[5 March 2013]
For film buffs, there’s no doubt that Douglas Fairbanks was a true pioneer in the world of silent movies. He made use of expansive sets to tell classic stories in a way that was truly visionary both in scope and in the most basic sense of the word. Now his 1924 masterpiece, The Thief of Bagdad, is receiving a new DVD/Blu-Ray release that celebrates the actor’s vision with restored clarity and a newly recorded soundtrack. The Cohen Film Collection release is the first in a planned series of Fairbanks films. This will be the first opportunity for many viewers to own a high-quality copy of this silent-era classic.
The Thief of Bagdad is the tale of a thief, Ahmed, who falls in love with a young princess. As the tale unfolds, we follow Ahmed on his journey to win the princess’s heart and to secure the right to marry her. Of course, Fairbanks turns in a very impressive performance as the young Ahmed. Much was made of the actor’s athleticism in the movie; he was 40 at the time it was filmed. Those who have not been initiated into the world of silent movies may find the melodramatic stylings of Fairbanks a bit silly but he is, truly, a master of his form. Director Raoul Walsh also did an excellent job of capturing the enthusiasm of Fairbanks at the height of his career.
In addition to being a showcase piece for Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston (who plays the princess), The Thief of Bagdad highlights the exceptional vision of art director William Cameron Menzies. The huge sets used in the film invoke a nostalgia for the Orient that was particularly potent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beautiful costuming and visual effects that were certainly cutting edge for their day complement this romantic tale. While we might laugh at the flying carpet in the movie or the gigantic bat that attacks Ahmed on his quest to win the princess’ heart, we cannot forget what an accomplishment these effects represented. The color tints used to add highlights to the original film are particularly striking in this remastered version, adding an extra layer of delight for viewers.
However, while we can enjoy this classic story and appreciate Fairbanks’ craftsmanship in this new release, we are offered only the most cursory of critical discussions about the imagery in the film. Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance provides audio commentary for the feature, but the majority of his comments focus on the personal history of Fairbanks and trivia-like information about the making of the movie. This commentary and the accompanying featurette are surprisingly scant when it comes to critical discussion about the crucial role that the film played in contributing to the imagination of the Orient that persisted well into the 20th century.
And Fairbanks’ Bagdad is, of course, an imagination. While stunning, the set is reminiscent of a stage one might have seen at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, where Europeans busily imagined a romanticized version of a city few of them had ever seen. This fascination with the Orient remained a strong theme in the popular imagination well into the 20th century, with authors and filmmakers continuously drawing inspiration from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights to create generically Middle Eastern worlds in which lowly paupers could lure princesses in harem pants aboard their flying carpets (even Disney’s Aladdin made use of these conventions, which should have been passé by the ‘90s).
Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of this imagining is that no attempt was made to bring the film’s music in line with the rich cultures that Fairbanks attempted to represent via Menzie’s sweeping sets and his own exotic love story. The score is described as an intermingling of conductor Carl Davis’ own music with the “iconic Orientalia of Rimsky-Korsakov.” Why not do away with this Orientalia in favor of choosing more realistic renderings of the music that might have been heard in ancient Bagdad? It seems that Fairbanks himself might have opted for a more authentic, local music had he lived in another time and had such music been available to him.
Of course, Fairbanks was a man of his time; he can’t be faulted for conceiving a film from the framework of his time. And it is indeed important that future generations of film hounds will be able to see The Thief of Bagdad, even if we find its representations of the Other troubling at times. Yes, we ought to see this film. But we ought to see it with commentary from passionate film historians and social commentators who can place it firmly into its historical context. Without apologizing for the film, a featurette on such issues would help the contemporary viewer better understand what makes the film so important beyond visual achievement and a captivating performance by Fairbanks.
An additional featurette or two would strengthen the overall package in any case, which boasts only one small featurette with set stills from the movie. The featurette itself is silent and relies heavily on text between photos to describe what the viewer is seeing. Though the intent seems to be a clever play on the silent film form, it falls flat in terms of doing the film justice. Pick up The Thief of Bagdad to enjoy a remastered version of this classic silent film that will look great on your home television, but don’t be surprised if you find that the special features and audio commentary fall below your expectations.