Character in The Thief of Baghdad

As I mentioned Saturday, I love Alex Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad. Rewatching last month, I was struck by the way the film handles several of the key characters.

Abu. Abu, the young thief played by Sabu, has absolutely no qualms about stealing food from vendors in the Baghdad markets. He’s gluttonous and selfish, although when Ahmad needs help, Abu reluctantly gives him whatever he needs (the advantage of dividing the romantic lead and the real hero is that they’re at least a little conflicted). But what I noticed was that in his first appearance, Abu watches a couple of beggars turned away by a fish vendor. He then sneaks a couple of fine grilled fish away, but rather than eat them himself, he throws them to the beggars (the owner does not see this, of course) before running off. It’s as much an act of mischief as charity (Sabu plays very mischievous) but it is charitable. It makes it clear that thief or not, we can root for Abu.

Jaffar. The thing about Veidt is that he truly loves the princess. Oh no question it’s an evil, possessive and obsessive loveut the looks of desperate longing on his face when he beholds her makes it clear his heart aches. He could magically compel her to love him, but he won’t; he wants real love, not enforced (though he’s quite willing to wipe her memory at one point so she forgets Ahmad, in hopes that’ll give him a clear field).

Happily the movie does not imply this makes him a nice character or redeemable or sympathetic. He’s a villain, willing to kill her along with Ahmad when he realizes the princess (who never actually gets a name) will never be his. But it does add some shading to his character. I don’t know if the same thing would have worked on the printed page — it’s all in Conrad Veidt’s performance.

The Sultan. As the Sultan of Basra, Miles Malleson (who wrote a lot of the dialog) initially appears to be a comical eccentric in the classic British style. He’s a lovable fuddy-duddy who collects toys and automatons of all kinds, including a prototype clock (leading to Jaffar’s warning that the people must never know about this: “Once they can tell time, they’ll wonder how time is spent.”). He seems so utterly lovable as he tells Jaffar the wonderful thing about toys is that they do exactly what he wants, exactly the same way, every single time. “My subjects,” he sighs, “don’t do what I want every time. That’s why I have to chop off so many of their heads.”

It’s delivered in the same fuddy-duddy tone as all his other lines. It’s all the creepier for that. To cement the fact he’s not one of the good guys, he then trades his daughter’s hand to Jaffar in return for Jaffar’s new, cool automaton. It’s still hard to think of him as a bad guy — I can’t help feeling a little sorry when Jaffar sends him to the arms of the prophets — but bad he is indeed.

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