The Thief Of Bagdad (1940)

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD—“This is the land of legend, where everything is possible when seen through the eyes of youth.” Dire news from Europe darkened 1940, but for the young and young at heart, light flickered in the escape hatch of cinemas. The timeless trove of the “Arabian Nights” tales inspired a dazzling Technicolor reworking of the classic 1924 Douglas Fairbanks silent.  $1,750,000 worth of fantasy adventure began shooting in England but WW2 got in the way. The Blitz battering London, continued filming in Egypt ruled out, the shoot was finished in Hollywood. Location work used California’s Mohave Desert and there are recognizable shots from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon Natl. Park and the Painted Desert. Producer Alexander Korda deserves the lion’s share of credit, steering his elaborate creation across the sea, dealing with six directors (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, Korda himself, his brother Zoltan and William Cameron Menzies) and all the associated artisans. *

Now, out of my way, you masters of one thousand fleas. Allah be with you, but I doubt it.

Ancient Mesopotamia’s fabled cities of Bagdad and Basra are springboards for perilous deeds of bravery, breathless declarations of eternal love, venomous court intrigue and invoked magic.  Bagdad’s usurped king ‘Ahmad’ (John Justin) and genial, resourceful thief ‘Abu’ (Sabu) bond friendship when their fates entwine as Ahmad seeks to reclaim his throne from the vile vizier ‘Jaffar’ (Conrad Veidt), who has also absconded with ‘the Princess’ (June Duprez) of Basra. She’s fallen head over veil for the equally besotted Ahmad. Sounds like time is ripe for  mechanical toys come to life, a huge genie with an oversized attitude, a giant spider and a flying carpet. Add a few songs, some laughs: bingo! you’re five again.

PRINCESS: “Who are you?”  AHMAD: “Your slave.”  PRINCESS: “Where have you come from?”  AHMAD: “From the other side of time, to find you.”  PRINCESS: “How long have you been searching?”  AHMAD: “Since time began.”  PRINCESS: “Now that you’ve found me, how long will you stay?”  AHMAD: “To the end of time.”

Modern-day viewers may smile indulgently over some of the outdated special effects (Lo, they were fresh and thrilling in their day, you barkers of ignorance!) and Duprez is a bit bland as the desired damsel. But you’d have to be a major buzzkill not to be taken by almost everything else: the dashing heroes, the world-class villain, the wonderful set design, lavish costuming and props, the charm, humor and sentiments of the script, the action scenes, and a grand score from the masterful Miklós Rózsa.

The thief is perfectly incarnated by the dynamic 15-year-old Sabu, who’d garnered notice in Korda’s Elephant Boy and The Drum. Justin, 22 in his first film, makes a sensitive and winning ruler. Boom-voiced Rex Ingram has a whale of a time as the heartily imposing genie (tough but fair) and Miles Malleson is delightful as the toy-entranced ruler of Basra. Quite a character, Malleson also co-wrote the witty screenplay with Lajos Biró (Rembrandt, The Four Feathers). Heroics mean less if there’s no bad guy threat: Conrad Veidt is magnificently malevolent, never allowing his character to slip into camp territory.

Men are evil. Hatred behind their eyes, lies on their lips, betrayal in their hearts. You will learn one day, Great King, that there are three things that men respect: the lash that descends, the yoke that breaks, and the sword that slays. By the power and terror of these you may conquer the earth.

Oscars went to the Cinematography, Art Direction and Special Effects with another nomination for Rózsa’s music, the first of his 17 (with three wins). As well being an artistic and critical success, ‘Thief’ was a solid winner at the US boxoffice, grossing $2,900,000, and when its magic carpet ride came to war-freed France in 1946 it drew 5,135,000 spectators.

With Mary Morris (the bad ‘Halima’ and the deadly Silver Maid) and Morton Selton. Glynis Johns, 16, has a bit part as a handmaiden to the Princess; in the mob somewhere are future familiar Brits Leslie Phillips and Cleo Laine. 106 minutes.

* Though the gloom of the spreading Second World War didn’t seem conducive to fantasy spins, in company with Abu’s adventures 1940 managed to produce two more classics in Fantasia and Pinocchio, as well as the fun Dr. Cyclops, the Karloff-Lugosi pairing in Black Friday and the prehistory hoot One Million B.C.

Besides basically laying out a template for exotic romps of the 40s and 50s, The Thief Of Bagdad was remade (applying the ‘h’ this time) in 1961, but the made-in-Italy (and Tunisia) visit to Baghdad with Steve Reeves and CinemaScope is a lame camel next to Sabu’s sally. In 1978 another version fared poorly, despite an array including Roddy McDowall, Peter Ustinov, Terence Stamp and Ian Holm.

** English actress June Duprez, 21, was chosen when Vivien Leigh was unavailable (she would have been perfect) and had featured in Korda’s 1939 epic The Four Feathers. Transferring to Hollywood, she appeared in a few notable films–None But The Lonely Heart, And Then There Were None–before fading away.

Sabu, producer Korda and his brother Zoltan, along with composer Rózsa reteamed two years later for Jungle Book.




One thought on “The Thief Of Bagdad (1940)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s