The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

“This is the Land of Legend, where everything is possible
when seen through the eyes of youth.”

Many of the films I tend to want to watch are gloomy affairs: dark, cynical, semi-realistic. It’s not that I don’t like light-hearted films, it’s just that those tend to be of questionable quality nowadays — the last really great (non-animated) historical adventure film was The Mask of Zorro (1998), and I’d probably have to go back to the eighties to find another one of similar quality (one that holds up, at any rate).
But it was a popular – and respected – genre once upon a time, one that many accomplished filmmakers tried their hand at at least once in their career. One of the most lauded of these films is the 71-year-old The Thief of Bagdad. For good reason, as I had occasion to find out.

This film could not have been made today. Not just because of the setting (there are certain sensitivities toward that geographical area at the moment), but also because Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to make truly fun movies: movies that don’t take themselves too seriously, but also don’t wink at the camera all the time, don’t feel the need to compensate with explosions for a lack of cleverness, and which are innocent of the kind of cynicism and ironic detachment all too common in modern films.
That’s not to say that there is no humour or spectacle in Thief, there’s plenty of that, and a probably at the time record-breaking amount of special effects. But it’s the right kind of spectacle: magical creatures and objects and locations that tickle the sense of wonder in the audience, and in the characters as well, who react appropriately awed. That’s real movie magic.

Now, from a modern perspective, of course you can look at the film and find many flaws. Nevermind even the often dated special effects; the dialogue is excessively flowery, and the delivery by most of the actors is extremely stilted. With the exception of the villain Jaffar, who is infused with surprising humanity by Conrad Veidt, none of the characters rise above one-dimensional stereotypes, and there is no such thing as character development. The plot is a mess, too, the opposite of realistic (even within the confines of a fantasy film) and well thought-out. Moods and intentions of the characters shift out of nowhere, to account for whatever the plot requires them to do. These machinations are convoluted to the point of ridiculousness, where characters appear to be unable to do anything in the easiest and most direct manner. There are also half a dozen (sometimes literal) Dei Ex Machina to save the day and get the characters out of situations they don’t really need to be in in the first place. I wouldn’t say the film is completely random and illogical, but it definitely plays by its own rules that go beyond even “fairy-tale logic”.
The plot often seems to accomodate the hyperactive fancies of a child, specifically, those of the title character Abu (played by Sabu). If the teenage thief needs honey, a honey vendor will appear around the corner. Why does there happen to be a ship waiting for him when he escapes from prison? Who knows? Who cares? That’s before he even meets a wish-granting djinn, whose containment vessel just so happens to wash up on shore at the exact moment Abu needs his help.

The thing is: none of this matters in the slightest. The energy of the film’s direction, its sets and costumes, the way it is edited together, yes, even the (oxymoronically) wooden intensity of the acting, is infectious, and makes you ignore all those problems in favour of surrendering to the experience. The right way to approach this film is laid out right in that line I quoted at the top of the review: everything is possible, but the path to enjoy those wondrous sights requires you to suspend preconceived notions of a proper narrative. It’s like a story a child would tell, or maybe like the memories a child has of Arabian Nights tales read to the child once upon a time. There’s no “fat” in the plot, no unwieldy scenes to add depth to the characters. Thief is all about the highlights: it dashes from one massive set piece to the next (the most striking and inventive of which is a giant hollow statue full of lethal traps, monster animals and sneaky savages), with barely any rhyme or reason beyond the desire to impress the audience with thrilling spectacles it has never seen or imagined before (and in 1940, this was likely true).

I had read beforehand that Disney’s Aladdin (1992) had borrowed liberally from this film. That’s certainly quite obvious, with both films sharing a villainous sorcerer named Jaffar, a scene-stealing thief sidekick, a somewhat helpful genie, and a toy-obsessed pudgy sultan; even some locations look suspiciously similar. Thief reminds me favourably of animated films for other reasons, too: the bright and gaudy Technicolor sets and costumes, stylised but downplayed backgrounds, some wacky chase sequences, the rousing and at times mickey-mousing musical score, exaggerated props, the histrionic acting, the possibly a tiny bit racist caricatures of foreign cultures. It’s a lot like a live-action cartoon, and could likely never be made today as anything but a cartoon, the only remaining viable medium/art form for family adventure films. That’s unfortunate; I wish more live-action directors of escapist fun would take their cue from these old classics, hammy though they were.

I haven’t said a whole lot about the details of the plot. I don’t feel that I need to: it’s a potpourri of Arabian Nights motifs, like several movies rolled into one, which makes it feel epic in scope. The exact plot really isn’t all that important. This is a film you don’t watch and follow in a traditional way; it is a film you experience. It probably helps to be a child without adult preconceptions of what a narrative should be like, but I think as long as you’ve retained a sense of child-like wonder, this movie will be a joyful pleasure.

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