The Thief Of Bagdad (1940)
Directed by: Alexander Korda, Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Zoltan Korda
Written by: Lajos Biró
Starring: Conrad Veidt, John Justin, June Duprez, Sabu
HCF REWIND NO. 226: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD [USA/UK 1940]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 106 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A blind beggar and his faithful dog are given refuge, and the man tells of how he was once Ahmad, the naive King of Bagdad. He was convinced by his evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar, to go out into the city disguised as a poor man to get to know his subjects. Jaffar then had Ahmad thrown into a dungeon, where he met the young thief Abu, who stole the key to their cell so they could escape. They fled to Basra, where Ahmad fell in love with its Princess, despite no man being allowed to look upon her. However, Jaffar also journeyed to Basra, for he desired the Princess, and was prepared to do anything to have her….
I wrote in my review of the first version of The Thief Of Bagdad, the wondrous 1924 fantasy epic starring Douglas Fairbanks, that, in typical Dr Lenera difference to the normal critical opinion, I consider it the best version. That is not at all to say that this 1940 is a poor movie though. Far from it. It’s another splendid picture that most definitely earns its right to exist. Rather than slavishly repeat the original film, it does some different things and goes down some different pathways, while adding at least one important thing the 1924 film didn’t have – a genie, ensuring that together the two films exist the greatest film representations of the Arabian Nights [watching both films, I kept thinking how they should do a remake, but then thought of Prince Of Persia and how at the time of writing they don’t seem to be making this kind of film very well, while that deadening horror known as political correctness would have to be in full force]. If the 1940 version for me falls short just slightly of the 1924, it’s not automatically because it’s overrated, more that the 1924 one is underrated and just not seen and appreciated enough.
The man behind this ambitious production was producer Alexander Korda, who already had classics like Things To Come and The Private Life Of Henry VII to his name. Vivien Leigh was originally cast in the role of the Princess, but won the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind so was replaced by the far lesser known June Duprez. Ludwig Berger was the initial director for what was to be a full-blown musical, but his vision for the film was quite small-scale, so Korda ordered the sets be torn down and rebuilt far larger, and Berger to be replaced by Michael Powell and Tom Whelan, though Korda, his brother Zoltan and set designer William Cameron Menzies all shot bits. The script by Lajos Biro and Miles Malleson [who mostly wrote the dialogue] was constantly being re-written, sometimes daily, and then, to top it all, World War 2 broke out, the production was shut down because of the Blitz, and The Thief of Bagdad restarted in Hollywood, with the now 16 year old Sabu having to have all his scenes reshot because he had grown several inches. You would think that the resulting film would be a total mess, but in fact it’s very hard to tell what scenes were reshot [you can see slight differences in the female costumes, with the stricter censorship codes of the Hays Office ensuring that tops were buttoned up for the American scenes] and who directed what. Berger wanted operetta composer Oscar Straus to compose the music. Miklós Rózsa won the assignment by sitting in an office adjoining Berger’s and playing his themes over and over again, though most of his songs were cut. Such an expensive and time-consuming production did become a big hit and it was often re-released.
So different to the 1924 version this is, the chief change being that the hero is now split into two. Whereas before you had an adult thief who falls in love and goes on magical adventures, here you have a boy thief who goes on magical adventures and an adult, a prince who loses his kingdom, who falls in love. This both aids and weakens the story – the prince doesn’t do a whole lot for much of the time – but having the boy in many ways be the true hero makes the film more enjoyable for children, and this version is a bit more aimed at them. Many elements from the original, from the All-Seeing Eye to the flying carpet, are shifted around, while the story is a bit smaller scale. This film tries to be more like a fairy tale than a huge fantasy epic. In terms of structure and pacing it’s not that different, the first half setting up the action in the second and focusing more on the romance, though the shorter running time means that it all moves a lot more quicker, albeit perhaps too quickly towards the end where thing seem a little rushed and the climax, while perfectly adequate, seeming to be over a bit too quickly.
In keeping with its inspiration, most of the film’s first half is narrated in flashback, meaning that we initially enter the story half-way, meeting Ahmad, Jaffar and the Princess, introduced like Aurora in a slumber that only her True Love can awaken her from, before we realise entirely what their roles are. One can’t help think about the endless problems in the Middle East when one is watching a story about the head of an Arabic kingdom being virtually controlled by his Vizier and having to go amongst his people to find out that it is his people who are good and his Vizier who is bad, though it’s the film’s charming innocence that is one of its most pleasing attributes. Though we have a scene where the Sultan of Basra [a character which totally inspired a similar one in Disney’s Aladdin which really should be considered a partial remake of both the 1924 and 1940 versions of The Thief Of Bagdad] rides a flying mechanical horse and our two heroes turned blind and into a dog respectively, like the original, the fantastical aspects are mostly saved for the second half as the film concentrates on plot. There’s one of the beautifully romantic First Meetings [though Ahmad has already seen her] scenes in cinema. The words are corny but the naïve honesty of the scene and the gorgeous music , a love theme of almost transcendental beauty, make it magical.
Princess: Who are you?
Ahmad: Your slave.
Princess: Where have you come from?
Ahmad: From the other side of time, to find you.
Princess: How long have you been searching?
Ahmad: Since time began.
Princess: Now that you’ve found me, how long will you stay?
Ahmad: To the end of time.
Ahmad: For me, there can be no more beauty in the world, than yours.
Princess: For me, there can be no more pleasure in the world, than to please you.
I mean this might be conry as hell [and the final line rather sexist] but it’s wonderful at the same time, and is one of many scenes that for me bring the film close to what I consider is the most perfect depiction of a fairytale on-screen, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Of course your average kid would be getting a little restless at all this stuff, but soon we get a storm at sea, a genie that can grow very large, a giant spider, the All-Seeing Eye through which you can see what is happening far far away [this was used in the 1924 version, and the whole set piece to obtain the eye is an expansion of a short scene in it], a flying carpet, and my favourite – a six-armed dancing doll where the actress playing her [she appears earlier in the film in a different role, and was originally intended to ‘fake’ the doll rather than for the sorcery to be real] does a somewhat uncanny dance sitting down and then embraces her victim to stab him.This is one of a few scenes which bear the stamp of Michael Powell [it looks forward to some stuff in The Tales Of Hoffman], though as I said earlier, for the most part you can’t really tell that six people directed the film because it flows so well. The considerably shorter running time means that you don’t get quite as much amazing sights as in 1924, and the finale is a bit underwhelming, but then you get a scene where Abu is transported to the “land of legend”, where he is greeted by the Old King and thanked for freeing the inhabitants, who had been turned to stone because children have stopped believing. Here, as in much of Terry Gilliam, the film is commenting on our need for escapism, and how much we lose when we become adults.
Laurence Butler’s special effects, which are huge in number and which can seem more fake with the addition of colour, do vary in quality, but you would expect that in a film from 1940, a film which was only the second one that used the blue-screen process [Butler invented it The Man Who Could Work Miracles], though bizarrely the flying carpet, which in this version had lots of wires in full view, looked better in 1924. While the flying horse still looks very well executed, the genie flying doesn’t look too good [though to be honest they didn’t really get flying any good until 1978 and Superman: The Movie], and the less said about the toy spider, which facially doesn’t even look like a spider, the better, but the combinings of matte paintings and real shots are almost seamless, the blue screen stuff is incredibly well pulled off for the time, and I never tire of seeing actual subjects in an effects shot rather than CGI, which actually often looks just as fake, or even more so. The matte paintings, which employ lots of illusions to show depth, scale and distance, and are often beautifully colour tinted, still look fabulous, and combined with the extraordinary sets create a perfect world of the imagination. Menzies,who did the sets for the 1924 version, refuses to copy himself. Instead, he uses the greater resources at his disposal to create a very different Arabian Nights world: less imposing, more detailed, with a distinct touch of art deco, and simply wonderful to look at. Meanwhile the costumes by John Armstrong, Oliver Messel and Marcel Vertes, are also fabulous, if very obvious: Jaffar, for instance, usually wears black.
Despite the simplicity of the story which we see unfold, there’s a wit about much of Matheson’s dialogue, and an attempt at character depth. This is especially true in the case of Jaffar. He’s the’Boo, Hiss’ villain, but he’s also a tortured soul who seems to genuinely be in love with the Princess and only uses magic to bend her to his will as a last resort. The genie is a fascinating character who we never get a handle on – is he friend or foe, good or bad? – and interestingly was almost played by a black actor, Paul Robeson, and sung a song called Freedom which would have added an extra dimension to the proceedings. In any case, Rex Ingram has one of the best sinister laughs ever. Conrad Veidt never sounds anything else but German but the casting is perfect throughout: even John Justin’s slight woodenness as Ahmad seems appropriate. Sabu, who plays Abu,was a popular child star of the time and was also a bloody good young actor, perfectly portraying his character’s cheekiness, resilience and loyalty and the innocence and mischeviousness we associate with youth. It’s interesting that, while Fairbanks’ thief stopped becoming a thief during the course of the film, thereby achieving redemption and earning the right to be happy, Sabu’s ends the film in much the same way as he begins it. His stealing of a flying carpet is virtually encouraged, and we’re in little doubt that he will continue to survive by stealing as he flies off for more adventures in the film’s final scene.
Rosza’s score, which badly needs a full CD release, is an amazing achievement, one of the greatest of fantasy movie scores, endlessly supplying its own enchantment, but also a fabulous musical work in its own right. Though only three songs made the final cut, there’s an array of often catchy themes, from Abu’s [buoyant] to Jaffar’s [sinister], a variety of sublime musical set pieces like the rousing flying horse set piece, where the music takes off and soars more than the horse, and the thrilling spider fight cue, and occasionally that Rozsa element of troubled romanticism, though here tempered by a youthful enthusiasm in what was the great composer’s first truly notable work . It’s neck and neck for me regarding the two great films called The Thief Of Bagdad, but the 1924 film just about wins for me, despite the remake’s many outstanding qualities: it just seems to both aim higher and succeed in doing so. If the 1924 one didn’t exist though, the 1940 version would be a more satisfactory substitute. It’s terrific escapism and always an absolute joy to watch.
Now believe it or not there are two other versions of The Thief Of Bagdad….and I will get to them…