Retro review: The Thief of Bagdad
Escapism isn't always taken as seriously as it deserves to be, at least not by the more high-brow sorts of film fans. Self-professed 'cineastes' are too often a bit suspicious—or, unforgivably, dismissive—of make-believe and happy endings, as though pleasure is something to be treated with scepticism. Well, it's their loss.
Everyone who really loves films knows that good escapism can be more valuable than any work of art, as anyone who has caught a piece of hokum when they needed it most will attest. And when it is more than just hokum? Well, what you're looking at there will be one of the greatest treats the movies have to offer.
That's as good a description as any of 1940's The Thief of Bagdad.
What's the film about?
There's a wicked vizier called Jaffar (played with satanic malice by Conrad Veidt), with a lust for power. There's a handsome prince (Ahmed, played by John Justin) who stands in his way and, but of course, there is a thief.
This is a young chap called Abu, played with thigh-slapping gusto by Sabu, the lad from India who became a huge star in British films of the 1930s. Abu befriends Ahmed after Jaffar has reduced the prince to beggary, vowing to help the prince Jaffar and rescue the princess (in stories like this, there's always a princess).
Along the way, Abu will be turned into a dog, match wits with a genie and ride on a magic carpet. There's never a moment's doubt about what's going to happen at the end but that doesn't stop the viewer cheering loudly when it comes to pass.
How was the film made?
Anglo-Hungarian super-producer Alexander Korda
As in all the best escapism, the filmmakers believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing. They knew what too many in their line of work forget: that a film such as this must always be made with total conviction. They remain committed to their story throughout, finding new ways to convince their audience of the urgency of their tale.
The special effects, for instance, date from a time long before CGI but have a charm—no, a magic—that makes them much more wonderful. It's not how they were done that is important (although they're still plenty impressive) but how they're used by the filmmakers, like conjuring tricks to astonish the audience.
“This is escapism at very nearly it’s finest: as blissful now as it must have been when it was freshly minted”
It is a remarkable achievement, made all the more so for the conditions under which it was made. It was begun by a German theatre director named Dr. Ludwig Berger under the auspices of Anglo-Hungarian super-producer Alexander Korda. But Korda wasn't entirely happy with the good doctor's work and so invited other directors to handle scenes, including Michael Powell (who was responsible for most of it), Tim Whelan and Korda's brother, Zoltan. He even shot a few sequences himself.
From this apparent chaos, a remarkably cohesive film emerged (which probably shows what an outstanding producer Alexander Korda was), one that was a huge success at the box-office. But then, it was released in 1940, around the time same time German bombers started to drop bombs on British cities: escapism was never so urgently needed as it was then.
The Thief of Bagdad's legacy
Disney's Aladdin was inspired by The Thief of Bagdad. Image via A113 Animation
It was such a success that Hollywood paid it the ultimate compliment: it ripped it off wholesale.
Most of these rip-offs are actually very good, including; Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and (most especially) Cobra Woman, also with Sabu.
More recently, Disney's Aladdin plundered story and imagery from the film, a hat-tip from one masterpiece to another.
Times, of course, change, and no doubt some viewers will find it jarring that the film has Europeans (and an Indian) playing Arabs. But it's really one of the very few ways in which it has dated. This is escapism at very nearly it’s finest: as blissful now as it must have been when it was freshly minted.