A+ List: The Thief of Bagdad (1940 version)

Arabian Nights movies seem to have gone out of fashion, and that’s probably not much of a loss. Most of them were laughably bad. But a few good ones got made, along with one true masterpiece: Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad.

With its loosely-weaved story, poetic dialog, beautiful color design, groundbreaking special effects, and glorious musical score, The Thief of Bagdad takes its place on my A+ list of all-time great films – movies that I’ve loved for decades and still love. One of the purest works of escapist cinema, Bagdad takes us into a fantasy version of early Islam, a magical world of genies, evil magicians, star-crossed lovers, and a mischievous boy who can make everything right.

The Internet Movie Database lists six films called The Thief of Bagdad (some spell the city Baghdad; some skip the The). I’ve seen three, and each told a different story. The one I’m praising here, the 1940 version produced by Alexander Korda, is often called a remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ wonderful 1924 silent epic.

The movies have several scenes in common, but entirely different stories. In the Fairbanks version, the thief/hero wins the hand of the beautiful princess and becomes heir to the throne. In the Korda version, the thief/hero is a child who helps the deposed king win the beautiful princess and regain his throne. That the poor-born thief could rise to royalty fits the American myth. But Korda’s is a British film, and commoners don’t become kings.

So what makes the 1940 Thief of Bagdad such a masterpiece? Let’s start with the visual style. Art director William Cameron Menzies, who also designed Fairbanks’ version, creates a colorful world for the fanciful story. Shot after shot delights the eye, while reminding you that this is a fairytale. Technicolor was still unusual in 1940 – especially in British movies – and The Thief of Bagdad makes full use the new technology.

The story has an unusual structure. It starts in the middle, and most of the first half of the movie is a flashback. There’s also a strange sense of randomness. For instance, the thief is magically taken to a place of wise old men for no foreseeable reason other than advancing the plot. That would be a major flaw in any other movie, but here, it enlarges the impression of a fable. Lajos Biró wrote the scenario from a story by composer Miklós Rózsa.

And screenwriter Miles Malleson burnished that story with some of the best unrealistic dialog outside of Shakespeare: “Mortals are weak and frail. If their stomach speaks, they forget their brain. If their brain speaks, they forget their heart. And if their heart speaks (laughs) they forget everything.”

The dialog can be quite playful: “Now out of my way, you masters of a thousand fleas. Allah be with you, but I doubt it.”

Dialog needs actors, and The Thief of Bagdad has many fine, over-the-top performances. Sabu makes the perfect thief, a smart kid who’s always a step ahead of everyone else. Conrad Veidt played many a great movie villain, but this just may have been his most meaty chance to be evil.

The imposing Rex Ingram plays a huge and boisterous genie, with a laugh both loud and frightening. Miles Malleson does a great comic turn as a sultan who clearly never had to grow up.

On the other hand, John Justin and June Duprez are bland eye candy in the romantic roles. But even that blandness works in the movie’s favor. With all the fascinating and funny magical characters running about, there’s little room for a love story that does more than drive the plot.

And yet, their big love scenes work, thanks largely to the stylized dialog:

Her: Where do you come from?

Him: From the beginning of Time.

Her: How long have you been looking for me?

Him: Since the beginning of Time.

Her: Now that you’ve found me, how long will you stay?

Him: To the end of Time.

But even more so, the musical score by Miklós Rózsa (yes, the same person who wrote the story) provides a sense of a perfect romantic love – one where no one will ever argue about who washes the dishes. Rózsa’s music, which includes three songs, adds another level to the magical setting.

The Thief of Bagdad is one of the great pre-Star Wars special effects movies. There’s a flying horse, a giant genie coming out of a bottle, a flying carpet, and marvelous cityscapes created in miniature. Many of the effects look crude by today’s standards; I believe this was the first color movie to use blue-screen traveling mattes, and you can clearly see the blue matte lines. But the effects are still magical. When I showed the movie to my then-young daughter, she found the giant spider much scarier than the CGI-created ones in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

No one auteur created this movie. The film’s credits list three directors, and IMBD adds three more uncredited. One of the credited directors, Michael Powell, would become a major auteur, but there’s no reason to call this a Michael Powell film. If anyone deserves to be called Bagdad‘s auteur, it’s either Korda or Menzies (both are listed as uncredited directors by IMBD).

Now the sad part: The Thief of Bagdad isn’t available in North America in any form better than DVD. There’s no Blu-ray, DCP, or 35mm prints. The last time it played theatrically in the Bay Area, it was screened off of an HD CAM videocassette. I’ve seen it many times in 35mm – once even from a nitrate Technicolor dye transfer print – but not in a very long time.

Someone must restore this classic.