The classic fantasy film of the 1940s remains as wonderful and engaging now as it ever was.
One of cinema’s great epic fantasies, the 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad has, perhaps, been rather superseded in movie fans affections by the 1924 version in recent years, thanks to restorations and reissues of that earlier film. This is a pity, as this version seems to be the definitive one (we’ll gloss over the 1979 TV version, which is actually entertaining enough for what it is but clearly not on the same level as the earlier versions) – and while the once pioneering special effects now understandably look crude and at times laughable, the film still seems to be the perfect Arabian Nights adventure, combining action, comedy, romance and fantasy in ways that other filmmakers – notably the Sinbad films produced by Ray Harryhausen – imitated but never equalled.
The film tells the tale of youthful King Ahmed (John Justin), who is convinced by his evil Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) to walk the streets of the city in disguise one night in order to find out what people really think of him and the brutal rule that Jaffar imposes. But this is actually a cunning plan to dispose of the King, who is arrested along with other subversives and thrown into prison. Here, he meets youthful thief Abu (Sabu), and the pair escape together, fleeing Bagdad for Basra, where Ahmed becomes obsessed with a beautiful Princess (June Duprez). Unfortunately, Jaffar also arrives in the city and demands the hand of the Princess in marriage from her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson) in exchange for a fantastical mechanical flying horse. Hearing this, the Princess flees the city. Meanwhile, Jaffar confronts Ahmed and Abu, using his magical powers to make the former blind and turn the boy into a dog – a spell that will last until Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.
All this introduction is told in flashback as Ahmed, now a blind beggar, is taken to the palace in order to revive the Princess – captured by slavers and bought by Jaffar – who lies in a mysterious slumber. Awakened, the Princess is lured onto a ship where she is told a healer is who can restore Ahmed’s sight – of course, the healer is Jaffar, and his price is her obedience. Her unwilling embrace at least lifts the curse from Ahmed and Abu, and the pair take to the sea in pursuit of Jaffar, leading to various adventures for the little thief after a shipwreck separates the two friends. Unleashing a Djinn (Rex Ingram) from a bottle, Abu is granted three wishes, which he mostly manages to waste, and visits a temple at the highest point in the world in order to steal the All-Seeing Eye and find Ahmed, who ends up back in Bagdad, captured by Jaffar, who decides to give up on the dream of marrying the Princess and instead plans to execute both her and the former king. Only Abu, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, can save the day…
The most immediate thing you notice about The Thief of Bagdad is the scale of the film and its remarkable vibrancy. The huge sets and grand locations look amazing even now, and the restored version that was issued a few years back allows the strong colours to pop out of the screen – with the curious exception of one or two moments where the quality drops inexplicably, it looks gorgeous. Miklos Rozsa’s score also gives the film a sense of grandeur (and of course was much imitated in similar Arabian Nights inspired adventures), and the film’s story, fast pace and general charm will immediately win the viewer over. You can forgive a lot in a film this much fun and frankly, if you really get hung up about iffy special effects (or un-PC representations) in a film from 1940, perhaps you need to have a quiet word with yourself.
The strange thing is that by all rights, this movie should be a mess. It has three official directors – Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan – and three more people who directed sections of the film. That it holds together at all, let alone as well as it does, is remarkable. But a few moments aside – Malleson rather over-egging his performance as the eccentric Sultan, a couple of points where it threatens to become a musical (which it was at one point before wiser heads prevailed) – the film is genuinely wonderful. Of course, in keeping with the later Harryhausen films, the supposed leads are actually rather bland – Justin doesn’t really convince as either a romantic figure or a swordsman, and while Duprez manages to cut the mustard as a woman so beautiful that men will fight to the death over her (all too often in films, famous actresses notably fail to convince anyone but themselves that they are the most beautiful woman that the hero has ever seen, but Duprez is plausibly stunning) she doesn’t really get a great deal to do in the story other than mope over Ahmed or be terrorised by Jaffar.
It’s perhaps in acknowledgement that Ahmed is not that interesting a character that the film actually focuses on the little thief, essentially forgetting about the alleged hero entirely for a large chunk of the story. For much of the film, Ahmed is pretty much forgotten as we follow Abu while he outwits the Djinn and then battles giant spiders and green-skinned natives to steal the All-Seeing Eye. Sure, the title is a giveaway as to where the narrative interest will lie, but in the 1924 version, the King and the thief were the same person – separating them out is an interesting move and may have been made to allow Sabu to take the lead while still allowing a romance to flourish between older (and, yes, whiter) characters. Whatever the reasons, I think it works to the film’s advantage. Sabu brings a real verve and spontaneity to his character, and concentrating on him was probably the smartest decision the filmmakers came up with. Even his musical number is charmingly cute and it’s a shame that the young Indian actor never really got the breaks he deserved – his long career is unquestionably impressive, but very much restricted to ‘jungle boy’ roles on the whole.
Of course, Conrad Veidt is a splendid villain – a sinister, scheming tyrant who is nevertheless allowed to show moments of human vulnerability as he tries to force the Princess to love him. He keeps his character under control – it would be easy for Jaffar to be simply comic book stuff, but he’s restrained until he needs to go over the top, which he then does magnificently. He essentially sets the template for every evil sorcerer in every fantasy film from this point onwards.
The Thief of Bagdad remains as exciting a film now as it ever was, and is a great example of the sort of ambitious but unpretentious fantasy adventure that we no longer seem to get. A pity that, as I suspect that despite claims of modern audiences being ‘too sophisticated’ for this sort of wholesome fun, kids will still find this movie and others like it to be tremendous fun. Of course, the main audience for this film today will be nostalgic movie buffs – but films like this are a great way to introduce kids to classic cinema too. I imagine they’ll be just as enthralled as we were the first time we saw films like this.
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