The Thief of Bagdad (1924) **½
Swashbuckling has been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so I can’t think of any really recent examples, but for a great many years, the world of Arabian legendry was one of the most popular settings for Hollywood adventure movies. The ones my readers are most likely to remember are probably the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films from Columbia, but the phenomenon stretches back much further than 1958. Indeed, the earliest of the bunch appears to have been the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, written and produced by Douglas Fairbanks for United Artists.
Those who know Fairbanks only as the action hero par excellence of the silent age may be surprised to see his name in two of the key behind-the-camera credits, but Fairbanks was always much more than a pretty face and an admirable physique. Indeed, together with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, he was one of the founders of the United Artists studio, and so it is actively to be expected that he would play a major creative role in the company’s productions. By 1924, he had already played Zorro, Robin Hood, and one of the Three Musketeers, and he wanted his next project to be something extra-special. Reputedly inspired by a segment from Paul Leni’s dark fantasy, Waxworks, Fairbanks concocted a sprawling epic derived from the 1001 Nights, involving everything from flying carpets to fire-breathing dragons to magic spells that can create tens of thousands of pikemen out of thin air. And despite UA’s position as one of the weakest of the major studios, Fairbanks did not intend to make his movie on the cheap. The total reported cost— $2,000,000— was probably the greatest in history at the time, and it has been said that The Thief of Bagdad was the first film ever made with a seven-figure price tag. All that money bought a new kind of adventure film, and for once Fairbanks’s stunts and swordsmanship would take a backseat to spectacle of an altogether more fantastic strain.
Fairbanks, inevitably, plays the thief of the title. His name is probably Ahmed, although that may be merely an alias he adopts when he attempts to pass himself off as a prince— we’ll get to that a bit later. Right now, we’re going to spend a reel or two watching Ahmed roam around Baghdad, lining his pockets with other people’s wealth by means of a seemingly endless repertoire of tricks and stratagems. He picks pockets; he panhandles; he cat-burgles. At one point, he even sneaks his way onto the underside of a rich man’s litter, and steals a golden ring right off of the sleeping occupant’s finger. Nor does Ahmed limit himself to coins and jewelry. If he can carry it on his person, he’ll swipe it— it’s all the same to Ahmed. For instance, no sooner has he taken advantage of the muezzin’s call to noontime prayer to relieve a fakir of his magic rope than he uses the instrument’s incredible power in a ludicrously penny-ante gambit to pilfer a handful of couscous from a cook-pot on some stranger’s second-floor balcony. Indeed, one gets the impression that Ahmed steals less out of greed (although he’s certainly got plenty of that) than for the thrill of the taking itself. Whatever his true motives, Ahmed has no use for the strictures of religion or morality as put forward by the mullah (Charles Belcher) of a mosque in which he finds himself while dodging some of his more irate victims, and he can be counted upon to take instead the advice of the somewhat older and even sleazier thief (Snitz Edwards, from The Mysterious Island and The Phantom of the Opera) with whom he shares his secret lair in a tunnel leading off from the main shaft of one of the city’s wells. (Incidentally, Ahmed’s behavior at the mosque is easily the most glaring “don’t try this at home” moment in the entire film. Apostasy was a capital offense in Abbasid Iraq, and telling a mullah to his face that “Allah’s just a myth” would have gotten you decapitated so fast you’d need a helper standing by with a bicycle pump in order to finish the sentence.) Then one day, Ahmed unexpectedly acquires some real ambition. It dawns on him that his snazzy new magic rope has opened up a whole world of thieving possibilities, and in the middle of the night, he attempts to rob the palace of the caliph (Brandon Hurst, of White Zombie and Murders in the Rue Morgue). He gets distracted from his treasure seeking, however, when he hears the sound of three slave-girls singing the caliph’s daughter (Julanne Johnston) to sleep. Ahmed sneaks into the harem, and the moment he lays eyes on the princess, he knows he simply must have her. Now if you’re asking me, this renders Ahmed’s taste in women highly suspect, for the one Mongol slave-girl (Daughter of the Dragon’s Anna May Wong) is incalculably sexier than her mistress, and might realistically be attainable, but that’s never how it works in these things. After a bit of goading from his roommate, Ahmed resolves to abduct the princess as soon as possible.
He isn’t the only one with designs on her, either. Far to the east in Ho Sho, Chang Sham the Great, Prince of the Mongols (Kamiyama Sojin, from The Bat and The Unholy Night), is plotting the conquest of Baghdad, and when his most trusted advisor (Kunihiko Nambu) mentions that the caliph has announced the opening of his palace to suitors for the princess, Chang Sham decides that the engagement competition will offer him the perfect chance. On the princess’s birthday, Chang Sham is there in Baghdad, vying with princes from India (Noble Johnson, of She and The Most Dangerous Game) and Persia (Mathilde Comont— and you know, it occurred to me while I was watching that the prince of Persia had awfully big tits, even for a gigantic fat guy) for a position as the Caliph’s heir. Ahmed too hopes to exploit the call for royal suitors. With a little assistance from the other thief, he cobbles together an assumed identity as Prince Ahmed of the Seas and the Islands, a deliberately vague title that should keep unanswerable questions safely unasked, while simultaneously going some way toward explaining why a prince of the Orient would be traveling about with one lousy retainer— when you live on an island, riding in at the head of a caravan of elephants is pretty much out of the question. At first, Ahmed has it all his way. The princess has nothing good to say about any of her other suitors, and she falls in love with him at first sight. There are two problems, though. First, Ahmed gets all mushy on us once he’s had a chance to spend a few minutes in his target’s company, and decides that he can’t go through with the abduction after all. Second, and more seriously, Chang Sham recognizes that there is something fishy about this “Prince of the Seas and the Islands,” and that gorgeous Mongol slave-girl possesses enough national sentiment to want to help make sure the khan gets what he came for. Before Ahmed knows what hit him, his secret comes out, and only the clandestine intervention of the princess saves him from being thrown to the caliph’s pet ape.
It would seem, however, that the princess is as wily in her way as Ahmed himself, for rather than submit to marrying one of her loathsome legitimate suitors, she stalls for time in a way that might just put Ahmed back in the running. The princess has her father announce that each of the three suitors will have seven months to seek out treasures of stupendous rarity; whichever brings back the most glorious prize will have her hand in marriage. Word of this development gets back to Ahmed, and with a little advice from that mullah he treated so rudely earlier on, the soon-to-be-former thief concocts one last, epic burglary with which to elevate himself to nobility. In order to achieve his goal, he’ll have to parley with a hermit, brave the Mountains of Fire, battle his way through the Valley of Monsters, seek assistance from a talking tree and the Old Man of the Sea, resist the blandishments of a tribe of seductive mermaids, and tame a flying horse, but the mullah assures Ahmed that the treasure to be gained from this arduous adventure is truly beyond compare. It had better be, too, because the competition is stiff indeed— just imagine the strutting and posturing back at the caliph’s place:
Furthermore, it might not matter how impressive anybody’s presents for the princess are, because Chang Sham’s advisor has been very busy in Baghdad during his master’s absence, smuggling in soldiers disguised as traders and couriers. The khan has 20,000 troops within the city right now, and the caliph’s forces aren’t prepared to hold the palace against an enemy on the inside of the city walls. Of course, we haven’t had a chance to see what Ahmed’s treasure can do yet.
Whatever else you may say about it, The Thief of Bagdad is an often gorgeous film that realizes a fair percentage of its extravagant visual ambitions. No fantasy film on this scale had been attempted in the United States before, and even worldwide, credible competitors (such as the German Siegfried or some of Italy’s more grandiose historical epics) were both few and relatively little-seen in this country. Modern audiences might laugh at the fire-breathing dragon (another early example of the ubiquitous Custom Gator), the giant bat, or the monster sand flea (both of them full-scale puppets), but they must have been pretty incredible in 1924. The flying carpet sequences in the third act, meanwhile, still look good, and the animation effects used to represent the power of one of the magical items Ahmed picks up on his quest are charming, if also a bit hokey. The extreme stylization of the set design doesn’t always work (the caliph’s palace looks cheap and phony), but in the more fantastic locales (the Mountains of Fire, the sirens’ underwater palace, etc.) the effect is evocatively dreamlike. There is an unfortunate side to The Thief of Bagdad’s emphasis on images of the strange and wondrous, however; the film has a pronounced tendency to wander, and never manages to accumulate much momentum. This isn’t so bad when we’re following Ahmed around on his increasingly complicated quest, but it becomes a real problem when he’s just wandering the streets of Baghdad, stealing shit at random from every Fuad, Malik, and Selim.
Perhaps surprisingly, I think it’s the performance of Fairbanks himself that hurts the movie most during its less adventuresome segments. He looks great in a sword-fight and it’s practically impossible to believe that he was already 41 years old in 1924, but his acting style, with its heavy emphasis on static poses and declamatory gestures, was old-fashioned even back then— notice that nobody else in The Thief of Bagdad is doing that sort of thing to nearly the same extent. Odds are you’ll rapidly find yourself thinking, “Yes, Doug— we see it’s a treasure chest. You don’t have to do a double-take. Just swipe the key off that eunuch’s belt and open the fucking thing already.” Fortunately, the excesses of Fairbanks are counterbalanced to some extent by the supporting players, particularly Kamiyama Sojin and Anna May Wong. It isn’t for nothing that Wong would rise to become Hollywood’s only Asian leading lady during the early 1930’s. Beyond being stupefyingly beautiful, she has a way of making odd body language look graceful and perfectly natural, and she conveys the impression that nobody could ever put anything over on her. As for Sojin, it’s a shame he moved back home to Japan in 1931, although given the extremely heavy accent he revealed in the few talkies he made in the States (The Unholy Night, for example), his prospects in an all-talking Hollywood were probably pretty bleak. Nevertheless, he’d have been the ultimate Fu Manchu, and his turn here as Chang Sham gives some indication of how much his presence could have improved the Yellow Peril movies of the following decade. Considering the imbalance in charisma between hero and villain in most subsequent “Arabian” fantasy films, maybe it’s only fitting that Fairbanks should have to struggle as hard against Sojin for audience attention as Ahmed does against Chang Sham for the hand of the princess.