Raoul Walsh | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | U
Douglas Fairbanks started out in comedies, where he was so popular he was quickly established as “the King of Hollywood”, which allowed him to attempt something different: an historical adventure film. The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, in the process defining the swashbuckling genre, so he followed it with The Three Musketeers, then Robin Hood. With each new film he tried to outdo his last, and that culminated in his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad.
Fairbanks plays the titular thief, who steals only what he can’t afford — that’s everything. Well, that’s not strictly true: he’s clearly stolen a load of cash, so he must be able to afford quite a bit. But shush, I will have my Aladdin references. No, the thief mainly steals for the thrill and the adventure, and to have whatever he wants. As he tells a fella in a mosque, “My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth.” I guess you could say things like that in the ’20s without being brutally murdered.
Anyway, it’s time for the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston) to get married. Princes are called from far and wide to vie for her hand, and one of the keenest is the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama), who wants to add Bagdad to his empire (because only a truly evil ruler would use their army to conquer Baghdad). With goods flooding into the palace in preparation, the thief decides it would be a grand time to burgle the place. As he goes about his thievery, he comes across the princess’ bedchamber and falls in love. Or maybe just lust, because his next plan is to masquerade as a prince and steal her.
With the aid of his comic chum (Snitz Edwards), the thief pretends to be Prince
Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa Ahmed of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces. It’s a made-up title, of course, which alerts the Mongol Prince to the attempted deception — though as he’s “the Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak”, he’s a fine one to talk. The thief manages to make it to see the princess anyway. She instantly falls in love with him, and he realises he loves her too, so can’t just kidnap her. His whole value system is undermined! But now he’ll have to win her hand by more honest means. Well, she already loves him, so he’s halfway there; but he’s an imposter, so there’s that to sort out yet.
The main problem with The Thief of Bagdad, for me, was that it took more-or-less 90 minutes to get to this point. That stretch isn’t without entertainment value, both deliberate, like Fairbanks’ joyful displays of athleticism, and not, like the overwrought intertitles in which characters speak like Yoda by way of Shakespeare (“Thou wilt wed the suitor who first toucheth the rose-tree” / “He touched not the rose-tree”). The beginning is where the pace really suffers: the multitudinous ways the thief goes about his larceny are individually entertaining and/or ingenious, but as an introduction that merely needs to establish “this man is a clever, successful thief”, it’s overkill. Lovers of Fairbanks’ theatrics may well disagree, but I wanted the real story to get going.
However, once it gets past this languorous preamble, the film really comes alive for its final hour. Everyone’s off on a quest, and so we leave the epic Bagdad set for an array of other equally-impressive locales. Here’s where the film’s real adventure lies, as we whizz through multiple fantasy landscapes, the thief battling monsters as he goes, and the Mongol Prince plotting to conquer the city. This is also where most of the film’s famed special effects are to be found. So groundbreaking that they were analysed in scientific magazines at the time, they still have the power to enchant viewers the best part of a century later. Okay, sometimes you can see the wires, but that rarely undermines the magic. While a giant bat looks quite cuddly, a dragon-ish alligator-creature is fairly effective, and an underwater-spider-thing is actually rather creepy.
Even more impressive are the sets. The work of famed Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, at the time Fairbanks felt Menzies was too inexperienced to work on such a big project. Undeterred, he created a collection of detailed drawings and convinced the star/producer. No surprise that worked, because Menzies’ designs are extraordinary. His complex, detailed, unreal drawings are recreated accurately on screen (examples of this can be seen in the ‘video essay’ included on the film’s Blu-ray releases, for instance), using numerous techniques to create truly fantastical scenes: ginormous sets (they covered six-and-a-half acres), built on a reflective enamel floor (which had to be constantly re-enamelled throughout the shoot) and painted in certain ways to make them appear floaty; or glass matte paintings used to seamlessly extended or enhance shots. Reportedly 20,000 feet of film — that’s hours and hours worth — were shot just to test the lighting and painting of the sets.
Such visual extravagance could overwhelm many a movie star, but not so Fairbanks. I suppose it helped that, as the biggest male name in Hollywood movies, and with his own production companies and studios, he was in charge. Whatever the credits may say (not that there are any on the current widely-available prints), it seems Fairbanks was as much the film’s director as Raoul Walsh, who was hired because he used to run and box with the star. Consequently the film is built around Fairbanks, his skills and his interests — it’s a true star vehicle. He exudes fun, embodying that swashbuckling spirit of adventure and derring-do, and clearly having a whale of a time, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us, too.
Nonetheless, other cast members manage to make a mark. Kamiyama is an effective villain, with his skull-like face and menacing manner, in particular when he unleashes one of my favourite threats ever at the ruler of Bagdad: “You shall add joy to the wedding festival by being boiled in oil.” Who doesn’t think deep-fried caliph is joyous? In a star-making supporting role, Anna May Wong is indeed memorable as a traitorous handmaiden. That’s more than can be said of her employer: Johnston is a bit of a non-starter as the princess, which I guess is what happens when you have to re-cast because your original choice departs part way through production. Comedian Snitz Edwards was also a mid-production replacement, drafted in to provide comic relief. It wasn’t necessary: he doesn’t add much, and Fairbanks had it covered.
The Thief of Bagdad succeeds most as a spectacle, especially as it has various kinds to offer: Fairbanks’ stunts, Menzies’ sets, the still-remarkable effects work. It may be a bit bloated, but Fairbanks’ exuberance infects the entire production so that, when it’s at its best, it’s immensely enjoyable.
This review is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.