More an homage to than a remake of the classic silent original starring Douglas Fairbanks, this British-made color version of The Thief of Bagdad is a beloved family adventure standard, though not quite as charming or as magical as the original.
In this version, the romantic lead who falls in love with the princess is not the titular thief, but a beggar named Ahmad (John Justin) who is actually the rightful king of Bagdad, but has been deposed by his treacherous Grand Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). The thief, on the other hand, is a mischievous, resourceful lad named Abu (Sabu).
The remake includes parallels to many of the best elements in the original, including the flying carpet, the flying horse (here a mechanical horse without wings), the climb up a giant statue to steal a magical crystal eye, and a battle with a giant spider. Best of all are Abu’s adventures with a baleful genie (Rex Ingram), whose meeting on the beach with Abu is an unforgettable highlight.
Unfortunately, despite its golden reputation, this Thief of Bagdad suffers from a number of defects that detract from the fun. Justin is wooden as the boring Ahmad, and his love-at-first-sight romance with the princess is far less romantic than that of the silent version. Abu is a far livelier character, but why is he wasting his time with this guy? The film’s final image says it all.
There are other problems as well. Even in the annals of foolishly wasted wishes, when a kid who’s sharp enough to outsmart a genie bent on squashing him goes on to waste his first of three wishes on sausages, it’s especially jaw-dropping. And even magical fantasies need rules, but when Abu gets into a tight spot and smashes a magical artifact with wholly unexpected and unexplained results, it’s too arbitrary to seem magical rather than contrived.
Families today will note how heavily Disney’s Aladdin borrowed from this version of The Thief of Bagdad: Disney’s treacherous grand vizier Jafar is overtly modeled on Veidt’s Jaffar, who similarly plots to marry a princess who is in love with a beggar who claims to be a prince, and whose dwarfish, childlike sultan father (Miles Malleson) is the archetype for Jasmine’s father. Robin Williams’s genie is, of course, a far more affable version of Ingram’s fearsome character. And Sabu’s nimble thief Abu becomes Aladdin’s monkey sidekick by the same name!
Rivaled only by the awesome Babylonian segments of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Douglas Fairbanks’ lavish, extravagant The Thief of Bagdad ranks as the very pinnacle of silent-era spectacle.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.