The Thief of Bagdad

Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Miles Malleson (scenario by Lajos Biró)
Stars: Conrad Veidt (Jaffar), Sabu (Abu), June Duprez (Princess), John Justin (Ahmad), Rex Ingram (Djinni), Miles Malleson (Sultan), Morton Selten (The Old King), Mary Morris (Halima), Bruce Winston (The Merchant), Hay Petrie (Astrologer), Adelaide Hall (Singer), Roy Emerton (Jailer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1940
Country: U.K.
The Thief of Bagdad
The Thief of BagdadThere is an innocence to The Thief of Bagdad that is notably unusual in today’s theaters. With rare exception, even those movies that are explicitly aimed at children today feel the need to have an ironic edge, proving their coolness with pop culture references and levels of visual sophistication that are less about creating wonderment than proving their technological prowess (see, for example, the Wachowski Brothers’ overwhelmingly hyperkinetic Speed Racer). The film boasts three directors--Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, and Tim Whelan--who, despite conventional wisdom, managed to meld their styles to the point that is difficult to determine who directed what. Shot in lavish Technicolor at a time when color movies were exceptionally rare, The Thief of Bagdad is a guileless ode to the childlike awe of fantasy and exoticism.

Produced during World War II by the great Hungarian-born British filmmaker Alexander Korda, The Thief of Bagdad is certainly a visual marvel, combining virtually every kind of special effect known at the time, plus a new innovation known as blue screen that allowed them to create images of a flying horse and a giant djinni. Although some of the effects may seem crude by today’s standards, they are done with such finesse and love of the magic of movies that you’d have to go back to the trick films of Georges Méliès to find something comparable. The Thief of Bagdad revels in the fantastical, asking us to believe in the imagery not because it’s necessarily realistic, but because abandoning logic and reason and all the other trappings of the adult world are the only way to get in sync with its vibe.

The screenplay, credited to the prolific actor/writer Miles Malleson (the credit for the scenario goes to Lajos Biró), draws freely from the set of classic Eastern tales originally known as The Arabian Nights, which were later collected under the title The Thousand and One Nights and brought to Europe by Antoine Galland in the early 1700s. Since then, the characters and stories have been so thoroughly dispersed throughout Western culture that they have entered our collective unconscious. We know all about the djinni in the lamp and the flying carpet, which at this point are like tropes to be reworked however best suits the narrative at hand.

Originally filmed in 1924 with Douglas Fairbanks as the eponymous thief, Korda’s version of The Thief of Badgad gives us dual heroes: the young thief Abu (Sabu) and a deposed king named Ahmad (John Justin). Ahmad is tricked by his nefarious advisor Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), who has him imprisoned and steals his throne. Ahmad and Sabu escape, but trouble ensues when Ahmad and Jaffar both fall in love with the same princess (June Duprez). Thus, the story mixes together adventure and romance, political scheming and pure fantasy. Its whimsical view of human nature and the easy divides between good and evil are simple and clean-cut, as is its vision of love-at-first-sight romance that overcomes all time and space. Of course, that is precisely what we would want, as the introduction of any kind of irony or distance would cause the entire enterprise to sink.

Because this is a film aimed at kids, it is not surprising that the weight of the story rests on the slender shoulders of Abu, who is the ultimate representation of pure, unbridled freedom. Played by Sabu, a young Indian actor who had been discovered a few years earlier by Korda for his 1937 film The Elephant Boy, Abu skates through life, living off his thievery, which is excused due to its necessity. He laughs while being chased through the city streets and can’t understand why Ahmad would want to stick around to see a woman when he has a chance to explore the world.

At times, The Thief of Bagdad feels a bit creaky, but its whimsy more than compensates for some of its narrative clunkiness. The images on screen are consistently marvelous, giving us a typically exotic, storybook view of the Middle East cleverly built out of matte paintings and miniatures. While we might now crease our brows at the film’s obvious political incorrectness (it is, after all, a British production rife with colonialist assumptions about foreign lands), it is more worthwhile to recognize and appreciate the film’s adoration of all things magical and unique, a worldview that is all too often lost in a world in which cynicism carries too much currency.

The Thief of Bagdad Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Anamorphic No
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese
  • Audio commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder
  • Visual Effects documentary
  • The Lion Has Wings (1940) feature film
  • Excerpts from codirector Michael Powell’s audio dictations for his autobiography
  • Excerpts from a 1976 radio interview with composer Miklos Rózsa
  • Two stills galleries
  • Optional music and effects track
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring new essays by film scholars Andrew Moor and Ian Christie
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 27, 2008

    The Thief of Bagdad was originally released on DVD back in 2002 in a bare-bones edition by MGM. I haven’t seen that disc, and while I have read various accounts of the transfer’s quality, I’m not in a position to make direct comparisons. However, I can say that the Criterion transfer, which was made from the British Film Institute’s 35mm restoration internegative, looks great. The Technicolor palette is beautifully rendered, although you will note that it is not as glaring and bold as some Technicolor films. Digital restoration has ensured a near complete absence of dirt and signs of age, although it appears that in at least one scene the three-strip Technicolor negatives have shrunk to the point that they couldn’t be perfectly aligned so there is some bleeding and fuzziness. The liner notes don’t mention that the transfer was done in high definition, which may be why some of the film grain in the blue skies sometimes looks a bit noisy. Otherwise, the colors look great and the image is well-detailed, if just a tad soft (again, likely a result of the three-strip process). The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm recorded sound negative and a 35mm original nitrate print, sounds excellent, with no pops or aural hiss. Criterion has also included a separate music and effects track.
    While it is debatable how much of an improvement Criterion’s image quality is over the previously available MGM disc, there is no comparison when it comes to supplements. Criterion has given The Thief of Bagdad the royal treatment in the supplementary department, starting with two audio commentaries that alone will make this two-disc set essential viewing for fans of the film. The first commentary is by directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, both of whom grew up with the film and have a strong love of it (Coppola even begins singing along with Sabu at one point). Both directors have plenty of insight into the film and express their deep admiration for it without fawning, and my only complaint about the track is that they weren’t recorded together (imagine the interplay between them had they been). The second audio track is by film historian and Criterion regular Bruce Eder, who gives another of his deeply informative, thoroughly engaging commentaries. There is also a new half-hour documentary titled Visual Effects, which interviews special-effects masters Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron about the film’s technological achievements. While most everyone who was directly involved in the film’s production has passed away, we do get some direct insight into the film via extensive excerpts from codirector Michael Powell’s audio dictations for his autobiography and excerpts from a 1976 radio interview with composer Miklos Rózsa. There are also two stills galleries: “Production and Publicity Stills,” which contains several shots from deleted scenes that I can only assume have been long lost, and “Dufaycolor Stills,” which consists of photographs taken on the film’s set that come from Michael Powell’s personal collection and have never before been published. The latter gallery is particularly intriguing because it shows how some of the special effects, including hanging miniatures, were used. And, once you’re done exhausting the supplements that go behind the scenes of The Thief of Bagdad, you can finish with a viewing of The Lion Has Wings (1940), a propaganda feature film Alexander Korda produced for the English war effort while Thief was in production hiatus. While not a particularly good film, it is a fascinating artifact of the World War II era and well worth seeing.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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