Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I have to admit that even in this blog’s as-yet short life, I’ve had a lot of fun with it. Turban Decay has given me an excuse to find something to discuss within most of my favorite film genres. Today, we take a look at a bygone, fondly-remembered one: swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks adventures!

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?!
Douglas Fairbanks does an excellent job having his character learn that very lesson. Fairbanks makes the film as protagonist Ahmed el-Bagdadi, who spends the course of the film learning to work for what he wants. Along the way, Fairbanks’ signature devil-may-care personality, sangfroid, and swashbuckling agility never abate.

Look how happy Douglas Fairbanks looks just to have a camera pointed at him!
The film shows Fairbanks as every bit the old-time action hero, both in his character’s physical prowess (Fairbanks did the vast majority of his own stunts) and lateral thinking ability. Just look at this scene where he makes a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg, and a donkey… all so he can get up to a balcony to steal some food.

MacGyver, Roberta Williams, eat your hearts out.
This film also has possibly Hollywood’s best depiction Islam I’ve ever seen. We see a respectful portrayal of the religion that stops short of proselytizing at the audience. For instance, early in the film we see a call to zuhr (ظهر) prayer. The film depicts the prayer neutrally—albeit inaccurately—without making a moral judgment thereon.

In the film, this looks like the US Army’s PT test with prostrations instead of situps.
I loved Charles Belcher’s character, an extremely magnanimous imam. Ahmed loudly disrupts a service and mocks and denounces Islam and Allah to his face, and the holy man still holds back the other worshipers and smiles on the interloper. Even though the scene took place in a mosque with fake Arabic on the walls… considering how many non-Muslims now call Islam a religion of peace ironically, words cannot describe how gratifying it feels to see the religion depicted with actual peacefulness.

Charles Belcher did a better job 89 years ago than I’ve seen anyone do in years.
In the second act, this holy man plays a Friar Laurence sort of role, acting as catalyst for Ahmed’s transformation and intermediary between Ahmed and Zobeid. The imam encourages Ahmed to work for what he wants and he then provides the first clue for Ahmed’s long journey.


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.
Point of fact, the legendary Anna May Wong plays a character who makes for a subtle criticism of slavery. Wong plays Fount-in-the-Forest, a Mongol slave who serves the female love interest, Princess Zobeid. Fount-in-the-Forest hates her station in life so much that she conspires with the enemy. The film and book portray her as an antagonist through and through, but we also get the sense—especially in the book—that her secret antipathy for her mistress has its roots in valid feelings of indignation.

I really can’t tell whether or not Wong’s conniving glance breaks the fourth wall.
We see another subtly negative depiction of slavery in the three princes who vie for Zobeid’s hand. When Zobeid challenges her suitors to fetch her a rare treasure, all three sit back in smug triumphalism and force slaves and servants to do the hard work for them.

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.
Ahmed, by contrast, does his treasure hunting personally and, as in any good love story, fetches the treasure that actually does win Zobeid’s heart and hand in marriage.

The Heavy

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!
Cham Sheng also has Fu Manchu’s Machiavellian modus operandi. As an admirer of his ancestor Genghis Khan, he plots to marry Princess Zobeid as a stepping stone to conquering Baghdad.

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.
One must also take into account the contemporaneous, widespread, shameful negative attitudes about immigration—even legal immigration—of East Asians. The previous year, SCOTUS denied citizenship to an Indian Sikh because, despite his Caucasian lineage, the court didn’t consider him white in the “popular” sense, a verdict which extended to all East Asians (and led to revocation of existing citizenship for some). Two months after this film came out, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which lowered immigration quotas for the express purpose of curtailing influx of East Asian, Jewish, and Middle Eastern immigrants.

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.

The Princess

Zobeid gets ready to sniff the knockout rose Ahmed gave her out of love.
Julanne Johnston plays Princess Zobeid, the female lead. She spends the movie looking gorgeous in a long succession of refulgent gowns and diaphanous veils… even if she doesn’t look Arab in the slightest.

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.

The Rest

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.
The interiors all have a certain minimalism that reminds me a lot of the last season of the Adam West Batman series. The sets contain just enough detail to work, but since the whole movie looks like that, it all feels “right.”

This “palace” looks an awful lot like a live theater stage.
Even the more fantastical locations in the second half look striking and yet consistent with the film’s world.

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.
This film does have one big flaw: its length. I don't know how it felt in 1924, but its hefty 2-hour running time feels very, very long now, especially for such a simple story. That the film has very awkward pacing doesn’t help (the book does too). In fairness, though, film-making obviously had yet to become anything resembling a science by that point.

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.
The film also reminds me of Super Mario Bros. 2 (or as the nerdier among my readers probably call it, Doki Doki Panic) of all things. I really think that game took a page or two from this film in the Arabian-inspired visual designs. Or maybe I just think that because of Fairbanks’ side-on pot-jumping scene.

I can't even watch this shot without pressing the jump button in my mind.
Anyway, I found this a wonderful film that displays both the imagination of the silent era and what folk tales look like when successfully brought to life. If you want to watch the film yourself (and you should), you can watch the whole thing on the Internet Archive for free!

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.


  1. Weirdly enough, I just watched it a few weeks ago myself. Very lovely film that shows how accomplished special effects and design were by the mid-20's. The flying carpet at the end still looks pretty impressive.

    Love your comments. Thanks for sharing!*

    * - except the Spin Doctors song, dude. Seriously.

  2. You're too kind, amigo! I'm with you; I actually thought the flying effects in this film look better than in the 1940 version!

    Also, sorry about the Spin Doctors song. I tried so hard to fight it, but that earworm just hooked on and, well, misery loves company!

  3. Jordan, very glad I found your review and got your impressions.