E1 Entertainment // 1924 // 149 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // February 20th, 2013
Happiness must be earned.
In modern times, movie audiences are very used to large scale fantasies, with massive computer-generated worlds, monsters, and all the explosions our hearts desire. Technology has made this increasingly easy and more complicated, but the results often lack substance and leave me feeling cold. It's not that the cleanly rendered effects of The Avengers don't look cool, and I don't wish to sound like some old man with a "back in my day" kind of rant, but there's something to be said for real sets and practical effects, even if they are sometimes more visible seams than in modern times. Rarely has this been more true than in the original 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, a grand production with crazy effects, many of which are still shockingly effective today, nearly nine decades later, and never has this been more apparent than in this new high-definition remastering from the Cohen Film Collection and presented by E1.
A happy-go-lucky thief (Douglas Fairbanks, The Black Pirate) is going about his business, stealing rings and food, making priests and the rich miserable with his antics, when he hears that the time has come for the Princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnson, Dangerous Virtue) to choose a suitor. He wants to be that choice, so steals some princely attire and sneaks his way into the palace. She's definitely more interested in him than in the other old and fat prospects, but before she decides, she sends the top four candidates on a quest to find the most precious gift they can find. This sends the Thief on a fantastic journey across the world and beyond to attain his love.
Everything about The Thief of Bagdad is gigantic, maybe more so than any other movie ever made. Extravagance in major motion pictures has never been rare, but Douglas Fairbanks took things to a level that hasn't been matched before or since. Thousands of extras, all in intricate and unique costumes, fully articulated sets of mind boggling scale, and special effects that remain convincing to this day, it all amounts to one of the most spectacular fantasies ever made.
Effects style may have changed dramatically in the decades since its release, but one thing that hasn't changed is that, for a film like this to succeed, it needs a charismatic and capable lead. Few have ever had both more than Douglas Fairbanks did. He was the smiling hero in so many iconic roles, but never so much as in The Thief of Bagdad. As the not only the star, but the writer and producer as well, this was his movie and he owned it. His screen presence is unique and always fun and his physique is ridiculous for the time (and he was forty during filming), and he moves with a rare grace.
Given that the sets were built to accommodate his acrobatics, it's no surprise that he's able to do some amazing things within them, but his work is incredible and he delivers much of the humor and excitement in the film. Whether he's bouncing in and out of clay jars, climbing a magic rope, or wooing the princess, he's always a ton of fun. His work on the quest makes up the bulk of the film and he performs perfectly in these action scenes, as well, selling the absurdity of the situation as well as he possible could.
This stuff is the basis of the best effects work, which is really great all around. Sure, there are those who will complain that the dragon looks obviously fake and the underwater scene is silly. Maybe they do on a certain level, but they're not only great for the time, they're very well integrated into the film and totally sell the fantasy. One effect that can't be argued with, though, is the flying carpet scene. Unlike every other flying scene from the era, this isn't some overlay or double exposure. This was an effect that involved a sheet of steel propped by wires and "flown" across the Bagdad set. Done in a single take, it's possibly the greatest effect of early cinema and holds up today as well as any superhero flying in front of a green screen today.
The Thief of Bagdad is the premiere action/adventure film of the silent era and an absolute gem of cinema. Fairbanks is brilliant and his supporting cast does its job brilliantly, though the biggest hand goes out to the production team, who designed a massive and beautiful world for the actors to run around in. I could watch this movie a hundred times and still find things to enjoy; everyone should see this at least once.
The Blu-ray from E1 for The Thief of Bagdad, the first major restoration from the Cohen Film Collection, is a must-own for silent film and fantasy fans. The film has suffered for years from public domain hell, which was rectified by the 2004 Kino release, but this new edition is a big improvement even over that. The 1.32:1/1080p image transfer is brilliant, as perfect as a film of this age could be. There is a bit of emulsion damage that I'm sure couldn't be prevented, but it's otherwise free from any real errors. They've retained the fine grain with more detailed than it's ever had and, while this might worry me in a silent, effects-laden affair, but the detail only serves to show how brilliant the effects work was. The contrast is top-notch, as well, with deep blacks, clean whites, and all the greys in between. The sound is very good, as well, though it comes from a musical score that I don't like very much. The score by Carl Davis, the same one that was on the Kino release, is presented in either 5.1 or 2.0 Master Audio, and both sound very good, with strong dynamic and separation.
The extras aren't as plentiful as I would hope, but what has been included is of good quality. An audio commentary with Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance is quite good, conversational in tone with plenty of valuable information. He details some of the tricks that make the effects work so well, but keeps that to a relative minimum, preferring instead to highlight the work of the stars and the crew who made it all happen on a practical level. The other substantial feature is a seventeen minute group of stills, accompanied by an organ score, that shows the various stages of production, costume, and set design. It's valuable, but not terribly exciting. A trailer highlighting the new restoration closes out the disc.
The Thief of Bagdad is a brilliant film that stands up in the present day as well as any movie from the era. Fairbanks is a star for the ages, the effects still look great, and the production is an absolute sight to behold. With a beautiful restoration, this new Blu-ray is a must-own for silent film fans and a must-see for everybody else.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Silent, Musical Score)
* English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 1924
MPAA Rating: Not Rated