Criterion Cuts: “The Thief of Bagdad”

Welcome to another week and another Criterion Cuts, where I delve into the archives of obscurity and pluck something from the Hulu offerings of everyone’s favorite foreign/arthouse home distributor.

This week finds me a little burnt out on movie watching in between the busy summer season and the full onset of the awards contenders for this year, so I’m taking some time to watch less movies before I have to watch so many more. That said, this article is going to remain a weekly fixture, at least. So let’s get to this week’s genuinely exciting entry.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

We live in an era where blockbusters race to out-spectacle each other on a yearly basis. And even within that year, there are weeks and weeks (during the summer, sometimes around the Holidays) where it’s one budget-busting, scope-bending monstrosity of CG and set-pieces after another that promises to rip out your eyeballs and fill your brain with candy because it is just. that. awesome.

It’s easy to assume that this wasn’t always the case. Old movies are so often presented as small, limited, talky things full of people standing around on obvious sets spouting reams of obviously theatrical dialogue. It takes until the 70s and the one two punch of Jaws and Star Wars to put us firmly into the modern era of blockbuster spectacle. That’s just the presumption, often. It’s certainly the one Hollywood puts forward, for various reasons.

Abu freeing an imprisoned Djinn. One of many examples of the sense of scale in the movie.

But in actuality, there was a time when comparatively Hollywood operated at a level of excess it would never dare these days. In a time when the big studio system kept talent costs down, money could just be poured into cheap foreign travel and relatively cheap labor in the early days of Hollywood unions. And it was in that era that today’s movie was made, the globe-spanning epic The Thief of Bagdad.

Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by an international team that included Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan, The Thief of Bagdad stands as one of the last big epics of pre-World War II Europe. On the surface a remake of the 1924 swashbuckling film of the same name starring Douglas Fairbanks, The Thief of Bagdad is an attempt to fuse the popular Middle Eastern fantasy of One Thousand and One Nights with the scope of Hollywood movie making. What comes out the other side is a movie that’s so vast, and so imaginative, that it puts many modern made-by-committee, checklist constructed films to shame.

The story opens with the young king of Bagdad Ahmad (John Justin) being convinced to grow into a ‘man of the people’ by the Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt, being predictably scene stealing). Once he’s disguised Jaffar uses false pretenses to accuse him of a crime and throw him in the dungeon, assuming the throne. In prison Ahmad meets the young thief Abu (played by then-film-sensation Sabu) who helps him escape and flee his now forfeit kingdom.

One of Jaffar's many elaborate creations. Maybe mechanical, maybe magic, but always imaginative.

In their travels they come across the Princess (played by June Duprez), a woman so beautiful her father keeps her hidden from seeing any living men. Ahmad becomes infatuated when he sees her from his hiding place with Abu and sneaks into the castle where the two strike up a predictably fairy tale rapport. At the same time, Jaffar arrives, determined to win the hand of the princess with a magical mechanical horse as his bride price.

Upon discovering that the princess is already in love with the now-fugitive Ahmad and has run away rather than marry Jaffar, Jaffar blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog with the condition that the spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the princess in his arms. From there a series of adventures occur (as if there haven’t already been plenty) with mechanical monsters, djinns, magic carpets, and the best giant spider outside of The Return of the King.

If all this sounds a little familiar, well know that Disney lifted elements wholesale out of this movie for Aladdin. That’s not to belittle that film, because I think it’s great, but from the outset The Thief of Bagdad establishes itself as one of those films you notice that everyone stole from. And why not? It’s visuals are lush and it’s sense of narrative is of the type of fantastic high adventure stuff that later movies like Indiana Jones or even stuff like Hellboy went out of its way to recapture, a serialized sensibility told within the framework of a traditional movie.

Look at the people down there! Look at how small they are! LOOK AT HOW BIG THAT GODDAMN STATUE IS!

What makes The Thief of Bagdad stand out midst so many great adventure films past and present is that all of it comes with almost no compromises made in antiquity. Sure, you can spot some pretty obvious blue screen work, but it’s no worse than movies made decades later and the things its put to use on are singularly vast. No film I’ve ever seen plays with scale like this one, no film is as content to create a sense of awe and wonder, of bigness. Epic is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days, but The Thief of Bagdad is the kind of story it was made for. It is, for lack of a better term, epic.

I’m not going to go on and on about the film’s story because in truth much of the magic is watching it play out. The sense of fun, the timing of the gags and the thrills, and the unfolding of a magical world that plays by its own fantastical rules–The Thief of Bagdad isn’t deeply thoughtful cinema but it’s visually rich and narratively deft. Instead I’ll offer a series of pictures, not every treasure to be found in the movie but a good smattering of them. It will, hopefully, be enough.

Unlike most of the movies for this column, I would recommend this film to absolutely anyone. It’s just damn good storytelling, and good storytelling is for everyone, kids and adults, lowbrow or high. It’s not often genuinely fun surprises like The Thief of Bagdad come across my path, but whenever it does happen it is a cause for celebration. This is the triumph of movie making, visuals and storytelling made to move and inspire.

Until next week, folks!

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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