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. Yet The Thief of Bagdad’s blend of Arabian Nights magic, storybook romance, mythopoeic fantasy travelogue, and sense of wonder and fun is incalculably more entertaining and joyous than even the best moments of Griffith’s muddled melodrama.
Taking as its theme the edifying precept "Happiness must be earned," The Thief of Bagdad introduces Fairbanks as a carefree Middle Eastern street thief (a role that allows the forty-year-old actor to flaunt his acrobatic physique in only baggy breeches and a turban).
Though at first the thief is a cheerful infidel who believes only in taking what he wants, the path to redemption begins when he falls in love with the caliph’s royal daughter (Julanne Johnston). Initially impersonating a prince to win her hand, the thief winds up scourged and humbled, ultimately seeking the advice of the "holy man" he earlier mocked, who advises him that if he loves a princess, he must "become a prince."
The ensuing pilgrimage takes the thief on a fantastic storybook odyssey ranging from the depths of the sea, haunted by sirens and giant spiders, to the world above the clouds, where he finds the abode of the winged horse and the citadel of the moon. The magic of this mythic journey outstrips anything in the highly regarded, possibly overrated 1940 remake.
Fairbanks’s flamboyant acting style is at its most overwrought here, but his charisma and exuberant physicality carry the day (one critic even suggests that his "daringly, beautifully florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance" [TV Guide]).
With its unprecedented special effects and imaginative sets, The Thief of Bagdad is perhaps the first great achievement of cinematic epic mythopoeia, and the forerunner to the likes of The Lord of the Rings.
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).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.