Spectacle of the highest order!
By the late 1930s, Alexander Korda had already fashioned a lengthy and productive career in film. During a somewhat peripatetic existence that took him from his native Hungary (where he was born in the early 1890s) to Austria, Germany, the United States, France, and Britain, he had already directed almost five dozen films and acted as producer on over 40 more. After being ousted as executive in charge of Britain’s Denham Studios, he formed a new company in 1939, Alexander Korda Productions, under which he planned a number of large-scale productions. The first of these would be The Thief of Bagdad.
Korda had been very impressed with Douglas Fairbanks’ silent production of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), but for his version, Korda planned a much more sumptuous-looking experience that would really capture the imagination and fantasy of the original tales. Korda apparently spared no expense to achieve the scope and look he had in mind. Filming was done in Technicolor and production took almost a year and a half for completion. No less than six directors were involved — Ludwig Berger, whom Korda first hired and then found he could not get along with; Tim Whelan, who was hired to handle some of the action scenes; Michael Powell, who directed the genie sequences among others; and William Cameron Menzies, Zoltan Korda, and Alexander himself, who all were involved after the production had to be completed in the United States when World War II broke out.
When released in 1940, The Thief of Bagdad was highly praised for its colour and marvelous special effects. It would go on to receive three Academy Awards, for Art Direction, Colour Cinematography, and Special Effects. Previously available on both VHS and laserdisc, MGM has now released the film on DVD.
Prince Ahmad wants to become closer to his people and his chief advisor, Jaffar, seizes on this desire to oust the Prince from power. Reduced to living on the streets of Bagdad, Ahmad gains the help of a young vagabond named Abu. Their initial efforts to regain Ahmad’s rightful place, however, are complicated by Ahmad’s love for the daughter of the Sultan of Bazra, a beautiful princess that Jaffar also has designs on. Their interference ends up with Jaffar casting a spell upon them that renders Ahmad blind and turns Abu into a dog. Hampered by such reduced status, the pair start out once again to overcome Jaffar, this time with the aid of a genie and a magic carpet.
The “Arabian Nights” tales have been the source and inspiration for numerous films, ranging from Ernst Lubitsch’s silent One Arabian Night (1921), to Ray Harryhausen’s three Sinbad films between 1958 and 1974, to a recent Hallmark production, Arabian Nights (2000) and the forthcoming DreamWorks animated film, Sinbad — Legend of the Seven Seas (2003). Crucial in making any of these films really successful at capturing the flavour of the original tales is delivering a sense of wonder and doing it with flair, lots of bright colour (beautifully used by cinematographer Georges Perinal), and just a hint of wit. Konda’s 1940 The Thief of Bagdad certainly delivers in all these ways.
The story is a fine amalgam of fairy tale, action, magic spells, colourful sights and sounds, a plucky but sometimes reluctant young hero, a beautiful princess, a delightful villain, wondrous creatures, a giant genie, and even a flying carpet. Special effects camera shots of virtually every kind known at the time of filming were used to unite the imaginative aspects of the story and its locations (even the Grand Canyon was used, after Korda had to move the production to the United States) with the human characters. This included matte paintings, traveling mattes, rear projection, model work, and so on. All this may not be quite as seamless as some current effects work can be, but it was definitely state-of-the-art for the time and seems somehow appropriate for the sort of larger-than-life fairy tale that is being told. People often refer to the scenes of Abu with the genie as among the film’s highlights, but for sheer artistry, the scenes of Bagdad with what appear to be stunning painted matte backdrops of the distant mountains are hard to beat.
One of the reasons that Korda’s film did not follow the story of the earlier Fairbanks version was Korda’s desire to exploit the popularity of two of his biggest stars, Conrad Veidt and Sabu. Veidt, who had fled Nazi Germany in the early 1930s, had been active in French and British film thereafter and had just completed The Spy in Black for Korda. In The Thief of Bagdad, he played Jaffar with obvious relish, conveying ample menace without making the part a complete caricature. Sabu was 16 at the time of filming and had had recent success with Elephant Boy (1937) and The Drum (1938). His portrayal of the young Abu is infectiously enthusiastic and he adds just enough of a mischievous spirit to make us go along with all the wondrous events and people that cross his path. John Justin and June Duprez as the romantic leads are earnest and benefit particularly from a welcome lack of sappy exchanges amongst the dialogue that Miles Malleson contributed to the fine script. Memorable secondary characters are played by the same Malleson (the Sultan of Basra) and by Rex Ingram (the genie).
MGM’s DVD release is gorgeous looking indeed, and is a noticeable improvement on what was a fine Pioneer Special Edition laserdisc. The source material is presumably the same for both — a restored version of the original three-strip Technicolor elements carried out by the British Film Institute in the early 1990s. Colours are strikingly bright and clean with no edge enhancement of the image to detract from the film-like look. There are a few brief instances of loss of focus, presumably attributable to uneven shrinkage in the original three strip separations, but these do not detract in any significant way from the pleasure of experiencing the disc.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono provides a satisfactory audio experience, although it is subject to some age-related hiss. The results are, again, an improvement over the laserdisc, however. Miklos Rozsa’s impressive score is, of course, not as lush-sounding as a more contemporary mix, but is well-enough reproduced to reveal why its beautiful melodies and heroic flights are considered such a significant contributor to the film’s success. A Spanish mono track is provided as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The only supplement is the film’s original theatrical trailer.
The Thief of Bagdad is certainly one of the grandest fantasy entertainments committed to film. It manages to fulfill all one’s expectations of a fairy tale brought to life with colourful images, evocative sounds, and imaginative special effects. All this is very nicely captured by MGM’s new DVD release, which is a definite improvement on all previously available VHS and laserdisc versions. Recommended.