Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In some scenes THE THIEF OF BAGDAD plays like a child’s fable, in others a horror movie, all blended together to create a grand piece of entertainment, despite having five different directors!
Those familiar with Disney’s animated 1992 ALADDIN will recognize much of the plot here. Blind former Prince Ahmad and his faithful dog are begging for alms when summoned by trickery to the court of evil Grand Vizier Jaffar to awaken a beautiful princess from her slumber. Ahmad then relates the backstory of what has transpired: thrown into prison by his treacherous Vizier, he meets the child-thief Abu, who has stolen the key to the cell. The two escape before being beheaded to the city of Basra, where Ahmad lays eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, whose face it is forbidden to behold. Ahmad must see her again, and he does, with the help of young Abu. The exiled prince and the beautiful princess fall madly in love, because of course they do!
Jaffar, usurper of the throne of Bagdad, also travels to Bagdad, though his purpose is more nefarious in nature. He’s greeted by the doddering old Sultan, a collector of mechanical toys, and Jaffar has come bearing a gift: a flying mechanical horse! The Sultan, after taking a joyride, must possess this magnificent marvel, and Jaffar asks in return the hand of his daughter. The Princess, wanting no part of Jaffar, flees to Samarkand, and Ahmad and Abu are caught at the palace, where Jaffar uses his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog!
Back to the present: Ahmad’s presence wakes the princess, but she’s spirited away from him again aboard Jaffar’s ship. Abu-dog follows, only to be thrown overboard for his troubles. The princess, at Jaffar’s mercy, lets him embrace her, breaking the spell and restoring Ahmad and Abu to normal. They give chase, but the Grand Vizier conjures up a raging hurricane, stranding the pair on a deserted island, where peril awaits at every turn, including from a giant vindictive Djinn who has been trapped in a bottle for two thousand years…
The adventure never abates, as Abu must steal the All-Seeing Eye embedded in a statue inside a great temple in order to find his friend Ahmad. This spooky sequence is the most horror-influenced in the film, with Sabu climbing the web of a giant, venomous spider to get to the Eye, being careful not to fall into the abyss where a deadly octopus lays in wait. Another scary scene occurs when Jaffar conjures a murderous six-armed “Silver Maid” to lure the Sultan into a death embrace. There’s also flashing swordplay, romance, comedy, and even a few songs thrown in for good measure… a little something for everybody in this spectacular film, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Oscar-winning Cinematographer Georges Perinal.
Sabu gives a charming, energetic performance as the thief Abu. The young star came into prominence in 1937’s ELEPHANT BOY at the age of 13, and is fondly remembered as Mowgli in the 1942 THE JUNGLE BOOK, as well as a string of Universal/Maria Montez/Jon Hall costumers. The great Conrad Veidt is the personification of evil as Jaffar, in what may very well be his best role of the sound era. John Justin (Ahmad) is handsome and heroic; he had a long screen career mainly in Britain, later popping up in some of Ken Russell’s 70’s films. June Duprez is lovely indeed as the Princess; among her movie credits are THE FOUR FEATHERS, NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Miles Malleson (The Sultan) also wrote the film’s screenplay; horror fans will recognize him from DEAD OF NIGHT , PEEPING TOM , and the Hammer entries HORROR OF DRACULA , HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams, but a towering titan of malevolence who only does Sabu’s bidding when the thief tricks him back inside the bottle. Ingram made his film debut in 1918’s TARZAN OF THE APES as an uncredited native. His booming voice landed him the plumb role of De Lawd in the 1936 all-black cast THE GREEN PASTURES, but like most black actors of the era, Ingram never broke the color barrier to major stardom. His talent could not be denied however, and he worked steadily in films: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (as Jim opposite Mickey Rooney’s Huck), THE TALK OF THE TOWN (as Ronald Colman’s valet), the all-black musical fantasy CABIN IN THE SKY, the war drama SAHARA, A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (as a giant reminiscent of his Djinn), GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA (as Eartha Kitt’s father), and his last, Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN. Ingram also stands out in a 1969 episode of GUNSMOKE as an aging ex-slave.
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was started by German director Ludwig Berger. Producer Korda, unhappy with the results, replaced him with Michael Powell, assisted by Tim Whelan. When financing and the war in Europe ground production to a halt, Korda moved filming to Hollywood, where William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda took turns in the director’s chair. Menzies worked on the ’24 version, and his fingerprints are all over this one, though art direction and production design are credited to another Korda brother, Vincent. The Oscar was also awarded to the movie for its dazzling Special Effects. Lawrence Butler pioneered the bluescreen travelling matte process in this film, a process still in use today. Though primitive compared to CGI, it holds up well, and should be viewed from a historic standpoint. Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to PINOCCHIO. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly a classic fantasy film, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, so does PADDINGTON 2, so don’t take their word for it… see it yourself, and prepare to be enchanted!
6 Replies to “Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940)”
“The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams” – I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees that 🙂
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What timing! I just watched this last weekend to see Conrad Veidt do his thing. The scenery chewing from him, the Sultan, and Rex Ingram as the Genie are all delights. Sabu in many ways steals the film, as he should. So sad he served the nation in the military and returned to find Hollywood had little use for him as an adult. Enjoyed your review very much.
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