Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

As one generation of blockbuster follows another, this film seems to get better and better with age.

It's ironic to think of the city of Baghdad in the context of more recent troubles, when this glorious film is very much by contrast the stuff of dream-like adventure. Equally ironic is that although the height of fantasy, it was made during the darkest days of World War II, with Alexander Korda's beloved Denham Studios too unsafe for filming, so production was switched to Hollywood, and some very American rocky mountains.

Apparently it was also an utter mess of an undertaking, but a spendid mixture of the exotic, the fantastic, and the humorous production. It's fascinating to delve through and wonder which of the various directors helmed which (Tim Whelan, Ludwig Berger, even Michael Powell, and others), when ultimately the presiding genius over it was Korda.

His scheme was to adapt the epic romantic sweep of the Arabian Knights utilising his two most popular stars of the time: Sabu and Conrad Veidt. Sabu was the star of Elephant Boy and also the original Mowgli The Jungle Book, and whose popularity was rocketing skywards, for which Abu the thief became his lasting legacy, whilst Conrad Veidt had a loyal female following as the mysterious, velvet-voiced romantic hero/villain of The Spy in Black - so The Thief of Bagdad was very much designed as a way of drawing in these two audiences together into the box office.

Abu enters the enclave of the All-Seeing Eye. Arachnophobes beware...

Indeed, the film unfolds very much like two separate narratives revolving around these two figures, with Sabu's impish, adventure-seeking thief who'd probably steal from his mother if he could (and maybe he had!) but has a heart of gold which will fulfill a prophecy, and the terrifyingly magnetic Veidt trying to woo the beautiful June Duprez (as a nameless but quintessential princess) under the nose of her eccentrically oblivious father (Miles Malleson) who is much more besotted with his toy collection - and in particular Jaffar's magical flying horse.

In these days when villains have to be "justified" or given "realistic" terrorist-like motivations, there's just no need to explain Jaffar's villainy; he just is, but with a compelling undertone of devotion that prevents him from hypnotizing the princess into loving him.

Whilst the winsome romantic leads (Duprez and John Justin) are very much idealised heroes who are made for each other, it is Abu and Jaffar who have much more fun and relish - as also does Rex Ingram in one of the great film-stealing cameos. It's no surprise to learn that Ingram's characterisation of the Genie was the inspiration for the same character in Aladdin as voiced by Robin Williams.

It's a film since cherished by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and many others. Indeed, one can see in Star Wars all the the elements of heroism that can be traced back to the Thief of Bagdad: the mysticism, the evil wizard, the wizened sage, the beautiful princess, the roguish smuggler hero, and perhaps most significantly, the magical special effects, which by today's CGI standards might seem primitive, but come with that key secret ingredient: enchantment.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films