MAY 2, 2013 SCREENING: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)
I’m continuing my fantasy film reviews with a look at 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. (intentionally spelled that way instead of “Baghdad” again) Yes, this is a remake of the silent film I reviewed earlier. No, this does not have much in common with that movie. While they are both visually stunning movies that craft an original story by taking elements from various stories in 1001 Arabian Nights, they’re nevertheless very different films.
To begin with, the remake demonstrates just how much technology has advanced in 16 years, because it is filmed in full sound and vibrant Technicolor. It is also one of the first major releases to use blue screen technology (the blue screen is most prominently used when a 80 ft. tall genie interacts with a normal sized man). A good case can be made that the remake has more in common with 1939’s The Wizard of Oz – or any big budget Disney film – than it does with its 1924 predecessor. Speaking of Disney, much of the story in this film mirrors 1993’s Aladdin instead of the 1924 Thief of Bagdad. In both cases, the plot deals the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, “Jaffar” (spelled differently than the“Jafar” of the Disney version) plotting to take over and rule in his own right. Jaffar is stopped by a handsome young thief from the streets of Bagdad, along with the help of a genie and a flying carpet, and he woos a beautiful princess over the course of the film.
The Thief of Bagdad won numerous Academy Awards and its impact on the way “Arabian fantasy stories” are depicted is still felt today, especially when it comes to character and set designs for adaptations like The Prince of Persia. I’m surprised that this movie is largely forgotten by the general public today, while MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is universally known.
I found this movie to be thoroughly enjoyable and a delight to watch, especially how beautiful and vibrantly all the scenes are filmed. Describing it really can’t do the movie justice. In fact, I couldn’t even find an image from a poster or video release cover art that conveyed what you’ll see on screen, so I opted to simply insert a film still for this review. I’d mark the film just one notch below its 1924 predecessor, as the silent movie is a bit edgier and lacks the lighthearted campy style of this one, though both films probably deserve to be called landmark movies for what they achieved in the period of time they were made. (Again, if I had to choose between them, the 1924 movie is perhaps a bit more groundbreaking).
For those who haven’t seen this movie, you’re really missing out on quite a treat. You’ll probably experience a bit of deja vu when you realize how much the 1993 animated Aladdin freely “borrowed” from this movie, but seeing it done in live action back in 1940 is nothing short of amazing. And while Robin Williams’ Genie is no doubt the funniest, zaniest, and frantic of the two, its the 1940 version that truly lives up to expectations of what you’d expect from an all powerful and imposing magical genie.
If you have a chance, try to find the 2-disc Criterion edition of The Thief of Bagdad. It includes commentary from film industry heavyweights like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and tons of behind the scenes featurettes and bonus material. More than most films from that era, this is an overlooked classic movie that is worthy of preservation.
*** out of ****