"The Thief of Bagdad," in revival for the holiday season, retains a durable appeal, sometimes in spite of and sometimes because of its stilted qualities.
In a receptive mood it may be difficult to resist the naive charm of an Arabian Nights adventure fantasy in which the romantic hero excuses himself from a harem by saying, "O, servants of silkiness, I must on, seeking the one I love," or the villian asserts that "There are but three things men respect-the lash, the yoke and the sword," or the young lovers, an ingenuous match if there ever was one, share exchanges like the following.
She: "How long have you been searching?"
He: "From the beginning of time."
She: "How long will you stay?"
He: "To the end of time."
A lavish remake of one of Douglas Fairbanks' most famous and elaborate hits, "The Thief of Bagdad." was first released in the winter of 1940. At the time its magical spectacles-a flying mechanical horse, a flying carpet, the appearance of a giant genie played by Rex Ingram, and the superb horror sequence in which Sabu as the intrepid, resourceful young thief duels with a giant spider while climbing a towering web-represented just about the best that trick photography, matte painting, miniatures and process photography could attain.
Revived now, "The Thief of Bagdad" offers local movigoers a rare opportunity to compare the art of special effects across a generation. "Superman" represents the present summit of craftsmanship in the adventure-fantasy genre, and while some techniques have imporved remarkably, process work and flying illusions in particular, there's an antique pleasure involved in being able to observe the state of the art as it used to be.
The impressario behind "The Thief of Bagdad" was the late Alexander Korda, a Hungarian (born Sandor Kellner) who settled in London in 1931 and established himself as Britain's most flamboyant and prodigal film producer with the success of "the Private Life of Henry VIII" in 1933. Korda aspired to compete with Hollywood on its own terms and occassionally succeeded, internationalizing and commercializing British filmmaking to an extent deplored by some critics.
The international influence was reflected in Korda's recruitment of foreign talent, not the least of whom were his younger brothers Zoltan and Vincent, who went on to enjoy notable careers as a director and art director, respectively. In fact, Vincent Korda won an Academy Award for best color art direction on "The Thief of Bagdad." The film won a second justifiable Oscar for the sumptuous Technicolor cinematography of Georges Perinal, the great French cameraman who had worked with Cocteau on "Blood of a Poet" and Rene Clair on "Under the Rooftops of Paris," "A Nous ia Liberte" and "Le Million" and became a mainstay of the Korda studio from "Henry VIII" through Carol Reeds's "The Fallen Idol."
In the great prodigal tradition of movie spectacles, "The Thief of Bagdad" survived a troubled, prolonged shooting schedule. The outbreak of war in 1939 prevented Korda from going on location in the Middle East, although it appears that a few Sudanese panoramas from his 1939 production of "The Four Feathers" have been inserted here and there. Eventually, the entire production was shifted from London to Hollywood, with desert locations shot in the Mojave.
Korda employed three directors of three different nationalities in the course of the prodcution. It seems customary to credit the British representative, Michael Powell, who later became famous for "Stairway to Heaven" and"The Red Shoes," with the more fanciful and exquisite touches.
Sabu, discovered a few years earleir by Robert Flaherty when he made "Elephant Boy" under Korda's auspices, is the most appealing personality in film. "The Thief of Bagdad" seems to preserve him at a peak of spirited, cherubic adolescence.
Perhaps as appeasement to the racial prejudices of the period, Korda's "Thief" separates the romatic and action duties originally united in the Fairbanks character. John Justin and June Duprez thoroughly Anglicize the love story between Ahmad, a young ruler blinded and dispossessed by his evil grand vizier, and the sheltered daughter of a sultan. Sabu's thief, Abu, plays sidekick and loyal servant to Justin's wronged royalty. While a social inferior, the thief radiates the noblest of human natures. Sabu makes his nobility seem overwhelming likable, a happy excess of youthful energy and enthusiam.
When the grand vizier, impersonated with a fairly grand camp flourish by Conrad Veidt (who enters ingold heels at one astonishing moment), is finally overturned and Ahmad restored to his rightful place, the smartest move he makes all movie long is appointing the thief to be his new counselor. His second smart move would be to retire with the princess to moony private life and leave the business of government totally in the hands of the estibable Abu.
Miles Malleson seems to have reserved some of his most amusing dialogue for his own scenes as the princess' irresponsible faterh, a disgracefully self-indulgent sultan who cares more about his toy collection than his kingdom. Explaining his preferenfe for the toys, he remarks pettishly, "They do exactly what I want; so often my subjects don't, and I must cut off their heads."
The sultan is eventually victimized by a lethal doll presented him by the scheming vizier. This mechanical killer combines attributes of the Hindu Siva with the False Maria of "Metropolis." Veidt's character has a special affinity with another old favorite from the classic period of German filmmaking-Dr. Caligari. The grand vizier is also a mesmerist.
Veidt, of course, played the role of Caligari's hypnotized abductor-killer, Cesare, 20 years before appearing in "The Thief of Bagdad." incidentally, the vizier seems such an accomplished mesmerist that he would probably be invincible if it weren't for one small, amusing qualm: Wicked as he is, he truly longs for the dopey princess to love him of her own free will. Despite the fairy tale context this fatal vanity seems innately masculine and perfectly true-to-life.