Princess Leyla (Frieda Pinto) in, funnily enough, a genuine love match.
With allegiances shifting like the desert sands, it's up to Auda to cast off his nerdy rep and shape up as a warrior fit to honour his father's name.
Batten down your tents for a sand-swept epic.
French director Jacques-Annaud made a virtue of a labyrinthine plot with his sublime adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose but here economic storytelling appears to have, er, deserted him.
If you can imagine Lawrence of Arabia re-staged in panto at Southend-on-Sea then you just about have the measure of a long-winded epic crammed with the sort of villains you never thought existed outside Aladdin.
One soundly-beaten tribal leader actually allows sand to slip between his bunched fist as he considers the revenge he will visit on Auda, who has transformed himself from the sort of wimp who has sand kicked in his face to the hard nut who does the kicking.
Banderas, in particular, seems to think he's up against Widow Twankey at Oldham Rep such is his collection of dark, sultry glances from 'neath a big turban.
Eschewing CGI, the big setpiece battle scenes look a little lost although one assault on the traditional tribal warriors with modern armoured cars is impressively handled.
However, it just goes on and on - the cinematic equivalent of watching sand pouring through an egg timer that takes well over two hours to empty.