The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan Actors: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, John Justin, June Duprez, Rex Ingram, Miles Malleson, Morton Selten, Mary Morris, Bruce Winston, Adelaide Hall

 


 

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he specifically evil-looking magician Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) consults his sorceress Halima (Mary Morris) in the finding of a blind beggar, Ahmad (John Justin), who is prophesied to be able to awaken a mysteriously cursed, sleeping princess (June Duprez). When Ahmad is brought to the palace, he tells the royal harem of his guide dog (“the reincarnation of a debts collector!”), who was once the master thief Abu (Sabu). Ahmad was previously the Lord of the Earth, Servant of the All-Highest, and Master of All Men – the much despised and feared King of Bagdad.

In flashback, it’s shown that with Ahmad’s vast wealth, hordes of servants, and incomparable power, he grows bored of life and of having every desire so easily fulfilled. When he witnesses one of the countless executions taking place in the marketplace below the castle, he speaks with his Grand Vizier Jaffar, who convinces Ahmad to covertly mingle with the townsfolk to witness their perspectives on suffering and hatred toward the cruel ruler. But it’s a trap; Ahmad is arrested among dissenters and thrown into prison as a madman, while Jaffar “The Usurper” becomes the new Sultan. In the dank dungeons, the hapless former monarch meets Abu, who lifts a key and helps him escape to the neighboring city of Basra. In that bustling city, they make their way to the Palace of a Thousand Toys, where the elderly, fussy, foolish sultan (Miles Malleson) guards his bejeweled gadgets more closely than his own daughter.

From here, a notable romantic theme takes over, as Ahmad pursues the princess, whose appearance is secreted from the public, while Jaffar intends to wed the very same heiress to increase his riches and dynasty. Poetic dialogue and vivid makeup aid extraordinary cinematography, which frames famed “Arabian Nights” visuals as recognizable elements from the European translations (such as “Aladdin’s Lamp”) as they are mixed into the greatly-inclusive plot. Fantasy elements are also abundant, with a dislocated shadow, black magic, a flying horse, a savage tempest, the renowned magic carpet, the Goddess of Night colossus and her all-seeing eye (guarded by green-skinned ogres), and, of course, a tremendous, bellowing genie (Rex Ingram as the Djinn).

It takes a turn toward swashbuckling when the princess is duped into boarding Jaffar’s mighty ship and Abu swordfights a giant spider. But perhaps the most striking imagery arrives in the form of a six-armed, bluish, robotic woman with a murderous embrace, which certainly inspired elements in Harryhausen’s later works (as well as the goofy “The Wonders of Aladdin”). Here, no stop-motion animation is utilized, instead winning an Oscar for bluescreen special effects (in which the chromatic color is readily visible). An enormous foot prop is also comically impressive when the Djinn threatens to squash Abu.

Though Miklos Rozsa’s score is fitting (yet uninspiring) for this significant Technicolor venture, the inclusion of two songs seems misplaced. Even Abu hums far too often. And the storyline is structured complexly for no reason, starting in the middle and circling back to the beginning to meet up with the opening, before continuing with the rest of the adventure (which stretches the running time a touch too long, even requiring voiceover narration to sort it all out). Incidentally, the arrangement corresponds to the source material’s organization. Though the entire premise feels like a somewhat generic approach to Islamic folklore, being easily bested by Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad episodes (and even “Jason and the Argonauts”), this 1940 adaptation (a loose remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 classic) of “One Thousand and One Nights” significantly predates those efforts. The thrilling finale saves it all, however, as it momentously includes a last-minute, magic-carpet-flyby rescue for Ahmad, the retrieval of the princess, and diligent disposing of Jaffar, topped off with the Arabian equivalent of sailing away into the sunset (majestically soaring across a rainbow on the floating rug).

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10