Originally published on So So Gay on 24 November 2014.
Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) is an adept thief who plies his criminal trade on the streets of Bagdad with his equally light-fingered sidekick (Snitz Edwards). During an attempted plunder of the palace, he stumbles across a beautiful princess (Julanne Johnston), and gatecrashes a subsequent suitors parade to catch her eye. His plan comes to fruition, much to the chagrin of her father and the other suitors – in particular, the Prince of the Mongols (a suitably malevolent Sōjin Kamiyama), whose true motive is to claim Bagdad for himself. After her father threatens to choose her betrothed, the princess decides to set Ahmed and her other suitors the challenge of bringing back the rarest of treasures to win her hand in marriage. So begins a fantastical adventure full of peril and thrills.
90 years ago the Arabian fantasy spectacle The Thief of Bagdad was released. A 1920s blockbuster, the film boasted an eye-watering budget but also cutting-edge special effects that included an enchanted rope, monsters, a Pegasus, an invisibility cloak, and a magic carpet. Unsurprisingly, a few of them look a little ropey to the 21st century eye, though for the most part it remains an enchanting watch. A black and white silent movie, the film has been tinted in various shades for different scenes to convey the tone of the scenes, which works surprisingly well.
Full of opulent and expansive set pieces – the film’s sets often covered many acres of space – The Thief of Bagdad is a lush visual spectacle that holds its own against more recent offerings. As well as being its writer and hands-on director, Fairbanks is an engaging and acrobatic lead, who’s sprightly performance and toned physique are at odds with his age – he was 40 at the time of filming – and he oozes charm and charisma as the title character. He’s ably supported by Kamiyama, Edwards, and the film’s break-out star, Anna May Wong,who plays the princess’ duplicitous Mongol slave.
Lauded at the time and remaining a critic’s favourite, the film has a lot to love. It may feel a little bloated and drawn out at times with its two-and-a-half hour runtime, and shots that linger a little too long (though perhaps this is down to our shorter, modern attention spans), but once the swashbuckling adventure gets underway that rehabilitates our criminal hero and helps him win the affections of the princess, the film hits an enjoyable pace. Carl Davies’ score from the 1980s, which replaced Mortimer Wilson’s original composition, is used for this release. Performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, it’s a sumptuous and appropriately grand complement to the film, though never overshadows it.
In addition to the film itself, this edition’s extras are few, but expansive: the obligatory 40-page booklet is up to the high standard already set by previous Masters of Cinema releases, and a 17-minute silent feature explores a multitude of stills taken during the movie’s production – though mirroring the silent film set-up, it arguably would have worked better with narration. However, by far the best extra is Fairbanks biographer and film historian Jeffrey Vance’s commentary. It may not strictly adhere to the film as the subject for his comments, but his clearly in-depth knowledge and enthusiasm for both Fairbanks and the period in general helps paint a far broader and more informative picture of the film; a definitive must-listen.
Fast approaching a century since its original release, there remains a lot of fun and magic to be found in watching The Thief of Bagdad.
The Thief of Bagdad is available now to buy on dual-format Blu-ray & DVD from Amazon. Images courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.