The Thief of Bagdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, maybe some more, 1940)

Well, here it is.  If you don’t count “King Kong” and its combination of lousy acting and occasional shot or two of the monkey, “The Thief of Bagdad” is the effects-soaked spectacle that began all effects-soaked spectacles.  Alright, so maybe “King Kong” does still hold that illustrious (or dubious depending on your type of movie) title, but seven years later, “The Thief of Bagdad” went above and beyond the unrequieted love-laced metaphor and cheese factor of “King Kong,” throwing its chips all in and going for straight, mindless spectacle.  It’s mindless, it’s cheesy, some of the effects are hideously outdated…but I liked it.  Sure, to say that I’ve seen films that are “deeper” is the understatement of the 21st century, and the effects-soaked spectacles of today are garbage, but maybe it was the novelty of “The Thief of Bagdad” that drew me to it…like looking in an old, dusty textbook on film technique, to see how effects that were taken for granted even in the 1960s were done for the first time.  But most of all, it doesn’t even try to be anything deep, not like King Kong’s heart-wrenching death throes atop the Empire State Building.  It’s just a cheesy romance, a dastardly villain, and a young hero the kids will love who goes on a grand adventure.  I’m not even gonna give my typical “it’s a bad movie, but it’s innovative and set a precedent, so I have to appreciate it” excuse.  It is a good movie, because it’s the spectacle it set out to be, and it’s the mindless entertainment it set out to be…and the kids will love it, and who better to judge a fun little fantasy like the kids, right?  Stupid kids, haha…

The story, and many of the performances, are terrible.  John Justin as the usurped prince and June Duprez as the princess he falls head over heels for are nothing more than eye candy staring like sheep into the camera, talking in monotone.  That’s the bad cheesy, but just about all the rest of the cheesiness is good.  Conrad Veidt of “Casablanca” fame really seems to be enjoying himself while playing Jaffar, the Arabian equivalent of Snidely Whiplash, and 15 year old Sabu, as Abu the Thief, has all the energy as a hero that his counterpart the prince doesn’t.  Just like the Michael Bay-ish blockbusters of today, “The Thief of Bagdad’s” plot is irrelevant – it’s just an excuse to get the prince out of the way and for Sabu to get shipwrecked and find the genie and get into wild adventures, and it’s table dressing to show off what in 1940 were mind-blowing special effects.  Some of those effects, like some of the first use of blue-screen to show a grand city behind a crowd, or the now-age old perception trick to make the genie seem hundreds of feet taller than Abu, stand up pretty damn well.  And the colors (and I wasn’t even aware color movies were around in 1940) are MAGNIFICENT.  Other effects, like the princess’ man-child father riding a toy horse through the clouds or the genie flying (and suddenly turning into an action figure 😉 )…not so much.  And that spider Abu fights on the giant web – was that plaster of paris covered in fur? 😕 – ain’t exactly Shelob from the Lord of the Rings movie.  But even when this movie’s age spots are at their most prominent, there’s something endearing about all this.  Something about Abu berating a genie a hundred times his size like it were his dog, or cautiously slinking through an ominous cave, or Conrad Veidt sleazing it up trying to seduce the princess, or a 2 mph carpet ride over a bluescreen Bagdad – something about all that that brings a goofy little smile to my face.  It’s a time capsule, showing how a bevy of directors (another unfortunate legacy of “The Thief of Bagdad” on today’s blockbusters – special effect after special effect drowning out any relevancy the director might have as an auteur) tried to make something grand out of nothing (and with this shit screenplay, I really do mean nothing 😛 ).  Where would today’s special effect powerhouses and the jaw-dropping blockbuster business be today without the lousy bluescreen and toy-spider-hanging-on-a-string and flying genie doll and huge-sets-made-out-of-styrofoam of “The Thief of Bagdad” (all you blockbuster haters / minimalist lovers, don’t answer that)?  So why can’t I like such an empty, outdated effects-fest?  Do I need an excuse?  It’s fun to make fun of how outdated it is…it brings out the kid in me…the sets are pretty…some of it is genuinely exciting…Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola really like it, so I should too…I just like it, do I need a reason?  Fuck you, get off me! 😆


1 comment so far

  1. Jonathan Burrello on

    Not so much love for “King Kong”, eh?
    I love “The Thief of Bagdad” and grew up watching it. I actually like it a lot more than the original from 1924 starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Both are pretty good adventure films, but something about Sabu’s performance just makes it feel right. I love the spirit of this film. Yes, some of the special effects are cheesy, but you’re right, they have a rich, watchable, endearingness to them and give the film it’s own special charm. Great film.

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