A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.)

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February 26, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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