Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
UK --- fantasy

Dir: Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda

Myth and folklore is part of what is ingrained in every human psyche. The storytelling process to explain how the sun came to be, to analyze animals instinctive behavior, and to marvel at human nature’s timeless desires and fears. All of our cultures have and always will attempt to explain the curiosities of the world and the universe, and many of them will overlap from time to time.

Many centuries ago, dated approximately 9th century, the Middle East would record their own myths, many of which derived from the ancient scrolls of the Mesopotamia and early writings of the Hebrew Bible. The Arabic world which included Egypt and India, did collect stories that have been passed down from time to time, what many nowadays might call fables or even urban legends. These tales eventually became collected in a groundbreaking hodgepodge collection by French author Antoine Galland in 1704 in what we call The Thousand and One Nights or sometimes 1001 Arabian Nights, translated to English language by Sir Richard Francis Burton. I actually did read this book, but never finished it. It is highly voluminous, and deep, because there are different editions out there and most are not complete but abridged. These stories told by a captive maiden named Scheherazade for her own survival included the classic adventures of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp, and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad.

The 1940 film 'The Thief of Bagdad' is a grand remake of the Hollywood silent film of the same name which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. produced by Alexander Korda. The story borrows a page (or couple of pages) from Ali Baba and Aladdin with young king Ahmad and his thief sidekick Abu (played by Jungle Book’s Sabu). The king is coerced by his grand vizier to go out in disguise as a commoner to know his people. Jaffar has him arrested and thrown in jail. There Ahmad meets the thief Abu, as they escape and cavort around Bagdad stealing scraps of food, until the king falls for the beautiful princess of the Sultan of Basra. When they infiltrate the Sultan’s palace and caught by the nefarious wizard Jaffar (played excellently by legendary silent film star Conrad Veidt), the prince is struck with blindness and Abu is transformed into a scruffy dog. After the Sultan is murdered, and Jafar cast as spell on the unknowing princess to wed her, Ahmad and Abu must rescue the princess from the clutches of the Sultan’s evil grand vizier, Jaffar.

This version was filmed in glorious Technicolor and is credited with several directors which included Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, William Cameron Menzies, and even had a contribution from the producer himself Alexander Korda. Korda also elevated the visual effects in the film with early blue screen processes, trick photography, and mesmerizing set designs. The film also features many spectacular action sequences with a giant spider, a flying horse, and the inspired performance of Rex Ingram (an African American actor known from Cabin in the Sky who would also star in another Arabian Nights fantasy film A Thousand and One Nights) as a cunning Djinni in a bottle discovered by Abu. It is not difficult to see this film has had a impression on some of our great directors of today, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola to say the least. The Thief of Bagdad will take anyone on a fantasy adventure suitable for everyone in the family.