MAY 1, 2013 SCREENING: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)
For most of the months of January and February 2014, I’ll be viewing episodes of the classic 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone on a daily basis. Accordingly, I’ve decided to launch a series of “RetroReviews” for the next two months. It’s not “retro” because its a look at older movies (as I normally review all types of movies in every era!) but because it’s a look at movies that I screened long before I established my blog. In the spring of 2013, I decided to have a fantasy film marathon. Many of those movies will now be reviewed in daily blog entries. To begin with, I will take a look at the silent Douglas Fairbanks classic, The Thief of Bagdad (yes, it’s spelled that way in the original title – not “Baghdad”!)
Along with Robin Hood (1922), this film marked the start of the “swashbuckling adventure” stories that Fairbanks became best known for. Of course, I opted to screen this movie for an entirely different reason: I examined the movie for its fantasy elements. After the end credits rolled, I wasn’t disappointed. The Thief of Bagdad should perhaps be better known for establishing the template of later fantasy films. The combination of an outlandish surreal story, along with stunning special effects of an imaginary world, really create the illusion of a magical adventure.
The film was “freely adapted” from various stories found in 1001 Arabian Nights, so it tells its own story but has numerous types of characters, situations, and plot devices you’d recognize from stereotypical “Arabian” tales. Some of the more fantastic elements include a flying carpet, a magic rope, a winged horse, a cloak of invisibility, a crystal ball that casts spells, and so on. Many of these effects still hold up today, which is extremely impressive given that the movie is 90 years old.
One of the more enjoyable parts of the film involves the thief’s many quests, as he must face various, increasingly difficult challenges to complete his journey. The original print of the movie had each of these scenes color tinted a different color to distinguish it from the previous scene, and that is retained in many DVD releases of the film. These moments are perhaps when the “fantasy” element is strongest, as the thief resorts to numerous magic devices to conquer or slay a variety of mythological creatures. The ending is also terrific, and suitably climatic when the three princes return to Bagdad on the flying carpet to try an awake the sleeping princess after she has been placed under a spell.
The Thief of Bagdad clearly influenced many future films. It’s strange that the movie is not as well known today as other silent era movies, such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, or any of Charlie Chaplin’s classics. Its impressive visuals, solid storytelling, and impact on its genre seems to be a tad overlooked by the general public, if not by film scholars. Fairbanks certainly demonstrates why he became known for his adventure films during this movie – he very much dominates the movie in the same way that Harrison Ford would do in the 70s and 80s. Interestingly enough, The Thief of Bagdad did receive a “revival” of sorts in 1940 when it was remade as a full color, talking movie. The remake is a very different animal than its 1924 predecessor, however, and it will be the subject of my next review. In the meantime, be sure to check out the silent classic. You can even get the movie for free (https://archive.org/details/ThiefOfBagdad1924) because it lapsed into public domain a long time ago. Even if Arabian tales, sword fights, fantasy, or silent epics aren’t your thing, you’ll probably like this film. Trust me.
*** ½ out of ****