Criterion // 1940 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 19th, 2008
The wonder picture of all time!
Princess: Where do you come from?
Ahmad: From the beginning of Time.
Princess: How long have you been looking for me?
Ahmad: Since the beginning of Time.
Princess: Now that you've found me, how long will you stay?
Ahmad: To the end of Time.
Created by famed producer Alexander Korda, The Thief of Bagdad is one of the most charming and spectacular fantasy films of its era. It begins by introducing us to a powerful prince (John Justin, Untamed) who can hardly be described as a wise ruler. He is a good-hearted man, but he is too easily manipulated by his subversive vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt, Casablanca). Jaffar ultimately betrays the prince and casts him out of Bagdad. The prince then teams up with the scrappy young thief Abu (Sabu, The Jungle Book), and determines to work his way back to power. However, the prince is quickly distracted by a beautiful princess (June Duprez) and adjusts his plans to accommodate his libido. He doesn't yet know that Jaffar has his own feelings for the princess. What follows is a grand and ambitious fantasy adventure, full of genies, magical flowers, flying horses, murderous statues, giant spiders, and flying carpets!
When writing a review of The Thief of Bagdad, one is tempted to approach the movie from a political perspective. In the modern day and age, one of the most immediately striking things about the film is the odd and diverse casting in each of the key roles. A white actor from Great Britain (Justin) plays the prince. A young actor from India (Sabu) plays the thief. An actor from Germany (Veidt) plays Jaffar. An African-American actor (Rex Ingram, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) plays the genie. Does the fact that a German plays the villain have any relation to WWII? Is it appropriate for a white actor to be playing an Arabian hero? Does the fact that an African-American actor plays the genie who yearns for freedom indicate an intentional statement about slavery? These are all valid questions that could generate some interesting discussion. However, I'd prefer not to focus on them. That's because The Thief of Bagdad works so well as an innocent fantasy, it would be a shame to weigh it down with political baggage.
The key word I would use to describe the film is "innocence." It is sweetly naïve in a way, encouraging viewers to dream of the fantastic and the impossible. It bears a certain thematic resemblance to Peter Pan in the way it centers on characters who don't want to let go of childhood. It asks adult audience members to put aside their doubt and cynicism and embrace the delightfully impossible tale of fantasy. Director Martin Scorsese wisely makes the note that the film is "childlike, but not childish." The spirit of the film is best captured by the title character, the young thief Abu.
Abu's delightful and infectious personality is brought to life by Sabu, who was a wonderfully gifted young actor with a natural charisma. Films of the 1940s didn't often look kindly on young rebels, but Abu's endlessly inventive knack for stealing things and finding new ways to have fun are not only accepted, but celebrated. The film has won the hearts of many children, and it's not hard to see why. What child wouldn't love Abu's closing line? "You got what you wanted...now I'm going to get what I want: some fun and adventure!" The film may introduce the prince as the hero, but it quickly becomes obvious that the film belongs to Abu. He is not a child sidekick, not even an equal to the prince. He surpasses his co-stars, and commands the screen in every scene he appears in.
However, there are other fine performances as well. Conrad Veidt is tremendous as the villainous Jaffar, filling his eyes with blazing intensity in a series of memorable camera shots. He is quite intimidating and creepy at times, and yet he also has a sympathetic side. He becomes pathetically helpless when trying to win the heart of the princess. He can defeat almost any enemy, but he can't use his strength or power to buy love. It's touching in a way, and brings unexpected dimension to the character. I also loved the small supporting performance of Miles Malleson (Kind Hearts and Coronets) as the toy-collecting Sultan. He is simultaneously funny and creepy, bringing a loopy eccentricity to each of his scenes.
The most acclaimed elements of the film have little to do with the actors or the story, though. The film is widely regarded as a technical masterpiece of its time, and the groundbreaking special effects are still delightful today. In the modern era, we've been spoiled by ultra-realistic CGI, but somehow it's still more fun to see a rather fake-looking (but obviously hand-crafted) special effect. The set and costume designs are superb and represent the kind of grand professionalism that Alexander Korda brought to so many of his films. There are three credited directors (Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, and the great Michael Powell) and several more uncredited directors, but Korda's guiding influence provides stability to the film. Elsewhere on the technical side, George Perinal's gorgeous cinematography and Miklos Rozsa's lush, adventurous score are flawless.
The score sounds pretty solid, and the mono sound is about as good as you might expect for a film this old. However, the DVD really sparkles in the visual department. Criterion has once again done an amazing job of cleaning up the film; it looks great for the most part. The film is almost entirely free of scratches, though there is some notable grain from time to time. Occasionally, a few images will seem a little bit too soft. However, the transfer is mostly as vibrant and lush as it deserves to be. Recently, Criterion announced that they will soon be releasing certain titles in high definition. This was not one of the titles announced; I assume such a move might have hurt initial sales of the DVD. However, this film would look stunning in hi-def, so let's hope that Criterion gives it an upgrade to Blu-ray in the future.
The Criterion Collection always does a terrific job in terms of special features, but The Thief of Bagdad is remarkable even by their standards. The crown jewel of the extras is a commentary from famed directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It lives up to the expectations you might have for such a commentary. The two are unfortunately not together during the track (we cut very smoothly between one and the other throughout the film), but they are both a joy to listen to. Scorsese takes a fairly analytical approach, offering thoughts on why he admires the cinematic achievements of particular sequences. Once again, Scorsese demonstrates his tremendous knowledge of cinema history; film buffs will love his contribution here. However, I think the track is made genuinely special by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola doesn't offer a critical examination of the movie; instead he simply provides a heartfelt love letter to it. It's obvious that this film is very special to Coppola, who has never sounded more joyous and delighted to be discussing a film than he does here. He becomes so excited at times that he will begin singing along with Rozsa's score, or singing Abu's "I Want to Be a Sailor" song. It's wonderful to hear a director so unashamedly in love with a film. Anyway, Coppola and Scorsese join forces to combine a well-balanced tribute to the film. This is a must-hear track.
It's going to be hard for anyone to live up to what Coppola and Scorsese provide, but film and music historian Bruce Eder also provides a track strong enough to merit must-hear status. It's a more focused, fact-filled, professional commentary that offers tons of information on every aspect of the film. As music is one of Eder's areas of expertise, he focuses on Rozsa's terrific score a lot more than other film historians or critics might, which will be a delight to those such as myself who have a great deal of interest in film scoring. However, this is an essential track for anyone, there's a lot of excellent stuff on so many facets of the film. Eder doesn't pause from start to finish, packing in tons of information in 106 minutes. Wrapping up the features on the first disc are a theatrical trailer and an isolated music-and-effects track. I personally really enjoyed the latter, as it gives you an opportunity to really appreciate what Rozsa does with his score.
But wait, there's still a whole lot more! Disc Two is highlighted by Alexander Korda's 75-minute English propaganda film, The Lion Has Wings. It's surprisingly engaging and effective, a film that represents one of the more impressive propaganda efforts of WWII. There's also a half-hour documentary that discusses the special effects of The Thief of Bagdad, which features insightful comments from special-effects legends Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron. It's quite good, and offers some interesting information on how certain effects were created. A couple of audio-only extras are also exceptional. There's a 1976 interview with composer Miklos Rozsa, who offers some splendid thoughts on his life, his career, Korda, and The Thief of Bagdad. The story of how Rozsa actually managed to get the scoring assignment for The Thief of Bagdad is nothing short is side-splitting, making this an essential listen. We also get some audio excerpts from director Michael Powell's autobiography (read by Powell). Some good stuff is included, but sadly the audio quality is pretty terrible at times, making it a little tricky to make out everything Powell is saying. Finally, a good stills gallery is included, wrapping up a perfect set of supplements. Bravo to producer Karen Stetler and everyone else involved in the making of this package.
The film doesn't have many flaws, but a couple are worth noting. First of all, the fact that the film was directed by multiple individuals shows at times. Though Korda holds everything together visually, the tone shifts slightly at times in a manner that seems unnatural. Additionally, the performance of John Justin as the prince is a bit underwhelming. He's good during the romantic scenes, but unconvincing as a hero.
I hadn't seen The Thief of Bagdad before, and I'm so glad that I've finally discovered it. This is an enchanting movie, one that viewers of all ages are going to love. The superb transfer and the truly remarkable supplemental material qualify this as one of the finest DVD releases of the year. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola
* Commentary with film and music historian Bruce Eder
* Optional music and effects track
* "Visual Effects" documentary
* The Lion Has Wings propaganda film
* Excerpts from Michael Powell's audio dictations for his autobiography
* Excerpt from a 1976 radio interview with composer Miklos Rozsa
* Stills Gallery
* Booklet featuring essays by Andrew Moor and Ian Christie