Following on the heels of high profile performances as Zorro, d’Artagnan and Robin Hood, Douglas Fairbanks mounted the swashbuckling fantasy adventure of The Thief of Bagdad, considered to be one of the best of Hollywood’s silent productions as well as Fairbanks’ personal favourite.
The opening and closing scenes provide a moral framework for the plot, as the Imam narrating the story commands the stars in the desert sky to spell out the lesson: “Happiness must be earned.” This might be intended as a caution to audiences not to identify too heavily with Ahmed, the titular thief, who is at his most engaging in the first hour of the film as he steals indiscriminately from whomever crosses his path. Fairbanks is clearly having a ball in this section, which allows him to bounce around the screen shirtless as he carries out all sorts of thefts and make his daring escapes, with a charming grin constantly plastered across his face. This is also when he’s at his most amoral – given the quantity of jewellery he is seemingly able to steal on a daily basis, there’s no reason that he should also have to steal food, beyond the challenge of the experience and the satisfaction of his own ego. When he happens across the Imam preaching charity in a mosque, Ahmed bursts out laughing to condemn this approach to life as foolish – his personal philosophy is to take what he wants as soon as he sees it, simply because he can.
His attitude begins to shift while he is in the process of robbing the palace, as he is distracted by happening across the bedchambers of the Princess (Julanne Johnston). Infatuated by her beauty but forced to flee when his presence is discovered, he masquerades as a Prince to compete for her hand in marriage. Only when he is successful does he begin to display evidence of a conscience – to his credit he confesses his deception and attempts to return the ring to the Princess, only for her to insist that he keep it. Having been recognised as the earlier intruder by one of the Princess’ handmaidens (Anna May Wong) and exposed to the Caliph, he repeats his confession and submits without complaint to flogging before being sent to his death (from which the Princess arranges a rescue).
Having used the first 90 minutes of the film to establish the romantic stakes, the final hour spirals off into a fantasy quest, as the various Princes competing for the Princess’ hand set out to find the most precious treasures of the land. Wonder is piled upon wonder as the filmmakers burn rapidly through a series of fantastical scenarios with fully realised sets, most notably an underwater palace constructed of glass which took three months to make but is onscreen for less than a minute. After encounters with fiery chasms, animated trees, a dragon, a giant spider and a giant bat, Ahmed rides a flying horse to the citadel of the moon to obtain a cloak of invisibility and a chest of magic powder which will save Bagdad from Mongol invaders. The effects in this final stretch of the film owe a huge debt to Fritz Lang’s Destiny [Der müde Tod] (1921) – Fairbanks was so impressed by this film that he bought the American rights and then kept it in storage so that he could copy many of the effects for The Thief of Bagdad without fear of being overshadowed, finally releasing Lang’s film four months after his own (which is at least a more ethical approach than Hollywood’s later practice of remaking a film then buying up prints of the original and destroying them).
Fairbanks is a thoroughly charming lead, although it must be observed that he’s used the old practice of darkening his skin for the role. Julanne Johnston is fine as the Princess but doesn’t particularly stand out in a role where she has little to do other than pine, look pretty and be rescued. Far more engaging is Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress early in her career who immediately stands out among the Princess’ handmaidens, although her role in the plot is to betray the Princess to the Prince of the Mongols (played here by distinguished Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin). Wong deserved a better career than she got – although she was well treated overseas, within American cinema she was often cast in stereotypical roles and even lost roles which should have been hers to white actresses. The most notable other actor of colour here is Noble Johnson (playing the Prince of the Indies), who set up the first African American film studio in 1916 and played a major part in creating opportunities for African Americans to branch out beyond the stereotypical roles more generally on offer.
The real star of this film, however, is the art direction and production design of William Cameron Menzies. The magnificent sets he created provide the epic level of scale and spectacle that is the main source of the film’s appeal, standing out even when intended primarily as a backdrop for Douglas Fairbanks’ stunts. While Fairbanks and his cast are an important component of the film’s success, it’s the look of the film which creates its enduring appeal.
The technicolour partial remake of the original Thief has quite a complex production history, being formally attributed to three different directors but actually made by six. Produced by Alexander Korda for London Films, the film was begun by German director Ludwig Berger before Korda decided he didn’t like his work and secretly hired British director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes) to film additional material. After a while Korda managed to push Berger out and Powell formally took over, while American Tim Whelan was brought in to assist. With the outbreak of World War 2, Powell was reassigned to making morale-boosting propaganda films and the production was moved to America, to be completed by the uncredited William Cameron Menzies (who had worked on the original) plus producer Korda and his brother Zoltan.
This time around, Ahmad (John Justin) is no longer the titular thief but rather a naïve Prince who is usurped by his evil sorcerous vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). The older mentor character credited as “The Thief’s Evil Associate” in the original film has been transformed into the teenage thief Abu (Selar Sabu). While Ahmad is given the role of the romantic lead who finds and loses the Princess (June Duprez) multiple times before they are finally reunited and restored to power, Abu’s thief is by far the more interesting character and the clear hero of the piece, without whom Ahmad would be utterly lost. Abu is responsible for breaking them both out of the Vizier’s dungeons and escaping to another city, where he intends to join the crew of famous adventurer Sinbad (mentioned but never seen). He postpones his own plans to help Ahmad visit the Princess (recognising that Ahmad’s role as romantic lead has softened his brain tissue and that he lacks the skills to enter the palace without being caught), but ends up turned into a dog by Jaffar after Ahmad is struck blind.
After the spell has been broken, Abu and Ahmad are shipwrecked whilst in pursuit of Jaffar. Abu wakes up alone and Ahmad disappears from the film entirely while Abu goes adventuring, tricking a Djinn (Rex Ingram) into granting him three wishes and defeating a number of death traps to obtain the All-Seeing Eye. Accidentally wasting his last wish to send Ahmad back to Bagdad (where he’s promptly caught and sentenced to death), Abu is left stranded in the desert until he smashes the Eye in frustration, unleashing the supernatural visitation of a lost King who makes Abu his heir and gives him a magic crossbow. The King basically tells him: “Hey Abu, you’re such a generous and helpful young man, you can have anything I own except for this magic carpet which would conveniently allow you to return to Bagdad and save your incompetent friend, I’ll just wander behind this curtain and leave you alone with it (wink, wink)” – and sure enough, Abu flies off to save the day and inadvertently fulfill a prophecy about the great saviour of Bagdad. Ahmad and the unnamed Princess get married, Ahmad announces that Abu will be sent to school to become his new vizier, and Abu promptly scarpers on his magic carpet before Ahmad can finish speaking because he would much rather be a heroic adventurer than stuck in a palace with these hopeless white people.
Conrad Veidt provides a well-judged performance as the evil villain Jaffar, leaning into his role but never going over the top. His performance in this role would go on to be the template for this character type, perhaps most famously seen in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1992). Indian actor Sabu is a charming lead, although he’s not given as many opportunities to show off his physical skills as Fairbanks. John Justin is adequate as Ahmad, while June Duprez is more effective in her role as the Princess than her predecessor. Not only is English character actor Miles Malleson as delightful as always in his role as the Princess’ father, he is also responsible for the final screenplay of the film, providing sparkling dialogue which thoroughly brings the film to life. Vincent Korda’s sets are rich in colour and built on a similar scale to the original, if in a slightly different style, and the giant spider (while a bit rough by today’s standards) is still quite effective and a potential trigger for arachnophobes. Although Abu and the Djinn are the only main characters to be portrayed by non-white actors, there is less evidence of artificially darkened skin here than in the original and almost all of the non-speaking extras are more authentically cast (admittedly not a high bar to surpass, but it is what it is).
This version of The Thief of Bagdad is a lively entertainment which still has a great deal to offer. It’s a worthy successor to the original and hugely influential in its own right. It was one of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen’s favourite films and you can see its fingerprints all over his three Sinbad films (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). Although I had vague childhood memories of seeing Sabu jumping around the buildings of Bagdad, the fact that I retained very little else led me to assume it wasn’t a very good movie. As a result it charmed me much more than I expected and I was delighted to be proven wrong.