It should be no secret by now that I’m a great lover of kitsch, of art that’s been made to look ridiculous by the passage of time, limited resources, or some combination of the two; or, if I may defer to the definition of the related concept of camp preferred by one its great appreciators, the tragically ludicrous and ludicrously tragic. But that’s not all it has to offer. For whatever reason, my grandparents still have my dad’s childhood Viewmaster reels. Looking through them, I was able to appreciate their tackiness from the ironic distance all kitsch-lovers know well. I was even able to appreciate the craftsmanship of the intricate miniatures in these elaborate dioramas, even if their lack of intricacy was sometimes painfully obvious. But the real thrill came when I occasionally stumbled across an image with the primal, magical power to wipe the smirk off my face.
The Thief of Bagdad (not “Baghdad”—maybe the thief stole the H) might be the perfect expression of transcendent kitsch. For every moment of hammy acting and every fakey special effect, there’s another where the magic onscreen becomes deeply, powerfully real. The spider who lives inside the statue of the goddess is so chintzy it would barely rate on Jenny Nicholson’s spider reviews, and its web is obviously made of ordinary rope. But the statue itself is such a monumental, cavernous space it can still make your blood run cold. Sometimes, these opposite extremes are one and the same. Is the dialogue poetry or camp? Or is it one because of the other? Sure, it’s purple, overwrought, and full of clichés—but then, so is Homer, and so is the King James Bible. The film’s eye-popping gorgeousness is in no small part because, not in spite of, its datedness. It’s shot in the early three-strip Technicolor process, which had not yet been developed far enough to reproduce colors accurately. This made it poorly suited for realistic dramas, but filmmakers used it to create vivid fantasies, the colors far more vibrant than life. Even the glitches only enhance the image, as flares make water and metal glow ruby-red.
The Thief of Bagdad is one of the most spectacular of the great Hungarian-British producer Alexander Korda’s many spectaculars, one of which we’ve covered before. It was his first in Technicolor, not that you’d know it from how brilliantly the process is used. Like across-the-pond epics like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, The Thief of Bagdad was too massive an undertaking for any one filmmaker. But Bagdad had the advantage of at least one of the all-time greats in its roster in the person of Michael Powell, who would prove in later films like Peeping Tom and The Red Shoes that he knew a thing or two about color.
The story opens with the blind beggar Ahmad being summoned to the palace of the Sultan Jaffar, as played by Conrad Veidt, the sleepwalker from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, now on the giving end of a hypnotic stare. Like one of the stories from The Thousand and One Nights it draws from so liberally, Ahmad tells us a story within a story. And like many of the Nights’ heroes, it’s one that has taken him across the whole spectrum of life, from prince to beggar and eventually, prince again. He had once been the sultan of Bagdad, until Jaffar suggested he go among his people and took that excuse to have him arrested as an impostor. In jail, he meets Abu, the titular thief. He’s played by Sabu, the film’s real star and, at the time, the Korda studio’s biggest draw. (They collaborated on, among other things, a nearly as magical adaptation of The Jungle Book.) Together, they escape to Basrah, where Ahmad becomes the first living man to see the princess. He immediately falls in love and vows to marry her; unfortunately, Jaffar has similar plans, and he blinds Ahmad and turns Abu into a dog. From there, the plot branches off into a series of adventures with the loosely improvisational structure of kids waving sticks around as swords and flying off on a magic carpet played by mom’s bathmat. When Abu and Ahmad are shipwrecked and separated, Abu has a genie take him all the way to the Roof of the World so he can steal a magical all-seeing eye to find Ahmad instead of just searching the beach. But then, since Abu finally finds Ahmad somewhere in the Grand Canyon, maybe the trip was worth taking after all. Later, when Abu destroys the eye, he’s transported to the “Land of Legend,” with no explanation but pure dream logic.
If this story sounds familiar, it may be because it heavily influenced the current generation’s definitive Arabian Nights fantasy, Disney’s Aladdin. The films’ mutual villain, Jaffar was actually a historical character, vizier to the legendary Haroun al-Rashid, as well as a decidedly non-villainous one in The Thousand and One Nights. But Disney followed Bagdad’s lead in reimagining him as a backstabber and an evil sorcerer. Disney’s childlike Sultan appears here too as the ruler of Basrah, though Bagdad is far more grimly realistic about the power he holds: he compares his subjects unfavorably to his incredible collection of wind-up toys, saying, “I have only to wind a key or press a spring, and they do the same thing every time, and exactly what I want. And so often my subjects fail to do exactly what I want, and then I have to have their heads cut off.” Aladdin himself owes more to Sabu’s thief than his literary ancestor, who wasn’t a “street rat” but a layabout in the house of his still-living parents.
But Bagdad is, if anything, even more wondrous than its animated successor. Yes, some images have aged badly; besides that ridiculous spider, there’s also some early attempts to use a blue-screen technology that obviously hasn’t had all the bugs worked out yet, with blue schmutz clinging to the flying horse and between the fringes of the flying carpet. One shot of the six-armed Silver Maid clearly shows her extra arms coming out of the back of her chair where the stunt players were hiding. And that’s not even getting into the genie’s flight scenes, where Rex Ingram is often replaced by a tiny, stiff, plastic doll.
But others are truly transcendent, especially the stunning matte painting of long-lost fantasy realms, cities gleaming in pastel pink or blue. Unusually for the time (The Wizard of Oz never once left the studio, even for the “real-world” scenes), some of these locations are even real, and the filmmakers make the most of them to dwarf their stars in the vastness of nature. There’s miniatures too, and if the ship Jaffar uses to spirit the princess away is obviously a toy boat in a tank full of tap water, it’s still hard to believe it. The water seems to stretch on into infinity anyway, and if the waves are out of all proportion, that seems fitting for such a larger-than-life story. And some of the best effects are even simpler than that, with Jaffar’s magic represented by shots of Conrad Veidt, his arms outstretched, his eyes bulging demonically, casting huge shadows behind him. A shadow falls over Ahmad’s face, and we believe he’s gone blind.
For all its greatness, it’s still hard to deny The Thief of Bagdad is what it is: an Orientalist fantasy, a projection the British Empire invented of the Muslim world it had enslaved so much of rather than engaging with the reality. The Indian Sabu is the closest thing to an authentic Middle Easterner in the main cast. And it only gets worse the further East the film looks for inspiration, with sacred Hindu imagery thrown in willy-nilly to create the Silver Maid or the goddess whose eye Abu steals.
The film’s relationship with blackness is at least as worrying as its relationship with brownness. There are plenty of black bodies here, but they’re all subservient, or menacing, or, in the case of Rex Ingram’s genie, both. It’s easy to imagine the American star finding extra resonance in dialogue like, “Slaves are not grateful. Not for their freedom!” and “I swore revenge on all that lived and were free.” It’s a memorable performance, despite Ingram’s frequently flat deliveries and inconsistent attempt at an English accent: a jolly, lovable character with a frequent undercurrent of cruelty, happily serving Abu and plotting against him at the same time. And he gets one of the most archetypically powerful moments in the whole film as he crouches over Abu and Ahmad in a meticulously sculpted miniature canyon. As he laughs, the earth literally shakes.
It’s not so surprising that a big-budget fantasy spectacular like this could inspire wonder. But it’s doubly transcendent in the way it provokes other, subtler emotions too. In their commentary for the Criterion edition, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese note how it captures the dark undercurrent of the most enduring fairy tales, and scenes like the Silver Maid’s assassination of the Sultan are deeply disturbing. And like any great fairy tale, The Thief of Bagdad knows the “happily ever after” only means anything if we go through the depths of despair to get there. Through the all-seeing eye, Ahmad discovers Jaffar no longer wants to let a little thing like the princess’ wishes keep them apart, and coerces her into marrying him with the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness. This leads to a scene that’s too often become a cheap shortcut to emotional depth in the years since, but stings with real pain here as Ahmad takes his frustration out on Abu. “I wish I were back in Bagdad,” Ahmad says, and when Abu thoughtlessly shouts back, “I wish you were!” he vanishes. Freed from his obligation, the genie does the same, leaving Abu stranded in the desert. Watching helplessly as Ahmad and the princess are condemned to death he screams “If I can’t help, I don’t want to see!” and smashes the eye. In an earlier, quieter, but no less devastating scene, the princess returns to the garden where she first met Ahmad. In her absence, the lush beds of multicolored flowers have died out, and the reflective pool where she first saw his face has turned into a dull swamp.
The king of the Land of Legend makes text the subtext of every story about the lost Golden Age when he says it ended because men “ceased to be children and to believe in the beauty of the impossible.” The Thief of Bagdad’s greatest strength is that, for two hours, it makes viewers children again, and makes the impossible truly beautiful.
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The Thief of Bagdad is streaming on the Criterion Channel, including the Scorsese/Coppola commentary and interviews with Michael Powell and Ray Harryhausen.