director Raoul Walsh
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
The opportunity to see a newly restored print of Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad was an opportunity not to be missed at this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event. Frankly, I’d gladly sit through it all, but I dragged the kids through Snow White (1916), a collection of Buster Keaton shorts, and this epic epic of nearly 3 hours in itself, I felt we’d done pretty darn well.
We had watched The Thief of Bagdad (1924) once before on DVD when the kids were much younger and I was just exposing them to silent film. Felix and another girl his age loved it and remembered it as awesome for years afterward. Much later and not terribly long ago, we watched the British Technicolor remake The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which was brilliant as well in its own way. But now, the kids are older, much more experienced in watching silent films (no longer necessarily needing me to read the inter-titles anymore.)
Frankly, I enjoyed it more than they did this time around. My own memory of the film proved pretty concrete. The first half of the film is a joyous, lush, fantastic and comical tale of the titular hero, a happy-go-lucky thief (the marvelous Fairbanks) who “takes what he wants” and lives as he pleases. Only when he goes to steal from the Caliph’s palace, he falls in love with the princess, and realizes his bon-vivant life needs redemption, which he can achieve under the guidance of religion and the successful accomplishment of a great quest.
The quest is the second part of the film. The princess’s suitors are sent to the ends of the earth to find the rarest of treasures, with each one trying to outdo the other. Fairbanks goes the farthest, battles a number of creatures, achieves the ultimate goals, of course, and then has to come back to Bagdad to save the princess and the who city from the conniving Asian villain.
The sets are big and lush, the action is big and wonderful. In a lot of ways, it’s not at all unlike the kind of popcorn movies that Hollywood has been churning out most summers ever since. Action and adventure and what would have been some top special effects of the day. Certainly a few of the creatures bear the silly weakness of their technical limitations, but the flying carpet is done in a marvelous stunt and has all the magic that cinema can offer.
In the introduction to the film, it was suggested that Fairbanks “danced” his role, perhaps with a nod to Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was interesting taking that notion in through the film because Fairbanks’ performance is very physical. Even with the full-body emotive acting style of the silents, his movements are outsized and broad. But considering the intention, the fluidity and musicality of his movements, the performance is much easier to fully appreciate. He has an action that he does with his hands to indicate that he’s “wanting” something and while its all far from subtle, it certainly has a vivid energy and sense of “lust for life” that truly embody the character.
Certainly, you can see this film on DVD and hopefully then on a screen of good size, but it cannot be beat to see it on the big screen with live orchestration. Top notch film-going experience.