Friday, January 23, 2009

Revisit: The Thief of Bagdad

A United Artists film 1940

Directed by:
Ludwig Berger
Michael Powell
Tim Whelan
Alexander Korda(uncredited)
Zoltan Korda (uncredited)
William Cameron Menzies (uncredited)

Written by Miles Malleson

Prince Ahmad is the rightful King of Bagdad but has been blinded and cast out as a beggar. Together with Abu, the best thief in all Bagdad, the Prince sets out on a series of adventures that involve a Djinni in a bottle, a mechanical flying horse, an all-seeing magic jewel, a flying carpet and a beautiful princess in order to restore his kingdom from the wicked Grand Vizier Jaffar.

Old school Hollywood in all its splendor, The Thief of Bagdad features exotic locales (!), amazing special effects (!), beautiful women (!), and high-flying action (!), all in glorious Technicolor (!!!). Not to be confused with the (arguably better) 1924 silent film of the same name, this Thief cobbles its plot from a bunch of stories out of Arabian Nights, which makes for some spectacular sequences that were then re-imaged for the Disney animated film Aladdin.

The film is delightfully simple stuff -- easy to digest and fun to look at with a lot happening on screen but little going on up stairs. For some reason, none of the actors are Arab -- Sabu (who plays Abu in the film, why'd they even bother to change his name?) is the most famous actor here, and the most ethnic, having been one of the first Indian actors in Hollywood. It also marks John Justin's film debut, a British stage actor who occasionally dabbled in film. He sports a hilarious thin-lip-stache and struggles to hide his British roots throughout the film. We had a lot of fun making jokes at his expense while watching.

Legend has it that producer Alexander Korda was so demanding that he went through six directors during the making of this film, including his brother Zoltan Korda and leading art director William Cameron Menzies. Not shocking -- everything presented on screen, from the lavish set pieces to the extravagant effects to the pastel-saturated color scheme looks expensive as hell, especially considering the time. This is one of the best example of early big budget Hollywood movie-making one could find. Worth watching if you dig that sort of thing.

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