The Thief Of Bagdad
US (1924) Dir. Raoul Walsh
In 1916 Douglas Fairbanks was an uncredited extra in D.W Griffith’s epic Intolerance; four years later he was one of the most popular film stars in Hollywood, and he, wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Griffith formed their own studio United Artists.
Arguably one of the first of the Hollywood hyphenates Fairbanks had ambitions to make a definitive epic film, and after cementing his status as the King of Action with such fare as Robin Hood, Zorro and The Three Musketeers, this dream project was to be fulfilled in the form of this lavish adaptation from the tales of the One Thousand And One Nights.
Fairbanks plays Ahmed, a charismatic thief in the city of Bagdad where he and his associate (Snitz Edwards) live off Ahmed’s light-fingered shenanigans. After stealing a magic rope, Ahmed breaks into the Caliph’s palace to help himself to his treasures but after catching a glimpse of the Caliph’s sleeping daughter (Julanne Johnston) he decides to make her his own.
The next day is the Princess’s birthday and the Caliph (Brandon Hurst) invites three princes from across Asia to seek his daughter’s hand in marriage – Cham Shang (Sojin Kamiyama), the Prince of Mongolia, the Prince of the Indies (Noble Johnson) and The Prince of Persia (Mathilde Comont). Not wanting to miss out, Ahmed disguises himself as the Prince of the Seven Seas, having been spotted the night before by a Mongol servant of the Princess, (Anna May Wong).
Of course this is more than a simple love story as Ahmed needs more than just fellow suitors to overcome. Beneath this fantasy fable is a tale of political unrest and Machiavellian deceit as Cham Shang has design beyond the Princess – Bagdad itself. Marrying into the ruling family would be one way to usurp control of the city, but should that fail, Plan B is simmering away in the background just in case, and Ahmed’s guile is an interfering factor Shang can ill-afford to succumb to.
Reportedly one of the most expensive films of the silent period with a budget of $1.13 million, every penny of it is on the screen which is a far cry from today’s megabucks productions where the paperclip bill is seven figures. With gigantic sets, glitzy costumes, a huge number of extras, and state of the art special effects for the day, Fairbanks clearly committed himself to realising his dream, presumably taking a few pointers from his old mucker Griffith on creating an epic spectacle.
Aesthetically Intolerance and The Thief Of Bagdad share much common ground, at least the Babylon portion of Griffith’s film, both sporting towering full-scale sets to recreate the wondrous architecture of yesteryear. Wide shots of the city gates with Fairbanks in front of them illustrate the immense scale of the sets, which today would be down with CGI. Elsewhere the interiors are sparsely decorated yet still impressive in design, while later scenes set in distant fantasy worlds no doubt influenced Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, Flash Gordon and dare I even suggest Doctor Who?
In the third act, the Princess still has to choose a husband with Ahmed now disqualified, so the three princes are tasked with finding a rare treasure, with the rarest being the lucky groom. Shang still plans to win this one and puts his Plan B into operation while away treasure hunting. For Ahmed this means redemption through a series of perilous tasks in order to retrieve valuable assets en route to the ultimate magical treasure.
This sees him battling a cave of flames, a giant dragon (a precursor to green screen I believe), a large flying rat/bat and a huge underwater bug. The last fight was impressively done with the footage slowed down to create the impedance water creates while Fairbanks was hoisted around on wires. The tour de force however was the flying horse, the magic carpet (again on wires) and the invisible cloak (75 years before Harry Potter!).
As was the standard in those days, whenever an actor had a specific trait or gimmick it was exploited to the hilt, and for Fairbanks it was his athletic skills. The role of Ahmed was pretty much tailor made for Fairbanks, which the first twenty minutes of the film demonstrates as he skips, jumps, swings and tumbles around all in the name of petty theft. At 41 years old Fairbanks was in incredible shape and could outperform many men junior to him, while his natural charisma shines through even if the acting is rather hammy.
Fairbanks deserves credit for casting genuine black and Asian actors for the ethnic roles instead of making up white actors – although the two main Mongol roles are taken by a Japanese (Sojin Kamiyama) and a Chinese (Anna May Wong). However they both delivered and were arguably the strongest performers of the film, especially Wong – who outshone Julanne Johnston as the Princess – and should have had a huge career in films but Hollywood’s xenophobia put paid to that.
Raoul Walsh, an actor himself, was the listed director but Fairbanks was the one calling the majority of the shots. With both experienced in front of the camera this may explain why the performances are often quite exaggerated and lacking in subtlety. But this is a cheery fantasy tale so the focus was more likely on the action spectacle side of things and quite rightly too.
The two and half-hour run time is not sufficiently justified even with the expansive plot, the pace noticeably losing steam late in the second act. That said our patience is largely rewarded and it is hard not to be entertained and engaged by the sheer spectacle of the production and even the rudimentary special effects have a tangible charm about them.
The Thief Of Bagdad was an ambitious project for its time and in many ways impresses all the more for that very reason. A wonderful, if overlong, fantasy epic of great innovation.