The best way to appreciate Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is no longer possible. It should be first seen in a movie palace of the grand old kind, with décor of the opium-scented maharajah’s palace variety. The curtains that pull back at the blaring of the introductory score, those should be velvet. The best time period to be present, viewing this movie, is the 1940s, but that could be extended if necessary up through sometime in the mid-1960s.
The ideal viewer should be a boy, preferably between the ages of eight and 12, who has never heard of Saddam Hussein or OPEC. Failing those conditions for optimal viewing, the new Criterion edition of the film is a suitable enough replacement, though some of the pixie dust of earlier times and attitudes will inevitably be lost.
Splashing onto the screen like a Bollywood take on 1001 Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad (a remake of Raoul Walsh’s 1924 Douglas Fairbanks adventure) is a wildly innocent fantasia that does a brisk trade in primary colored-adventure; this is a film that barely glances at reality, much less touches on it. Jumbling in a few scraps of history amidst all the liftings from Arabian Nights, the story is a mixed-bag of daring escapes and capers, with palace intrigue and magic thrown in for good measure.
Set in a Baghdad that never existed in this world (at least not with those colors), the film sets up as its protagonist the rather mundane John Justin as Ahmad, rightful ruler of Baghdad. Blinded and cast out of the palace by the scheming Jaffar (Conrad Veidt, sporting the same frightfully burning expression he used so effectively 20 years earlier in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Ahmad begs in the street with his scruffy dog and tells the tale of how he came to his Prince and the Pauper state. Although Ahmad fails to excite much as a hero, playing too much like a second-rate matinee idol and not a deposed ruler, that lack of impact is more than compensated for by his sidekick, the titular thief, Abu (Sabu).
An Indian teenager who had been discovered by Korda when making his 1937 film Elephant Boy, Sabu is the kind of raw, rough talent whom modern filmmakers would ruin with acting lessons. Bouncing through the film as though suspended by a string, Abu runs amok in the markets of Bagdad, stealing whatever he needs and outsmarting the apoplectic adults at every turn. That is, before he gets tossed into the same cell where Ahmad is being held; it’s after that point that the film soars into mythic adventure.
In the Criterion edition’s commentary track, where Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese take turns enthusing about one of their childhood’s most well-remembered films, it becomes clear that Sabu’s half-wild, trickster performance was a good part of the film’s appeal for young audiences of the time. There’s rarely a grown-up on screen who can contain the wiley Abu, and if they actually do, it’s to their own peril.
Another element that gives The Thief of Bagdad its youthful appeal is very simply the colors. One of the earliest big studio Technicolor projects (during a time when a Technicolor representative had to be on set to approve all the color usage), the film is like a rainbow-colored jewel box in which anything is possible. Korda’s art team dresses the sets in manic, cotton-candy tones (all the minarets of Baghdad appear to be a bright royal blue, for instance) that do more to set the mood than all the script’s Oriental fantasy clichés (massive gleaming scimitars, giggling harems, flying carpets, and genies in bottles) put together. Pulling together the giddy escapades of Ahmad and Abu and the wild colors is a particularly lush Miklós Rózsa score.
To get his massive project done in time, Korda marshaled a team of directors — among them Michael Powell, on the cusp of beginning a strong run of classics like 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp — to shoot scenes simultaneously. One of the Criterion edition’s better features discusses the laborious procedures through which these special effects where created, from the matte paintings and models that created the illusion of sumptuous vistas and magical Arabian cityscapes.
It was all a clearly monumental undertaking and one that can still astound in these CGI-engorged times. One scene in which a playful and toy-collecting sultan is given a magical mechanical horse (assembled on screen piece by piece) has a particular imaginative beauty that’s actually enhanced by the low-tech gimmickry involved.
That being said, there are times when The Thief of Bagdad doesn’t always transport nearly as much as it should, particularly for viewers sullied by adulthood. This is partly due to the sometimes rough transitions from one story to the next (perhaps exacerbated by the multiple directors). But there’s no escaping the fact that this is a film almost entirely predicated on outdated notions of the Fabulous Orient and all those staples of 19th and early 20th century Middle East fantasies.
As such, the film’s efforts at whimsy can more than occasionally tilt into straight caricature. Still, it is reassuring to see a film where Baghdad can symbolize power, wonder, and magic, instead of the terror and strife that it is known for, these days. Let’s hope that one day such wonder at Baghdad will be possible, again.