The Thief of Bagdad: Criterion Collection
June 4, 2008
Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is a rich, epic fantasy tale that captivated audiences and influenced a generation of filmmakers, chief among them Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, and authors of fantastical fiction like Harlan Ellison.
Jaffar (Veidt) has put a beautiful Princess (Duprez) into a deep sleep that, according to prophecy, only a blind man can awaken her from. He cast this spell on her as punishment for a romantic relationship with a beggar named Ahmad (Justin), whom Jaffar has blinded for his transgression. Jaffar rules his empire through fear, executing a man for merely thinking.
Ahmad recounts his story which begins in prison where he meets Abu (Sabu), a young, energetic thief. They managed to escape and are pursued by Jaffar’s men. Jaffar plans to marry the Princess but she has other ideas having fallen in love with Ahmad, much to the King’s chagrin. So, he blinds the young man and turns Abu into a dog. The Princess manages to lift the curse from Ahmad and Abu but departs on a boat with Jaffar. Ahmad and Abu pursue, hoping to free the Princess from Jaffar’s evil clutches.
The Thief of Bagdad is drenched in vibrant colours – the lush green of treetops, the bright yellow of bananas in a Basra market, and the striking red of the Sultan of Basra’s (Malleson) turban. The film featured, for its time, state-of-the-art visual effects, including the Sultan flying across Basra on his horse, Abu narrowly avoiding death from a giant spider, the appearance of the mighty genie Djinni (Ingram), and Abu’s mastery of a flying carpet.
John Justin evokes the matinee idol good looks of Douglas Fairbanks in swashbuckling mode while June Duprez is well cast as the pretty Princess and legendary actor Conrad Veidt is suitably evil as Jaffar. The real scene stealer, however, is Sabu as the spunky little thief Abu. Justin tends to come off as a little bland at times while Sabu is a colourful, expressive actor that many young boys no doubt identified with and envied all the exciting adventures he had in the film.
The Thief of Bagdad’s story was based on a set of tales known as The Arabian Nights that had been collected over hundreds of years from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt. Prior to this adaptation, Hollywood had made a previous attempt in 1924 directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks. Producer Alexander Korda decided that a new take on the material was due, one that would utilize Technicolor and state-of-the-art special effects. It was a complicated production that utilized three different directors to speed up filming in order to complete it before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany which halted the production. Korda was forced to move the production to America where it was completed in 1940 and held together by the producer’s skill and tenacity.
The first disc features an audio commentary by filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Coppola first saw the film in the theatres thanks to his older brother while Scorsese saw it on black and white television. Scorsese points out Michael Powell’s segments and how they showed the director’s emerging style. Coppola, on the other hand, points out the parts of the film that are directly taken from The Arabian Nights. Scorsese tends to talk about the filmmaking aspects while Coppola focuses on the story and his personal observations. Their mutual affection for this film is readily apparent from their comments.
The second commentary is by film and music historian Bruce Eder. He points out that the film has three uncredited directors besides the three credited ones and production records are long lost so it is impossible to discern who directed what except in a few cases. Eder talks about the influence of silent cinema and Miklos Rozsa’s expressive score. He presents loads of historical factoids and analysis.
Also included are a trailer and an isolated music and effects track for soundtrack lovers.
The second disc starts of with a “Visual Effects” featurette. Interviewed are visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, SFX supervisor Craig Barron, and Academy Award-winning effects designer Dennis Muren. They talk about when they first saw the film. Harryhausen points out the impressive composition of each frame and the stunning costume design. Barron says that he became so fascinated by it that he sought out and interviewed people who worked on the film. Also included is an informative blue screen demo that demonstrates how this particular visual effect was used in the film.
“Michael Powell” features audio excerpts of the filmmaker dictating his autobiography. He talks about his work on the film including his impressions of Sabu and the Korda brothers as well as the propaganda film, The Lion Has Wings.
“Miklos Rozsa” features audio excerpts from a 1976 radio interview where he talks about his background in music and his work on the film.
Also included are “Stills Galleries” with production and publicity photographs. Also included are very rare Dufaycolor stills of the film.
Finally, there is “The Lion Has Wings,” a propaganda film celebrating the Royal Air Force that Korda produced and Michael Powell co-directed while production was suspended on The Thief of Bagdad. It is a wonderfully dated snapshot of the times that comes across as kind of cheesy now.