Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Lotta Woods, Douglas Fairbanks, Achmed Abdullah (uncredited), James T. O’Donohoe (uncredited)
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards, Sôjin Kamiyama, Anna May Wong
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks
Running Time: 149 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford were thought of as the king and queen of Hollywood back in the 1920’s. As well as finding great success as two of the earliest true movie stars (Pickford in particular is often thought as one of the very first), they set up United Artists (UA) alongside Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith in a bid to have more control over film production, away from the powerful commercial studios. Through UA they were able to create the films they wanted, hiring the best collaborators available to make the finest films they could. Indeed, UA were responsible for many of the most famous films of the era and beyond. The company in fact still produces films now, although they’ve been a bit thin on the ground during the last few years and the company is now in the hands of MGM.
Anyway, I won’t delve into the complicated history of UA, but with this pivotal move, Fairbanks showed he was clearly more than just an actor. He was passionate about film and would go to great lengths to produce work which met his high standards. A lot of his work, as with a disturbingly large number of films from the silent era, has been lost or forgotten. Even his most famous films such as Robin Hood, The Black Pirate and The Mark of Zorro haven’t been given a decent upgrade to modern home video formats (in the UK at least), only showing up on ropey independent releases from companies that have capitalised on their public domain status and plonked any old print onto a disc. Possibly Fairbanks’ most critically successful film (it didn’t totally win over audiences at the time), The Thief of Bagdad has finally been given the release it deserves in the UK though, with Eureka releasing it on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD as part of their prestigious Masters of Cinema series. I must admit, largely due to the poor distribution of his work in this country, I’ve never seen a Douglas Fairbanks film before, so I was very excited about checking this one out.
The Thief of Bagdad takes a few tales from the classic Arabian Nights and fuses them to create a story of the titular mischievous thief (Fairbanks) who falls in love with Bagdad’s princess (Julanne Johnston). He originally means to steal from her, but when he sees this beauty before him, he becomes smitten. She is at the appropriate age to be married and a group of princely suitors arrive at the palace for her to make her choice, so the thief pretends to be a prince himself in order to win her hand. He gets found out and punished, but the princess, who falls for him too, arranges for him to be released. She isn’t allowed to marry him of course as he isn’t a prince, so, to buy more time, she gives the three suitors a task to bring her the rarest treasure they can find to help her make the important choice. The thief joins the hunt too, hoping to outdo them all to such a degree that he will be able to marry the princess regardless of his current status. Thus begins an epic adventure of magic and peril.
The Thief of Bagdad is a wonderful film, which still astonishes and captures the imagination, 90 years on. Every level of filmmaking is at its peak here to craft an amazing fantasy world. William Cameron Menzies was the production designer and his work is exceptional. The sets are often huge and always intricately beautiful. From the splendour of the palace to the stunning glass work in the underwater world, it’s a joy to behold and kickstarted Menzies’ career which would later include Gone With the Wind and Things to Come. There are some very impressive special effects for the time too. The giant creatures look a bit naff these days and it’s clear to modern audiences how a lot of the effects are done, but they remain highly effective and given the age of the film it’s pretty mind-blowing in retrospect and there are a great many effects used, making this one of the first big budget blockbusters. It was the Lord of the Rings of its day and is still a rollicking good adventure now.
Of course, a lot of the praise has to be aimed towards Fairbanks. Director Raoul Walsh later made a name for himself making a number of cast iron classics in the 1940’s such as White Heat, but, by all accounts, The Thief of Bagdad was Fairbanks’ film. As well as starring, he wrote the story and produced the film. Records and testimony from those involved show that he wasn’t a ‘hands off’ producer either. He was involved in every artistic decision and worked tirelessly to create his most exceptional motion picture. On top of this, his performance is fantastic too. He may be hamming it up compared to today’s standards, but his charisma and physicality is undeniable and his charm infectious. He moves like an acrobat or a dancer. I don’t think he did all of his stunts himself, but he certainly puts himself in some hairy situations and even in the more static scenes he still throws himself around a bit. He has an energy like few other performers and you can see why he started his career starring in comedies before he moved on to his more popular swashbucklers.
The film itself contains a lot of comedy actually. From the thief’s cheeky pickpocketing at the start of the film to a pesky bee settling the fate of who the princess should choose to marry, there is a lot of fun to be had amongst the action and adventure.
Speaking of which, the only minor issue I had with the film is that it did take its time to really get going as a true adventure film. The first hour and a half are taken up with setting the scene, establishing the romance and building to the task to find the treasure. It’s admirable that the characters and situations are properly fleshed out and this is all done very well, but I did think the film felt a little overlong at a hefty two and a half hours. Once the quest begins, the film really kicks into gear though and the last hour flies by. The most impressive sequence is kept for the final moments too as we’re treated to a magic carpet ride which was largely done for real (or at least with very little rear projection – they didn’t actually find a magic carpet). It’s astonishing to see Fairbanks and Johnston float above thousands of extras and the enormous palace constructed for the film. It’s a fittingly awe-inspiring end to a fantastic film.
Any youngsters who feel that fantasy films couldn’t really take your breath away before the days of CGI need to see this hugely influential example of early Hollywood at its peak. Also, beyond its influence, although it felt a little long, The Thief of Bagdad is still hugely enjoyable, perfectly blending romance, drama, action and spectacle to produce a masterful piece of entertainment.
The Thief of Bagdad is out on 24th November in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds great. The restoration job isn’t quite as mind blowing as with their recent Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari Blu-Ray, but overall it’s still very impressive. The picture is free of damage and isn’t faded or bleached out like a lot of silent films are. There are a couple of soft shots here and there and the grain is fairly strong, but it looks very natural and overall the picture is stunning for a film of its age. You have two options for the soundtrack – 5.1 or stereo versions of Carl Davis’ score for the film, which is based largely around the work of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is a great soundtrack for the film and came through nicely on my sound system.
There are two special features included. There’s a 17 minute video essay by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, which is made up of text inter-titles and behind the scenes stills. Added to this, you get a commentary track for the film, again by Vance, who gives an interesting and well researched look at the film and Fairbanks’ life. It’s very quote heavy and spends a little too much time praising Fairbanks, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I always like commentaries on silent films because they don’t detract from the film quite as much as with ‘talkies’.
Finally, as always with Masters of Cinema releases, you get a hefty leaflet in with the package, which is a bit shorter on imagery than usual, but contains a fact filled essay by Laura Boyes.