A sumptuous fantasy epic, The Thief of Bagdad was considered a special effects marvel in its day; a magical slice of pure story book escapism translated to live action film. Although perhaps a little too naïvely saccharine for some modern viewers to swallow, The Thief of Bagdad remains a technological marvel, a visual delight and an entertaining family adventure told in a charmingly vintage style.
The production of The Thief of Bagdad was fraught with difficulty. It was pretty much the last throw of the dice for producer Alexander Korda after releasing a string of flops, and he nearly bankrupted himself to get it made. Fortunately, The Thief of Bagdad became a massive hit, but getting there wasn’t particularly easy. The production stretched on for over 18 months – interrupted by the German blitz of London during World War II – while the demanding Korda ran through six different directors in an attempt to realise the fantastic scale of his vision on the screen.
The Thief of Bagdad is a loose remake of the 1924 silent film of the same name, although the narrative differs in several key ways, including the splitting up of the hero into two separate characters. The story is essentially a grab bag of elements from old Arabian myths and fairy tales, especially The One Thousand and One Nights. Everybody ought to recognise bits and pieces from any one of half a dozen well known tales such as Aladdin and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad in The Thief of Bagdad. In fact, the characterisations in this movie were liberally plundered for Disney’s 1992 animated adaption of Aladdin. It’s the Middle East imagined as a realm of exotica and magic, with opulent palaces, magic carpets, genies, adventurers and princesses mixed up in tales of heroism and enchantment.
The most immediately striking aspect of The Thief of Bagdad is the sheer scale of the spectacle. Some of the most impressive and convincing matte painting backdrops used in a film of this era create the impression of sets on a massive scale, and they’re populated by hundreds of extras. The production values are simply first rate, with a lavish attention to detail paid to the costumes and set design. The early use of Technicolour in an era of mostly black and white films creates an atmosphere of highly stylised fantasy. The impossibly vivid colour palette is dazzling to the eye, accentuating the film’s feel of a story book come to life.
The big draw for audiences at the time of the The Thief of Bagdad’s 1940 release was its extravagant use of special effects. And almost 70 years after it first appeared, the effects still exude their own kind of special charm. It’s easy enough to laugh at some of the more rough and ready moments, but then a lot of the artificial CGI we see in modern movies are not especially convincing either. In The Thief of Bagdad, the effects are at least placed at the disposal of the story, rather than totally swamping it out as is often the case with more recent blockbusters. And some of the film’s sequences, such as the appearance of the gigantic genie, who towers at a scale beyond anything else on the screen, still hold the power to evoke a sense of wonder.
There’s no doubt, however, that The Thief of Bagdad was aimed at as broad a general audience as possible, and this is likely to rankle with viewers today. The story and characterisations are intended more for children than adults, and in a fashion that can be more than a little grating at times. When the leads occasionally break out into open song, for example, you’ve got little choice but to grit your teeth and try to bear it.
The only genuinely appealing character – as is so often the case in this sort of affair – is the villain. Jaffar, played by Conrad Veidt, might well be a treacherous and conniving deviant, but he is charming and intelligent. Sadly, this is not really the case with the film’s two heroes. Sabu brings a kind of naïve enthusiasm to the character of the Thief, but he seems a bit infantile for the age of the character he’s supposed to be portraying. And John Justin as the swashbuckling Prince Ahmad comes across as more of a soppy git than a daredevil hero. He has none of the roguish, masculine charisma of Douglas Fairbanks in the 1924 original.
The degree to which a modern viewer will enjoy The Thief of Bagdad really depends on how well you’re prepared to accept some of the cornball idiosyncrasies of its production era, and how willing you are to engage with the film from out of a sense of innocence and wide eyed wonder. Intermittent moments of cringe worthy pandering to the junior set aside, The Thief of Bagdad is an entertaining fantasy epic in a classic boy’s own adventure vein of which we don’t see very often these days. It’s worth a look for its spectacular Technicolour visuals alone, and its pioneering special effects and sense of pure cinematic escapism prepared the ground for the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films to follow. It’s a groundbreaking fantasy adventure and a marvel of its time, but just don’t expect The Thief of Bagdad to reflect the more cynical tastes of jaded modern audiences.