Why The Thief of Bagdad Is a Classic on the Level of Wizard of Oz - VRGyani News and Media


Friday, October 1, 2021

Why The Thief of Bagdad Is a Classic on the Level of Wizard of Oz

For years as a producer, Alexander Korda longed to show the viewer something exotic. The Hollywood-based Hungarian had a fetishistic fixation on the “foreign,” an interest in the type of artificial glimpses at far corners of the world that American cinema used to excel at. Korda found the perfect vessel for ethnographic storytelling of the sort in Sabu, a young boy discovered by the producer’s crew in India. Korda made Sabu into a star with Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938). Though big hits at the time, today the films are beyond dated: stiff and lifeless at best, exploitative and racist at worst. Against all odds, the producer and star went on to make a masterpiece in 1940, creating a film that is nothing short of immortal. The Thief of Bagdad succeeds where those earlier films fail by obtaining the bulk of its exotica from fantasy elements rather than existing cultures, and being directed with skill by British auteur Michael Powell (among a team of several other directors). Its tensely thrilling filmmaking and innovative special effects make it an all-ages fantasy classic on the level of The Wizard of Oz, and yet, today it’s far less known than that film.

The film is loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales that has served as the source for countless film adaptations through history, from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s haunting Arabian Nights to the beloved Disney animation classic Aladdin. With Korda’s track record, one can infer that he found interest in these tales primarily for their setting, and the film indeed takes place in a Hollywoodized version of ancient Iraq. But there’s an enduring strength to the fantastical material from the original stories, which ultimately pulls the film away from the exploitative sensibilities that severely date Korda’s prior Sabu-lead productions. Ethnographic elements reside only in the background as the film instead opts to enchant the viewer with an otherworldly journey through high fantasy. This journey follows Sabu as Abu, a clever thief who must face various trials when the Sultan of Bagdad (John Justin) needs his help. The duo are brought together after the Sultan’s corrupt right-hand man, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), overtakes the kingdom and threatens to marry the Sultan’s beloved princess (June Duprez) against her will.

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The film is a grand epic on a scale rarely matched. It is dramatized with great skill by Powell and his many co-directors, with stunning technicolor cinematography making the most of the film's huge scale. Scenes move effortlessly from large Arabian cities to ships on the high seas to ornate royal temples to rocky desert wastelands, making it easy to forget that nearly all of it was shot on sound stages with the use of elaborate sets. The excitement of it all is aided by the operatic score of Miklós Rózsa, which booms dramatically as Abu and the gang encounter troublemaking genies, flying horses, murderous toys, magic carpets, and giant spiders, with the filmmakers utilizing virtually every fantasy-related trick in the book. Rarely at the time had a film pulled so much out of the joy of pure escapism, and as such it can be seen as an early forerunner of the modern blockbuster.

Justin and Duprez are dead weight in their sluggish romance scenes, but luckily the film maintains a greater focus on its threatening villain and loveable little hero. Veidt was known for villainous roles in German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and turns in an unforgettably menacing performance as Jaffar. Many of his scenes contain close-ups that bring out the striking power in his eyes, making it hard to overlook the character’s seductive evil. He is only upstaged by Sabu, who creates an endlessly sympathetic, funny performance even despite not being much of an actor. Korda really employed Sabu as a presence more than anything, and there’s an awkward, amateurish quality to his acting that can be grating when he’s given a lot to express, but is revealed as charming when handled correctly by the filmmakers. Here he is given the role that would define his career. It’s a very physical role, with much less dialogue than there is running, jumping, climbing, and even singing. His acting takes a back seat to his presence alone, which warmly invites the viewer to actively join him in his trials rather than passively watch.

But the real star of the show is the special effects. The filmmakers utilized as many existing techniques as they could, while also innovating brand new methods that are still used today. Nearly every shot is a composite, containing either a matte painting that makes the world look all the more expansive, a rear projection that brings an odd creature to life, or a blue screen effect that allows characters to transcend the restrictions of reality. These were the days long before computers, so each of these techniques would have to be painstakingly achieved in-camera (by only exposing portions of the film so that the other parts could be filled in later with an effect) or with the help of an optical printer (which would rephotograph filmed images so that multiple planes of visuals could be composed together). The results are pure magic. It’s hard to imagine someone left unmoved by Abu’s interaction with a genie the size of a skyscraper, who almost crushes the little hero before being tricked into flying him around on his back, so that they may track down the missing Sultan.

This all adds up to one of the most effortlessly entertaining films ever made. One sequence in particular, which has Abu scaling a tall statue and battling with an enormous spider in its web, blends the elements of story, spectacle, character, and special effects to tensely exciting heights that are nearly unmatched in the history of cinema. But then, why doesn’t this film remain in the public consciousness like comparable fantasy classics? It’s very possible that the dated exotica context of Korda and Sabu’s working relationship is what distances today's audiences. Though the film’s fantasy elements keep it from being steeped as far into the colonialist fantasies of Elephant Boy and The Drum, the sensibility still lingers in the background, and there are instances of brownface that are as unignorable as they are unforgivable. They mark the film—as they very well should—but shouldn’t keep one from viewing it. It’s important to be able to understand popular culture’s role in shaping the nasty attitudes of the past and present alike, and it can be educational to see the sometimes fetishistic, often insensitive ways Hollywood would portray the world around it in its supposedly “golden” era.

Korda and Sabu went on to make only one other film together, their 1942 adaptation of The Jungle Book. The fantasy elements of Thief were retained, but the talented direction of Powell was lost, and the production value severely scaled back. One laughable scene involves Sabu having a conversation with a rubber snake held up by strings. Its failure makes the success of Thief all the more fascinating. Despite its expertly crafted filmmaking and special effects that brought the medium forward, The Thief of Bagdad was clearly lightning in a bottle.

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