There are many wonders to behold in Alexander Korda's 1940 production of "The Thief of Bagdad," but the most striking today is the way that Iraq is depicted. Today, the only reason Americans (and most Westerners) even recognize the city of Basra is because it has been the source of some of the bloodiest fighting in the current Iraq War. Bagdad is likewise depicted as a lawless frontier where American "liberators" fear to leave the safety of the Green Zone without heavy armor for protection.
In this 1940 epic, Bagdad and Basra are portrayed as cities of magic and wonder, the very pinnacles of sophistication. They are towns with opulent palaces, flying horses and magic carpets. We're not talking paradise, however. The impoverished residents resent the oppression of the monarchy, and place their faith in a prophecy about a boy who will return on a cloud, kill the evil ruler and set the people free.
That's where Ahmad (John Justin) and Abu (Sabu) come in. Ahmad envisioned himself as a just and benevolent ruler, but he was always kept shielded from the populace by his trusted grand vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Alas, Ahmad's self-view is as misguided as his faith in Jaffar, as he abruptly discovers when he infiltrates a crowd incognito and hears how they rail against his cruelty; Jaffar jumps on the opportunity to have Ahmad arrested as an impostor and usurps his title and his power. Once arrested, Ahmad is sentenced to death but is rescued through the ingenuity of young, plucky Sabu who becomes his faithful sidekick on a mission of vengeance.
But this is not how we first meet our intrepid heroes. As the story begins, Ahmad is a blind beggar who relies on his loyal and perceptive dog to guide him through life. Long story short, Jaffar used his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Sabu into a dog, and the curse cannot be lifted until Jaffar holds the beautiful Princess (June Duprez), who also happens to be Ahmad's true love, in his arms. Blind Ahmad relates much of this story in flashback which is where we get to meet the real star of the show.
Conrad Veidt brought star power to the role of Jaffar, but it's the ineffable Sabu who transforms the film from a generic special-effects fantasy into one of the most beloved epics of all-time. Sabu was a teenager from India who had already carved out a niche in the adolescent fantasy market with his starring turn in "The Elephant Boy" (1937). Korda and his team of directors (which included a young Michael Powell) took full advantage of Sabu's "exoticism," his dusky skin usually only covered by a pair of shorts and serving to mark him generically as Indian, Arab or anything vaguely "Middle Eastern" as far as Western audiences were concerned.
Sabu (15 at the time of filming) lights up the screen not only with his extraordinary athleticism, but also a bubbly energetic persona that can barely be captured in the frame. Korda had no doubt he had a hot commodity on his hands. Though the affable but generically milquetoast John Justin was the film's nominal star, Sabu drives most of the action. The film's most memorable sequence, involving a djinni (played to perfection by Rex Ingram) and the daring theft of a sacred jewel from a temple, relegates Ahmad to off-screen space and gives Sabu a chance to play a solo act for a good fifteen minutes or more.
If Sabu is the true star, he still shares the screen with two other man attractions. First, Conrad Veidt (best known as Major Strasser in "Casablanca" but truly unforgettable in Paul Leni's "The Man Who Laughs") plays a deliciously villainous Jaffar, with eyes that could scare the living snot out of young viewers (and a few older ones as well). Veidt and Sabu completely dwarf the nominal protagonists, John Justin and June Duprez, the latter of whom is called on merely to look pretty and succeeds admirably.
Second, and perhaps even more important, are the film's special effects. "The Thief of Bagdad" featured hundreds of effects shots which were cutting edge at the time and, with a few exceptions, still look impressive today. It was one of the first films to make use of the embryonic technique known as "blue screen" technology. It's this technique that produces the memorable (and still beautiful) shots of the flying horse and flying carpet. The film also made extensive use of a partial miniatures so deftly employed they create a grand sense of scale without ever seeming the least bit phony. Somewhat less successful are some of the puppets, especially a decidedly moribund spider on a string that engages in a duel with Sabu. However, the spectacular effects combined with glorious and gaudy Technicolor and a sumptuous score by the great composer Miklós Rózsa make this an audiovisual treat surpassed by few films since.
"The Thief of Bagdad" was an extraordinary undertaking by producer Alexander Korda who is usually, and rightfully, credited as the primary creative force behind the film. He used three directors (Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan as well as Michael Powell) to assemble the epic, working with separate production units, and did so as war was rapidly approaching England. In fact, Korda had to briefly halt production on the film in 1939, and Korda turned his attention instead to a war propaganda film "The Lion Has Wings" which is included as an extra on this Special Edition (and is discussed in the Extras section below). It was also a major gamble for Korda who had just founded his own studio and was risking both his financial and creative resources on this massive undertaking. Obviously, the gamble paid off.
"The Thief of Bagdad" is a grand entertainment, a children's fantasy that appeals to audiences of all ages. This was the "Harry Potter" or "Chronicles of Narnia" of its day, a grand literary adaptation (of "The Arabian Nights") that relies on spectacle and a simple narrative of clear-cut good and evil to engage and thrill its audience. Its ground-breaking special-effects work has earned the unabashed admiration of many filmmakers; the DVD sports a commentary track by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It's easy to understand why. A timeless fantasy and a timeless entertainment, "The Thief of Bagdad" is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. All I have to say about the transfer is: Wow! This is a 1940 film? Wow!
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Disc One offers two commentary tracks. The first is by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (recorded separately), both of whom express their fondness for Korda's landmark achievement. The second track is by film and music historian Bruce Eder. The Eder commentary is more cohesive and substantive, but it's also rather entertaining to listen to Coppola and Scorsese indulge their fanboy sides.
Disc Two includes the rest of the extras.
As I mentioned above, Korda had to halt production on "The Thief of Bagdad" when the British entered the war in 1939. He used the hiatus to shoot a feature-length propaganda film called "The Lion Has Wings" (76 min.) The film is an odd hybrid of documentary, newsreel, and fictional footage which aims to show the world how tough and prepared the people and the military of Great Britain are for anything Hitler has to offer. It is intermittently successful, and some of the fictional scenes are groan-worthy, but it's still a rousing bit of gung-ho filmmaking that rallied audiences in Britain and abroad.
The "Visual Effects" featurette (31 min) includes interviews with Dennis Muren, Craig Baron and a young up-and-comer by the name of Ray Harryhausen. Fans and students of visual effects will find a lot of interesting material. There is also a brief "Blue Screen Demo" (2 min) that shows just how a composite effects shot was put together.
The disc also offers lengthy audio excerpts from Michael Powell's dictation for the first volume of his autobiography "A Life In Movies." Broken up into 11 segments (that, unfortunately, must be selected one at a time), the excerpts total just over an hour's running time. Excerpts from a 1976 radio interview with composer Miklós Rózsa (37 min. total) are also included. A Stills Gallery rounds out the collection.
The insert booklet includes an essay by Andrew Moor on "The Thief of Bagdad," and by Ian Christie on "The Lion Has Wings."
Raoul Walsh directed a silent version of "The Thief of Bagdad" in 1924 starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Korda and his writers Lajos Biro and Miles Malleson (who also plays the Sultan) effectively split Fairbanks' starring role into two characters: Ahmad and Sabu. Sabu, like Fairbanks, is the athletic and charismatic star. Sabu also starred in the 1942 Korda production of "The Jungle Book" and though his career petered out to some degree as he reached adulthood, he still played eternally youthful "exotic" roles – you may remember him as the young general in Michael Powell's exquisite "Black Narcissus" (1947).
"The Thief of Bagdad" is a splendid Technicolor entertainment. Just 68 years young, it has lost none of its power to enchant and entertainment. Sabu will live forever.