At the peak of his career in the 1920s, Fairbanks took to increasingly elaborate costume adventure films. He had already achieved superstardom playing Zorro, Robin Hood, and d’Artagnan. The Thief of Bagdad, a picaresque Arabian Nights-style action-film-cum-folk-tale, stands as one of his best roles.
|Fairbanks as Robin Hood two years before.|
Why This Film Exists
The Thief of Bagdad started in the brain of Achmed Abdullah (full name Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah Nadir Khan el-Durani el-Iddrissyeh; born Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff), a Russian-born novelist and later screenwriter whose extremely interesting and accomplished life gave him no shortage of research. The exact details of the arrangement haven’t survived, but it appears he and Douglas Fairbanks worked together to bring The Thief of Bagdad to life. They collaborated to make an outline for an original story based on the Arabian Nights legends and (presumably) the real-life capture and razing of the city at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. Abdullah then finished the book and Fairbanks then finished the film.1
Abdullah grew up a Muslim and in his military service, he spent quite a lot of time in the Middle and Far East. Consequently, although he later converted to Roman Catholicism, his work has the fairness and positive characterizations of Arabs and Muslims that one would expect.
Throughout the book, Abdullah betrays a sense of self-awareness about his undertaking. Indeed, in following the didactic nature of folk tales, the film and the book both flatly spell out their moral at the beginning.
|It feels like the film wants to say something, but what? What?!|
|Look how happy Douglas Fairbanks looks just to have a camera pointed at him!|
|MacGyver, Roberta Williams, eat your hearts out.|
|In the film, this looks like the US Army’s PT test with prostrations instead of situps.|
|Charles Belcher did a better job 89 years ago than I’ve seen anyone do in years.|
None of this means the film blindly endorses Islam or objectively paints life in medieval Baghdad as better than the here and now. We still see plenty of slavery on screen. Considering the narrative doesn’t center thereon, I have no complains about how the film showed the evil institution. The slaves don’t seem inexplicably content as in Song of the South, nor do we see Gone With the Wind’s demonizing of emancipation.
|A recurring establishing shot of slave labor where the slaves look appropriately miserable.|
|I really can’t tell whether or not Wong’s conniving glance breaks the fourth wall.|
|The Prince of the Indies forced this young Brahmin boy to retrieve a jewel from the pupil of this creepy statue of Doorga, 60 feet off the ground.|
While The Thief of Bagdad does have an ultimately very positive depiction of Arabs and Muslims, the film unfortunately gets incredibly Orientalist in its depiction of the Mongol people, particularly the main villain.
Japanese actor Sojin plays the main antagonist: the imperious Mongol prince Cham Sheng. Notice the resemblance to Fu Manchu: the gaunt figure, the rings, the fivehead, the ornate and exotic clothes, and of course, the Fu Manchu mustache (which may have actually started out as a style worn by Mongol leaders).
|Seriously, look at this walking stereotype!|
Shades of racial mockery arise again in the finale, where the Arabs punish the Mongol leaders—Chem Shang and his sidekick, Wong K’ai—by tying their queues together. I don’t see a problem with the characters wearing these hairstyles, but using the hair to punish them comes off as cultural mockery.
|The pulling of the hair has to hurt too.|
Pop culture perpetuated the Yellow Peril ideas with equal zeal. The first Fu Manchu film had come out in 1923, and the next decade would see a surge of popularity for the character. In a couple of years Charlie Chan would become wildly successful in book and film form. In that sense, the stereotypical portrayal of Cham Sheng and his countrymen, while sickening and unjust, doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Setting all the stereotypes aside, Cham Sheng’s character does make a great antagonist for Ahmed. He has Ahmed’s “take what I want” mindset taken to an unrestricted extreme. I’d go so far as to say one could conceivably interpret Cham Sheng as the film’s actual title character. After all, he literally tries to “steal” Baghdad. Furthermore, like the other suitors, he makes his servants do his treasure gathering for him, showing his aversion to doing his own work to gain things legitimately.
The film’s moral, then, applies as much to Cham Sheng as to Ahmed. The latter changes his ways and learns to behave with greater rectitude and work ethic. The former maintains an inveterate aversion to doing anything without scheming or manipulating others into doing the heavy lifting, which proves his downfall.
|Zobeid gets ready to sniff the knockout rose Ahmed gave her out of love.|
Anyway, she spends a large part of the movie somewhere between barely conscious and not at all. Ahmed falls in love with her as she sleeps and tries to knock her out again, using a soporific rose, so he can kidnap her. Cham Sheng has Fount-in-the-Forest poison her later on. Although Tucker & Dale vs. Evil used this as a running gag to hilarious effect, the idea of men trying constantly to render unconscious the woman they love seems more than a little disturbing. Then again, as of this writing, the Steubenville rape case and Rick Ross’ glorification of date rape through song have only just made the news, so maybe that’s affected what I look for here.
In the film’s case, anyway, Ahmed at least reconsiders and stops Zobeid from sniffing the rose. It makes his character a bit more likable… but not enough to offset that he learned a moral lesson such as “don’t render women unconscious and then kidnap them” during the film and not during, say, early childhood.
Overall, I ended up loving The Thief of Bagdad. Mostly, I love the production design. The film boasts opulent sets that look stagey and fake but still internally consistent enough to look genuinely interesting as the characters weave through them.
|This fake Baghdad looks far more magical than I imagine real Baghdad looks at our point in history.|
|The film’s Baghdad bustles in the day as much as it quiesces at night.|
|This “palace” looks an awful lot like a live theater stage.|
|The Hill of Eternal Fire, the Hill of Pride. It looks amazing for a fire cave in a 1924 film.|
|Ahmed finds an undersea kingdom where mermaid women throw themselves at him, but he rebuffs them in favor of oxygen.|
Overall, though, while a lot of the individual shots ran on a few seconds too long, I can’t think of any whole scenes I’d like to see cut. I found the movie very well cast (ignoring that a film about Arabs, Persians, Hindustanis, and Mongols contained none of the above), with good chemistry between Fairbanks and Johnston. Plus, Mathilde Comont cross-dressing for her role as the “Prince” of Persia cracked me up.
|The “Prince” of Persia (right), looking not quite as masculine as her princely colleagues.2|
According to his son, Fairbanks considered this his favorite film of his own. I can see why, as the film shows off his agility and image at the peak of his career.
Fairbanks’s film and Abdullah’s book seem to have a symbiotic relationship. It reminded me of Earl Mac Rauch’s work on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, another case where the book and the movie came about roughly concurrently from the same mind(s). In fact, Abdullah wrote his book in the very pulp style that Rauch would later pay tribute to in his own work: self-indulgently purple prose emphasizing high adventure.
Both this film and the 1940 remake heavily inspired Disney’s version of Aladdin. Aladdin pulls character names and personalities from the latter, while it uses plot elements from the former. In fact, this film and Aladdin have practically the same first act! The Thief of Bagdad also starts the longstanding tradition of Arabian Nights-based films having their main couple take a flying carpet ride off into the empyrean unknown.
|The magic carpet of Isfahan… sans “Just Married” sign.|
|I can't even watch this shot without pressing the jump button in my mind.|
1 The film specifies almost no character names, for simplicity’s sake I’ll use the names given in the book.
2 For some reason, every time I think about this film’s plot, with the princes vying for the princess’ hand in marriage, I get this song stuck in my head.