The Thief of Bagdad [US 1924]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The Thief of Bagdad is a free adaptation of the classic story collection “Arabian Nights” and centers around the titular thief who doesn’t believe in Allah, mocks clergymen, steals food and money, and lives in the streets of Bagdad. One night, he even breaks into the caliphate, trying to steal a treasure. However, as he sees the young princess, he falls in love with her and thus plays the role as the royal Prince Ahmed to get the chance to marry her. One of his competitors, the evil Mongol Prince who tries to rule the city, finds out about Ahmed’s lie and makes the Caliph capture him. Still, the thief slips away and decides to go after a rare treasure to redeem himself, marry the princess, and save the city from the Mongol Prince.

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WHAT I LIKE

The Thief of Bagdad is a wonderful adventure movie that looks stunning: from the large set pieces of the streets of Bagdad (e.g., the city gate or the inner court) to the impressive costumes (e.g., the amazing entrance of the prince suitor), and the performances. Technically, the movie is extraordinary and the practical effects, e.g. the magic carpet or the invasion of the magic army in Bagdad, were groundbreaking at the time. Most performances are great, if often overly theatric as was commonplace during the silent era, and Fairbanks’ charisma and stunning stunt work is magnificent. Lastly, the soundtrack – at least in some versions – is based on the original sheet notes and feels grand, epic, and entertaining, especially the score in the early scenes in Bagdad.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As the movie will approach its 100th anniversary in a few years, several aspects have not aged as good as others. Fairbank’s performances are the center pole of the movie and his stunt works is always great to look at, however, some scenes are a bit stagy, e.g. when he argues with his friend about stolen food or when he first sees the princess in the palace. These few moments can feel a little over the top. Also, while technically the movie was groundbreaking, the monster fights have aged poorly, as the viewer sees obvious strings and recognizes the monsters as probs, especially the underwater spider. Finally, due to the long runtime, the pacing is quite slow, which is no problem per se, however, the introduction to the central characters and the explanation of the premise would have been handled differently and more efficiently today.

WHY IT MATTERS

The movie was inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights” or simply “Arabian Nights”, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. Interestingly, hugely popular stories like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, were not part of the original Arabic versions but were added to the collection by European translators at the beginning of the 18th century. Stories from Arabian Nights have been popular subjects for movies – the earliest example being Georges Méliès’ short film Le Palais des Mille et une nuits [1905]. However, The Thief of Bagdad doesn’t follow one exact story and the characters are also freely interpreted. Although being subject to criticism due to white washing of the main characters and an obvious racist depiction of East-Asian characters, the movie is still by many critics believed to be one of the best adaptations of Arabian Nights and a stellar example of an adventure epic from the silent era in general.

THE VERDICT

Based in part on the classic story collection Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad centers around a young thief living in the streets of Bagdad. As the wants to marry the princess, he travels to fantastical places to find a magical box that grants wishes. The movie is a stunning example of an adventure epic from the silent era that mostly still holds up today. Technically groundbreaking at the time, some practical effect may seem mediocre at best, by 2019 standards. However, the stellar performance of Fairbanks, the great stunt work, and the marvelous orchestral soundtrack make the movie impressively entertaining and easy to watch, giving its hefty runtime.

Overall 8/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– This version of the Arabian Nights has been remade 5 times – although some versions primarily reference the popular 1940 version.

– The practical effect of the magic carpet was done with a thick sheet of steel rigged to the top of a crane, connected with piano wires.

– The underwater scenes were shot through a curtain of thin gauze and Fairbanks had to move slowly, to achieve the swimming effect. Also, the scenes were tinted blue in post-production.

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s, with production’s cost being estimated to about $2.5 million. However, Fairbank’s biographer Jeffery Vance revealed in 2008 that the actual production’s cost was only $1.1 million, which equates to about $17 million dollars in 2019.

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