The Thief of Bagdad (1940) movie poster

(1940) directors Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan
viewed: 05/13/11

A couple of years back, we watched the 1924 Raoul Walsh-directed, Douglas Fairbanks-starring The Thief of Bagdad, which the children, then 7 and 5 respectively, met with great enthusiasm.  I’d long held this 1940 re-make in my film queue, planning to show it to them.  When asked recently if they recalled the earlier film, the older children, now 9 and 10, vividly remembered it with great enthusiasm, reiterating the success that the impression had made upon them.  I’d never seen this 1940 British production, though I knew it was considered a classic itself, presented on DVD by the Criterion Collection (a gold-standard if there is one) as it is, and co-directed by Britain’s greatest film-maker, Michael Powell.  What’s not to like?

The film riffs on the 1924 story, breaking the character of the thief into two roles.  The hunky hero is played by John Justin, who starts as a prince who is out of touch with his brutally-treated kingdom of Bagdad, led astray by his villainous Grand Vizier, Jaffar, played with great aplomb by Conrad Veidt.  Jaffar tricks the prince into pretending to be a pauper, to mingle with the regular people, but then imprisons him as a madman who claims to be the prince.  This is where he meets the “thief” of Bagdad, played by Sabu, an Indian child actor, the other half of the Fairbanks role, the low caste hero from the slums.

Shot in rich Technicolor, this Thief of Bagdad is awash throughout in lush design and some amazingly rendered special effects (though there are also some less potent effects as well).  The film’s greatest moments include a flying mechanical horse, a flying carpet, and most impressively the massive djinn.  The scenes with Rex Ingram as the Djinn are far and away my favorite; he’s a wonderfully crafty and bombastic character.  There is great adventure and fantasy, rich wondrous story-telling, and pure awesome cinema.

Felix and Clara both liked it a lot.   So did I.

From a more “meta” perspective, it’s easy to see how much the 1992 Disney Aladdin borrowed directly from this film for design and characterization.  It’s fascinating that so many great films arose from the same source material, The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights, including another silent masterpiece, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) which is an entirely amazing animated film done entirely with silhouetted puppets.  I highly recommend the 1924 Walsh-Fairbanks film as well as this lush 1940 Technicolor spectacle, but more than any, Reiniger’s gorgeous, sublime film.

It’s also easy to imagine what an inspiration this film must have been to Ray Harryhausen.  His Sinbad films, for all their glorious stop-motion animated creatures, overall still pale in comparison to this lovely masterpiece.