On a recent Friday night, I sat down with my wife to watch The Thief of Baghdad (the definitive Korda/Powell version, from 1940). Thirty minutes later, my wife was fast asleep. When she woke up, she said, knowing I planned to mention the film to Black Gate’s readership, “What are you going to write about this?” Her notable lack of enthusiasm could, of course, be due to any number of factors, but only three reasonable alternatives present themselves: A) my wife is entirely lacking in taste; B) my wife has been replaced by a cantankerous alien entirely lacking in taste; C) this particular movie might well cause many a discerning viewer to harbor similar sentiments.
Let’s be clear: The Thief of Baghdad is one of the most universally acclaimed fantasy films ever made. Even my old (well-loved) copy of The Movie Guide gushes. “Perhaps the most splendid fantasy film ever made,” writes James Monaco and his various contributors, ending the review with “Film fantasy just doesn’t get much better than this.” Halliwell’s is equally enthusiastic, and they don’t like anything. Time Out raves. Coppola and Lucas cite it as a significant influence.
The story is crackerjack from start to finish. (Spoilers here: if you don’t want the plot, skip to the next paragraph.) Ahmed, the king deposed by Jaffar, his own Grand Vizier, falls in love with a princess whom no man can see, and of course vows to see her repeatedly. Ahmed is aided by Abu the thief, but of course Jaffar has designs on the very same princess. When Jaffar kidnaps her, Ahmed and Abu follow, but Jaffar conjures up a storm that separates our two heroes. In order to find Ahmed again, Abu must gain the reluctant help of a fifty-foot genie (the exceptional Rex Ingram), then steal the Eye of the World from a temple guarded by, among other things, a giant spider and giant octopi. Finally, with Ahmed captured and about to be beheaded, Abu swoops in on a flying carpet to save the day.
Given all this, how on earth did my wife (or some random alien) pass out?
The Thief of Baghdad has not aged gracefully. It’s essential viewing, yes, but only for buffs of either fantasy films or Old Guard Hollywood. The inconsistent special effects are the least of its problems; worse by far is what one might call presentational acting, but is in fact mostly just plain bad. Even Sabu, the Indian star who first made it big with Elephant Boy, is revealed to be a truly wooden performer. Conrad Veidt, as the cruel-as-an-adder Jaffar, comes off as a well-oiled villain, but he’s horribly miscast; he’s German through and through.
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