The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

reviewed by
David M. Arnold

Thief of Bagdad, The (1924)
Directed by Raoul Walsh.  Starring Douglas Fairbanks.

It's official. "The Thief of Bagdad" is my favorite silent film, edging out "Metropolis". A lush and visually stunning film, "Thief of Bagdad" represents the pinnacle of silent Hollywood production values. It is "Titanic" of 1924, reportedly the first film ever to cost more than $2 million to produce, and it is full of (then) state-of-the-art special effects. "Thief of Bagdad" was recently, and deservedly, added to the National Registry of Historic Films.

Black-and-white silent films were more often than not neither black-and-white nor silent. By the '20's, the majority of films employed color, primarily through tinting (coloring the film base), but also by toning (replacing the black silver oxide with a colored material), stenciling and even hand-painting.

It's hard for me to describe how much of an impact seeing a film with authentic tinting and toning makes. For example, night scenes often were photographed in broad daylight with the intent of employing a deep blue tint on the final print. The tinted filmstock makes the difference between a night scene looking ridiculous and being believable.

In major cities, top theatres employed live orchestras and sound effects to accompany films. Theatres were often equipped with theatre pipe organs: Massive and complex, these organs permitted a single organist to be nearly a one-man orchestra. They featured many different voices and electrically activated sound effects, all summoned up from the keyboard. By 1924 the silent movie had reached its peak of development. Within 10 years the optical soundtrack would be fully developed and very few silent films would ever be made again.

Viewing the authoritative print of "Thief of Bagdad" from the Killiam Collection on a big screen captures some of the original silent film experience. The Killiam print includes a soundtrack of an organ score performed by Lee Erwin, and is reproduced with restored tints to deliver that dimension of color the original audiences enjoyed. The Killiam print recently has been released on VHS tape by Critic's Choice Video, although the mastering leaves much to be desired. However, the same print was used to master the much better looking and sounding Republic laserdisc, which is now out of print but still fairly widely available.

The first title card in "Thief of Bagdad" describes the film as an "Arabian Nights Fantasy". Douglas Fairbanks (Sr) plays the thief Ahmed in an ancient Bagdad that is much more fantasy than reality. Ahmed is a loveable rogue who lives by one rule: what he wants he takes. He steals a magic rope that permits him to scale the walls in an attempt to burglarize the palace; there, he spots the royal princess (Julanne Johnston) and falls in love.

The next day is the princess's birthday, and the day that she is to choose her suitor. Ahmed impersonates a prince and joins princes from Persia (Mathilde Comont, a woman playing a man's role), from India (Noble Johnson), and from Mongolia (So-Jin) as they present themselves to the royal family. Of course the princess chooses Ahmed, but a slave girl (Anna May Wong), who is actually a spy in the service of the Mongol prince, reveals him to be a common thief. Ahmed is scourged and sent into the streets. Rather than choose from the other three princes, the princess demands that they spend the next seven moons seeking out the rarest treasure, and the prince who returns with the greatest and rarest treasure will have her as a bride.

Ahmed seeks advice from a Holy Man (Charles Belcher), who teaches him that "Happiness must be earned", and that he has it within his own power to make himself a prince. He then tells the reformed thief of a hermit in the mountains with knowledge of great treasure. But, there is great danger and Ahmed must cross a valley of fire, slay a dragon, resist the temptations of sea nymphs, capture a flying horse and return to his love before the Mongol prince's treachery is complete.

"Thief of Bagdad" treats Islam and the Koran with a charming naivety, fondness, and a respectful objectivity that is refreshing in today's light of recent events in the Middle East. But, the portrayal of ancient Arabia is most decidedly a fantasy, the setting for a film that deliberately makes no attempt at authenticity.

Though the pace of the film is slow and deliberate, and runs for nearly 2 1/2 hours, it succeeds in keeping the viewer's attention for its full span, and the unrushed pace adds to the dreamlike fantasy of the story. Unlike "Metropolis", the film is more or less intact with original title cards, and can be viewed in the form its creators had intended.

Although directed by Raoul Walsh, there is no question that this is Douglas Fairbanks's film: He was the writer (under pseudonym Elton Thomas), producer, and star. Fairbanks was a fine athlete who performed most of his own stunts. Early on he performs a number of clever and humorous stunts as he steals money, jewelry, and food, and as he escapes the fakir from whom he has stolen the magic rope.

Silent film is truly a different art form than modern film. The story must be told entirely visually, and the acting is closer to mime than in a sound film. Douglas Fairbanks performs the role of Ahmed with all the subtlety of a baby pig squealing for its dinner; other cast memebers deliver more restrained performances. "Thief of Bagdad" succeeds because it achieves Film's first and foremost requirement: It is evocative, it transports the viewer to another place and time.

I find the enjoyment of "Thief of Bagdad" in the beauty of its elaborate Art Deco-meets-Byzantium sets with their soaring spires and improbable arches, in its special effects (many of which, like the magic rope and flying carpet scenes, hold up well even today), in its competent exploitation of then-available technology, and in the dreamy organ score. And, in imagining myself seated in an opulent, gilded, 1920's movie theatre complete with Wurlitzer pipe organ, about to enjoy the biggest blockbuster that had been produced to date.

Copyright (C) 1998 David M. Arnold. All rights reserved.

David M. Arnold

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