The Thief of Bagdad Review
In a directing career that spanned 54 years and encompassed 133 films, Raoul Walsh was able to work with such stars as Errol Flynn and Gregory Peck and to produce such classics as They Drive By Night, White Heat and this one, The Thief of Bagdad. Taking its story from the Arabian Nights, it fits into that sub-genre of adventure sagas that also includes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film of the same name, Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies and the first ever feature length animated film, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed as well as numerous straight-to-video cartoons.
As anyone who has seen at least one of these efforts will know, these yarns feature certain rules that must be abided by. As a summary of The Thief of Bagdad’s plot shows, it follows these in abundance.
Following a meeting with a beautiful princess (Julanne Johnston), lowly thief Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) falls in love and decides to put his cheating past behind him. However, in order to gain her hand he must embark on a quest to find a rare treasure, one that encompasses all things magical (whether they be carpets, horses or apples) as well as sea creatures and giant bats.
The main nemesis, however, is the Mongol prince played by Sojil. Only one of the standouts in an ensemble of wonderful performances, Sojil acts as the Basil Rathbone to Douglas Fairbank’s Errol Flynn.
As Rathbone and Flynn proved, it’s always easier to root for the “good guy” when the villain is so damned dastardly, and with Sojil being exactly that Fairbanks becomes near perfect. Not that he needs it mind; seemingly acting with only his chest and his grin, Fairbanks is charm personified. Also serving as writer (under the pseudonym Elton Thomas) and producer, the star has clearly designed this as a showcase for his talents. Indeed, he rarely lets a scene go by without him leaping about, flailing his arms wildly or flashing that massive grin. In fact this type of film wouldn’t see a performance with such sheer physicality until 1952, when Burt Lancaster (also flashing teeth and chest) appeared in The Crimson Pirate. Moreover, Fairbanks joie de vivre engulfs the entire film and, despite a generous running time of almost two hours and twenty minutes, the pace never flags.
A review of The Thief of Bagdad cannot be complete, however, without a mention of its opulent visuals. Designed by William Cameron Menzies (who would also work on Alexander Korda’s 1940 production of the same tale) the film can be freeze-framed at any point to reveal just how awe-inspiring these visuals are. Everything seems to have been enlarged to three times its original size, and yet nothing seems out of place. Moreover, there’s a humorous edge to all this: just as the buildings appear too large, so do the everyday (for this kind of tale) objects such as doorways and swords. Indeed, the smallest entrance must be at least fifteen feet high, whereas the weaponry always appears to be a touch bigger than the man who’s carrying it. The design is also helped by the presence of the original tinting, though more of that later.
Of course, when dealing with silent cinema this good, the only thing to be weary of is whether the disc’s presentation is able to do it justice, and in this case Eureka have done a remarkable job.
Picture and Sound
For a film almost 80 years old, the print used here (from a 1996 restoration) is almost entirely scratch free. As said, the original tinting is also preserved, so the public is essentially presented with the same film that would have premiered in 1924 (and a quick glance around a number of other silent films available on DVD reveals this is no mean feat).
Utilising original sound cues the score here is Gaylord Carter 1979 organ composition. Using both the left and right speakers, the sound is largely monaural but also perfectly clean.
Two brief extras back up the main feature. The first is an eleven minute “audio essay” by film historian R. Dixon Smith that glides through the film’s production and touches on Fairbanks' career. As read by Russell Cawthorne (whose tones have also graced other Eureka discs, such as Scarlet Street and The Stranger), the deep-voiced delivery can be distracting. However, as a brief tour of the film’s key points it’s a worthy extra.
The second extra is a Douglas Fairbanks biography that scrolls from top to bottom. As with the “essay”, this serves as a worthy introduction - nothing more, nothing less.
Whilst perhaps not as good as Korda’s 1940 version, The Thief of Bagdad is still an undoubted classic of the silent era. Moreover, Eureka have treated us with a spectacular transfer, and for that they are to be congratulated.