A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 363 – The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – February 26th, 2011

I admit it. I had been kind of dreading this one. Not because I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, but because it is a two and a half hour silent movie. That’s a bit of a challenge, especially when one is in the habit of working on one’s review or idly checking email while watching a movie every night. Two and a half hours. Silent. And I’ve had a cold and been kind of wiped out most evenings. And I admit too that around the middle, during the romancey bits, I got a little drowsy. But I blame the cold, not the movie. Because the movie was lovely. It was absolutely wonderful and lovely and impressed me in ways that I don’t think any modern movie can.

Now, if you’ve read my reviews of some other fantasy epics, like the Lord of the Rings movies (okay, good fantasy epics, not crap fantasy epics) you know I appreciate modern special effects. Okay, even when they’re in otherwise cruddy movies, I appreciate well done special effects. But here’s the thing, that appreciation for special effects is rooted in a theater techie background. I like to see cleverness. I like to see things made magical before my eyes even knowing that it’s a trick. And this movie is full of that. There’s a flying carpet, an underwater scene, armies appearing out of nowhere, magical rope, all sorts of great effects that I know can’t have been easy but still look amazing even a little under ninety years later. That’s fantastic. It makes this movie a joy to watch for someone like myself, who enjoys seeing where some of the things we take for granted now got started.

Effects aside, the story of the movie itself is fun. To be honest, while I felt that some of it ran a little long, it was a tighter story than last night’s, which was a great deal shorter. The difference is in the number of characters you’re supposed to give a damn about. In last night’s version of the story the thief and the prince were two different people, which led to a kind of split in how the movie seemed to want attention paid to it. But tonight we get a swashbuckling thief masquerading as a prince. Best of both worlds! And I’m all for a rogue, especially a rogue who’s so very charming. The thief here, whose name is never really stated (he goes by Prince Ahmed when he’s tricked his way into the palace to court the princess but it’s unclear if that’s his real name since the title cards are fairly scanty – but I’ll get to that), starts out with plenty of mischief. He steals and laughs and runs away in the middle of midday prayers. His introduction is a little long, but it clearly establishes him as a devil-may-care ne’er-do-well. He is the Han Solo of Bagdad but without a blaster.

So once we know the thief we have to meet the princess. Since there isn’t a pesky prince to get in the way you know they’ll end up in love and having to deal with some sort of villain who wants to keep them apart. The villain here is the Prince of the Mongols, a sinister baddie who creeps our heroine right out. Of course he wants to marry the princess and be the heir to Bagdad’s throne and if he can’t get her to marry him willingly then he’ll take the city by force. Our hero sneaks in pretending to be a prince, meets the princess intending to kidnap her and then oh! A change of heart! But then he’s discovered! But then he escapes! And off they go to the next act where the three princess who are courting the princess and our hero all head off on great adventures to find rare treasures to present the princess with. You will have assumed, I hope, that the thief saves the day, but the way he does it is pretty spectacular, with a box of magic dust that lets him create things, like armies, out of thin air. It goes by quickly in comparison to the rest of the movie, but I think I know why.

A lot of what goes on early in the movie is very dependant on the visuals in order to convey the plot and characters. We spend a goodly amount of time just getting to know the thief. But there are some complicated politics going on in the palace and the movie doesn’t really have that many title cards, considering its length. It is the epitome of showing, not telling. But I think the director, screenwriter, etc. all felt that they really had to spend a lot of time on the subtler things. The emotions, the politics. When you see the slave girl with the princess you might not know she’s a spy working for the Prince of the Mongols, but she is. So we’ve got to show that, in detail. You could put up a title card saying how the thief feels about the princess and his change of heart, and I believe they did, but it wouldn’t mean as much without a very carefully put together visual to back it up. It’s just that each one of those careful plot points and characterizations adds to an already very full movie. But then at the end, when we’ve already established the power of the thief’s magic dust, why, it takes no time at all to convey the creation of an army and why that means he wins. Sad, but true, that the presence of an army is assumed to be easier to understand the implications of than a romantic interlude.

Even with the length, however, I think the story holds up very nicely. Really, the whole movie does. I can see the elements of it that were kept and altered for the 1940 version and I can see some tropes and themes that are still in use to this day. And then too, I think it’s an impressive movie for more reasons than the story and the effects. The cast, for one, features Asian actors and people of color. Pretty cool for 1924. Not that it’s flawless in its treatment of various cultures, but it’s nice to see a positive portrayal of Islam on film, you know? And then there are the sets, which are vast and elaborate and gorgeous. And one of my favorite bits: The tinting. Apparently the original print of the movie featured tinting for each scene. Nighttime scenes are blue where daytime is sepia. The scenes in Mongolia are purple and the quests for the magical items show us green, turquoise and red. We’d wondered if it was a thing brought in for the DVD we had, but some digging revealed that no, it seems this is how the movie was presented. It’s a lovely little detail that I think adds a lot to what would otherwise be a black and white film. It adds tone and flavor to the scene without taking away from the scenery.

Overall I was super impressed with this movie. It was long, it was silent but for the musical score added in (using the original cue sheets), but it was fun and for a film lover, it’s a treat for many reasons. It’s certainly not something to put in for a casual afternoon, but if you’ve got the time to pay attention it’s well worth it.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

February 26, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

When my family got our first VCR – probably around Christmas 1983 or 1984 – we had very few movies for it. We had a couple dubbed movies provided by my uncles (chief among them being a copy of The Raiders of the Lost Arc which I watched incessantly) but practically no commercial videocasettes. We did have two classic silent movies though. I don’t know if they came from my dad or from his brothers, but I’m extremely grateful that they were there on Christmas day and I watched them both over and over again. One was Buster Keaton’s fantastic action adventure The General. The other was this outstanding and impressive opus.

I don’t have to tell you that a silent film, especially one that is over two hours long, could be a challenge for an eleven or twelve year old boy in the eighties to watch. The style, visual vocabulary, look and feel of these movies is vastly different from the cinema of today. But I’ve always been a sucker for a great fantasy, and this is a fairy story on a vast scale that even today, almost ninety years after it was made, cannot fail to impress.

What I remembered most about this movie before watching it tonight were the jaw dropping sets and production design. The sheer scale of the streets of Bagdad, the Caliph’s palace, and all the other locations featured here is astonishing. There’s one particular set, the enormous gates of the city, that simply boggles my mind. It’s not just the size of it, which dwarfs the actors, extras, donkeys, horses, camels and elephant that pass through it. It also has such a cool look, with four sliding panels that interlock when closed, that captures my imagination. If it were done today it would be in miniature or digitally, but back in 1924 somebody actually designed and manufactured that enormous gate.

Of course I also remembered Douglas Fairbanks and his exaggerated, almost bizarre acting. That is bizarre when looked at from the perspective of a child in the eighties with no prior exposure to early films. When this movie was made films were very much in their infancy, and the feel of them is not at all what we expect in a movie today. It’s not just the lack of audible dialog and the use of title cards – the entire art form was different. As Amanda and I watched this version tonight, which features an orchestral score, we kept commenting on hoe much ti felt like ballet. It’s the broad acting in pantomime that does it. Combined to an extent with the bold stage make-up. Because the complex visual vocabulary of modern film was still in its infancy here these movies have a much more deliberate, simple, feel to them. Maybe it’s the almost exclusive use of stationary cameras. It ends up giving the impression at times of sitting in an audience watching a stage performance. A very intimate performance where you get to stand right on the stage with the actors and the sets are impossibly huge and, in the case of this movie, with a plethora of clever special effects.

The story is presented in three distinct acts. The first act, by far my favorite, introduces us to the thief as he lives his carefree life on the streets of Bagdad. After pilfering a magic rope he uses it to scale the walls of the palace and falls in love with the princess. On her birthday, when suitors from all across the world gather to vie for her hand in marriage he disguises himself as a prince and infiltrates the palace in the hope of abducting her for himself. At this point he is a cad, a rogue, and completely self centered. He takes what he wants and damn the rest of the world. When he finally comes face to face with the princess however he is shocked to discover that just taking everything he wants doesn’t offer him true happiness. He realizes that he wants to earn the right to be worthy of the love of the princess rather than simply abducting her. At the close of the first act he admits his humble origins to her and allows himself to be captured and exiled.

The second act is a very linear quest. The princess, denied the chance to wed the thief, sends her remaining suitors out to find rare gifts for her father to decide which of them she will wed. Ahmed, the thief, goes to a local imam who sets him on the road to collect the most rare an wonderful gift, but first he must overcome a number of obstacles in his way. This should be the most magical part of the movie, because his adventures take him through a series of legendary and perilous realms. He must contend with a valley of flames, a fire breathing dragon, a tree beast in a sinister glen and a giant bat… any number of fairy tale encounters. It doesn’t quite work for me though. Each encounter is too brief to satisfy and it becomes almost monotonous to watch. The exception is when he goes to sea and dives deep under the ocean to retrieve a magic key. This is one my favorite parts of the movie, with a very cool other-worldly feel to it. It’s also the only episode where it feels like there is some peril and that things tie in to the plot of the rest of the movie as he becomes tempted by some sirens and resists them when he is reminded of the princess.

Ultimately Ahmed gets his magic gift – a box full of sand that makes his every wish come true – and starts back towards the princess. In the mean time one of the suitors, an evil Mongol prince, has not only poisoned the princess (so that he can use his gift – a magic golden apple – to bring her back from death’s door) but when that gambit failed he simply invaded and took over all of Bagdad.

The closing act, which feels extremely rushed in my opinion, involves the thief using the magic dust to re-take the city and save the princess. It doesn’t have any tension or emotional power to it, but it DOES involve some simply stupendous crowd scenes and a cast of thousands as he raises his army from the sand to overthrow the Mongol hordes.

Ultimately I have to admit that the fantasy of this version of the story doesn’t capture me like the 1940 version we watched yesterday. The first half of the film is exuberant and thrilling and filled with amazing sights, but the second half doesn’t gel for me and leaves me wanting more. None of that takes away from the spectacle of the movie though. It’s a film filled with astonishing special effects (for the time that it was made) and with sets and production design that is jaw dropping even by today’s standards. I love Douglas Fairbanks’ performance, and I enjoy visiting the fantasy world he has brought to life here.

After watching this movie this evening I went on Amazon and ordered the “complete” Metropolis. So there’s another classic silent film to look forward to. (I wonder if I will miss the Queen soundtrack from the version available for rent when I was growing up.)

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment