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 | , ,

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