Nov 011940
three reels

Prince Ahmad (John Justin) is betrayed by his vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), and imprisoned. He escapes with the help of Abu (Sabu), a young thief, and together they see a princess (June Duprez) that Ahmad falls in love with. She is the daughter of the Sultan (Miles Malleson), and Jaffar wants her, so he magically blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog. Ahmad and Abu must counter the spell, save the princess, and defeat Jaffar, and to do so, they will meet a Genie (Rex Ingram), fly a carpet, and battle monsters.

Alexander Korda set out to make a lush, visually stunning homage to the silent film of the same name, dumping most of the story, but keeping the feel of adventure. In that, he succeeded, but with his attention focused on epic wonder, he fumbled the characters.  Films of the ‘90s and later are often accused of forgetting old silver screen values and putting special effects, costumes, and sets above story, theme, and characters. Well, it’s hardly a new phenomenon, and The Thief of Bagdad is the poster child for spectacle first. It is a beautiful film, with remarkable map paintings creating mountains around a well stuffed Bagdad (generally spelled Baghdad now, but one should never contradict movie spellings). Every frame is jammed with the sights of a fantasy Arabia. With a film this gorgeous, a few flaws can be forgiven. The dramatic and lilting score by Miklós Rózsa supports the incredible Technicolor images such that you can enjoy the picture without ever thinking about those characters.

What holds The Thief of Bagdad back from greatness was Korda’s desire to use Sabu as the thief. That meant taking the original part and splitting it. Ahmad, now a prince, has had his roguish side removed, making him bland, and strangely bratty. Sabu takes on the scoundrel side of the title character, but as he is (supposed to be) a child, its sanitized. And Sabu was no child. He grew over the long production (so much so that early scenes had to be reshot), but Korda wanted him the way he’d been in Elephant Boy, three years earlier, so Abu is written as if he is a pre-teen. Thus instead of a rollicking adventure film for all ages, we have a kids movie, where everyone is too simple and too one-note.

It doesn’t help that the romantic leads are not the protagonists. Things happen to them; they do not act. But then their entire romance is hard to take, even in a fantasy. They both fall in love at first sight.  Ahmad is captured, rescued, struck blind, brought to the palace, tossed up on a faraway shore, found, and tossed back to Bagdad and never once does anything. The princess just stands around (when she’s not in a coma) and looks sad and pretty. I started to think Jaffar ought to win as at least he’s trying. Abu is pretty active, but it’s hard to figure out why. He wants to go off with Sinbad early on, and I can’t come up with a reason why he doesn’t. Justin, Duprez, and Sabu have nothing to work with a weren’t skilled enough to find something between the lines.

Veidt, Malleson, and Ingram do better, both because they were better actors and because their parts had something to dig into.

The feature’s production problems are famous. Filming was moved from Britain to the U.S. due to the war, and six different directors had their hands in, including Michael Powell (the lush color and exquisite look of the film has Powell’s fingerprints).  But a lack of a coherent vision is not the film’s problem. Producer Korda held fast to the reins. Rather everyone, or I should say Korda, often had the wrong vision.  The camera dwells on the lavishness of the sets, leaving the characters as nothing more than another piece of the background.  In one case, the princess rides from the palace in frantic haste, frightened. But we don’t see her emotional state, or even her face. Instead we are given a long shot of what could be any girl on a horse, allowing us to view the street and buildings.

I may sound harsh about what is a good film, but it should have been better. When so much goes so right, I want a masterpiece. This is lovely to look at, but disappointing.

Modern audiences should note how much Disney swiped from The Thief of Bagdad for the animated Aladdin. There’s the evil Jaffar who runs the kingdom (Disney’s version even looks like Conrad Veidt), a beautiful princes with an infantile Sultan-father who loves toys, a sidekick named Abu who steals and is non-human (well, he’s only a dog for part of The Thief of Bagdad, while he’s a monkey or elephant for all of Aladdin), a powerful Genie, a flying carpet, and an item to be taken from a trapped temple.

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