The Thief of Bagdad is, in many respects, one of the forefathers of the modern spectacle-driven blockbuster, packed with innovative effects designed to dazzle the viewer. One can only imagine how incredible the special effects looked to a 1940 audience. Today the flaws are obvious, but, surprisingly, not by much.
There are too many enchanting sequences to mention — the ginormous genie, the flying mechanical horse, the giant spider, the toys, the flying carpet… Models, huge life-scaled props, matte paintings, early blue screen — all this and more are put to use beautifully. The ingenuity of the effects work contains more artistry and charm — and, frequently, more excitement — than the bland, wannabe-perfect CGI we’re force fed today; and, because of this, and in spite of being almost 70 years old, the sense of wonder remains. It doesn’t matter that it’s not 100% believable — in fact, that’s almost the point: the child-like ability to suspend one’s disbelief and accept the fantastical seems to be the message of the film (or, at least, one of them).
All of this is emphasised by the cinematography. This is one of the earliest films to use Technicolor and use it it does. Everything is vibrant and lush, vivid and otherworldly; especially to the audience of the time, I should imagine, not accustomed to foreign holidays and endless TV travel shows as we are today. But the film’s world is a heightened version of reality and, as with the effects, the fantastical style means it doesn’t really date. Wish You Were Here has nothing on this.
The story itself has a bit of everything: romance, fantasy, action, adventure, humour and, no doubt, more. The cast are up to the task, with John Justin swashing his buckle Errol Flynn-style as dethroned prince Ahmed; Conrad Veidt perfect as slimily evil vizier Jaffar “the usurper”; Sabu suitably valiant, amusing and clever as a peasant hero; and Rex Ingram making a memorably self-centred genie. If Disney fans think some of this sounds familiar, it must seem obvious to anyone who’s seen Aladdin that The Thief of Bagdad was a major influence on the 1992 animated classic.
These days, The Thief of Bagdad may be something of an acquired taste — some viewers will struggle to engage their sense of make-believe enough to accept the rough-round-the-edges effects and fantastical storyline — but that’s their loss, quite frankly. For those of us with some imagination to spare, it remains a magical experience.
* Although only these three are credited on screen, six directors were reportedly involved. The others were producers Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda, and William Cameron Menzies. ^
** Though listed by the Radio Times as being in HD, the D didn’t look particularly H to me. ^