When I was around 10 or 11 I found a copy of The Arabian Nights in a classroom back in England. I’d often spend recess sneaking back inside and reading it. I fell in love with this strange, foreign world, and the strange stylized way people talked. It’s truly a world I’d love to live in, where even beggars and lowly laborers can stumble into wonders. So even though THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1940) is orientalist and probably cultural appropriation (all the leads but Sabu are white Europeans), I honestly don’t care. I love this one.
The movie opens as the sinister Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) arrives in Baghdad where his female agent (Mary Morris) has located a blind man (John Justin) and his dog. The blind man, Ahmad, tells how he was the sultan of Baghdad until his vizier, Jaffar, usurped the throne. Fleeing Jaffar, Ahmad falls in with Abu (Sabu), a street thief. Abu’s dream is to travel the world and see its wonders, but he reluctantly accompanies his new friend to Basra to seek help from the Sultan there. Instead, Ahmad falls in love with Basra’s beautiful princess (June Duprez) — whose automaton-loving father (Miles Malleson) has agreed to give her to Jaffar in return for a new clockwork toy, a flying horse. And Jaffar does not want competition for the lady’s heart …
This movie is just a delight. Genies, flying horses and magical transformations, memorable performances by Sabu, Veidt and Malleson (I’ll be writing some about them next week) — not to mention Rex Ingram as a mocking genie — the fantasy-Arabian style of dialog (“This is no dog but the reincarnation of a debt collector!” “Where have you come from, beggars of no importance?”), cool sets and everything in lush technicolor. It’s a spectacle (producer Michael Korda believed you go big or you don’t go at all) and some great music in the background. Justin and Duprez are less memorable actors than the rest of the cast but they’re good enough. “In the morning, unless the sun stops still and never rises, we die.”
This being the Criterion edition, Thief has two commentary tracks, both interesting, and a documentary on the special effects (this was the first film to use blue screen as a technique). It also includes THE LION HAS WINGS (1940) a less memorable WW II morale booster director Michael Powell made in the middle of Thief. The film is a documentary showing how Britain has spent the years since the Great War working to give its citizens a better life and protect their freedom, in contrast to the militaristic desire of Germany to Conquer, Conquer, Conquer (offhand references to the British Empire are now just reminders that England did its share of conquering). It also reassures viewers that having gotten past the whole appeasement thing, Britain’s industrial machine is cranked up to 11 and ready to win the air war as well as the land war. It’s good-looking, but like a lot of WW II propaganda, not terribly gripping. In fictional sections, Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon play stiff-upper lipped Brits. “They did what they set out to do and drew first blood in a war that was none of their making.”
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