Race/Ethnicity in The Thief of Bagdad
As an Arabian Nights film, one can conclude that most of the actors play Arabs. As I’ve long since learned to abide as an Arab film buff, the cast boasts not one actual Arab in a credited role. As with the 1922 film, the princess character—played by fair-skinned American-British actress June Duprez—doesn’t look Arab in the slightest. The filmmakers seemed to think tapering her eyebrows would remedy that.
|In fairness, the pointy eyebrows do bring out the princess’ noblesse ennui.|
|I just spontaneously realized where Star Trek: TOS got the idea for the Klingons.|
|He sentences them to die at sunrise, making him not only a brutal executioner, but worse, a morning person.|
|Four years later, this boyish thief would end up in the ball turret of an American B-24 Liberator over the Pacific Ocean.|
|Also, a parade sans audience seems like the one thing in the world more boring than an ordinary parade.|
|No offense to people who like doing this sort of thing consensually. Do what makes you happy.|
Plot-wise, the film bears almost no resemblance to its 1922 predecessor or Abdullah’s book. The title almost seems like a placeholder or a callback to the earlier film, since stylistically, thematically, and plot-wise, the two films share only a few ideas.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole suffers from extremely awkward pacing. The screenplay splits the novel’s protagonist Ahmed into two separate characters. There seems to exist constant confusion as to how to handle them; each spends a large amount of time absent from the film. A frame story consisting of Ahmad’s ruminations comprises over 40% of the film, with Abu’s almost freestanding adventure taking up most of the remaining film. The arcs of both characters resolve in a way that relies heavily on coincidence, ultimately to the detriment of the story.
Haughty, infamously-disorganized producer Alexander Korda went through six directors to make this film—including his brother Zoltan and himself. The inconsistent direction, exacerbated by a discursive screenplay, suffuses the entire film. We see radical tonal shifts at least three times and probably more. The running time weighs in at 106 minutes, but since the film feels like several mutually-divergent films awkwardly shoehorned together like centuries of layered ruins in a tell, those 106 minutes eventually feel surprisingly wearisome.
Despite a laudable effort by effects supervisor Lawrence W. Butler, age has made the film’s artificiality pop right out. The matte work still looks uniformly amazing, but the chroma-keying and the use of miniatures and puppets look patently, distractingly obvious in higher resolutions. But then, chroma-keying as a big-budget special effect really debuted here, and all technology has to start somewhere.
|I wish I could focus on the sultan riding a flying horse over Basra and not on the blue haze that surrounds him.|
|If you see the folds on Rex Ingram’s bald cap or Sabu’s bluish aura, then congratulations. Now you’ll never not see them!|
|Jaffar puts his hands in the blinding position and utters a magical imprecation.|
|A slowly-descending shadow over Ahmad’s eyes says everything.|
Sultan: It tells the time. See how it works? Sheer magic, isn’t it?
Jaffar: I hope this dangerous device will never be allowed into the hands of the people.
Jaffar: Yes. If people once begin to know the time, they will no longer call you the King of Time. They will want to know how time is spent.
Sultan: Oh, you’re right. The people must never know.
|As someone who often works long hours, I think Jaffar has a point.|
Why I Still Really Liked It
In spite of this film’s flaws, it still has one big factor in its favor: heart. The Thief of Bagdad has an overabundance of heart. We get a multifarious and memorable, if sometimes oddly-paced, blend of adventure and romance. The lovable protagonists and Veidt’s scenery-chewing villain buttress the entire film. Roger Ebert famously compared this film to The Wizard of Oz, and I can absolutely see that. Even in its flaws and tonal shifts, the film remains fun to watch.
|Rex Ingram enjoys himself so much that one can scarcely help enjoying watching him.|
|The town even looks like something out of a storybook!|
|Despite all the red, it really doesn’t look all that hot… unlike the real Basra, one of the hottest cities in the world.|
Like The Wizard of Oz, the film proves more than capable of getting creepy when it wants to as well. Abu’s quest to help his friend requires him to brave all sorts of increasingly strange and unsettling locales, like the very creepy statue of the Goddess of Light. A scene that I won’t forget anytime soon features one of Jaffar’s “toys,” a six-armed mannequin known as the “Silver Maid” (played by Mary Morris, who also played Jaffar’s beguiling minion Halima). The Silver Maid only appears this once, but her mechanical mannerisms and almost verglas-like skin leave quite the lasting impression.
|I just know Art Adams got the idea for Spiral from this.|
So thank The Thief of Bagdad the next time you get that “Prince Ali” song stuck in your head!
1 Although the sultan’s toy collection obviously consists of devices varying from anachronistic to impossible, the real-life progress on clocks by this point in history may surprise you. An 11th century Spanish Muslim engineer named Alī ibn-Khalaf al-Murādī (علي بن خلف المرادي) actually wrote a book (كتاب الأسرار في نتائج الأفكار) on contemporary technological developments that included information about mechanical clocks.