‘The Thief of Bagdad’ or — ‘The Lord of The Rings’ meets ‘Scarface’?
“And so on the bed-rock of humility you can build any structure.”
The makers of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924) must have been pretty bloody humble as this is one impressive structure of a movie. Hugely influential, ridiculously entertaining and functioning on a scale up there with D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’, ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ is one of the greatest fantasy movies ever made.
The story is pretty simple — Fairbank’s plays Ahmed, a thief who is living by his wits in the bazaar and has a carefree existence until he falls in love with the city’s Princess and becomes smitten. She is dissatisfied with her prospective suitors who have arrived in Bagdad for her hand so she challenges them to bring her a remarkable treasure, and whosoever brings her the most valuable she will marry.
Ahmed is determined to find the most prized possession possible, become a Prince and win the hand of the Princess. He finally has something to work for and a reason to give up his life as a thief. However, what scheme does the King of The Mongols have up his sleeve? Will Ahmed survive the monsters and creatures that stand in his way to glory? Can he pull off the biggest thief job in history?!
I adore this film and never tire of watching it. I’m a sucker for fantastical tales, especially The Arabian Nights, with lavish production design, soaring music and lots of monsters and this film delivers on all those big time. Add onto that colour tinting which increases the visual stimulation with night and underwater scenes bathed in blues and greens, day in yellows and whites and some moments of fiery reds bringing both nightmare and dream like qualities, the films sometimes feels like Ken Russell directs Sinbad in terms of fantastical imagery.
Another great aspect is this film barrels along at a cracking pace, maybe a little too quickly at times, so it is never dull. The encounters with monster — a dragon, some sirens etc — are fantastically staged (the underwater sequence is some of the best dry for wet I’ve seen). The old man and the midnight sea sequence has such unworldly atmosphere it is like watching a painting come to life.
Talking of the underwater scene — it must have had an influence on The Dead Marshes sequence in ‘The Lord of The Rings’. The greens and dreamlike, slowly swaying seaweed as our hero is beckoned down to the depths are all very similar. And once again, the scale of how all this is presented is off the charts as we see Fairbanks swim way down deep as fronds the height of buildings sway over him.
‘The Thief of Bagdad’ is one of those films that you have to stop analysing and just give yourself up to the imagery. And what imagery it is! Oh, the sets! And the back-drops! And are those anachronistic skyscrapers in the background of the city just thrown in to make the city look even more soaring and towering? You bet your ass and it works brilliantly.
On the human level Douglas Fairbanks is charm and athleticism incarnate as he grins and swings his way round the bazaar pick-pocketing and evading the law as he goes. To be honest, and forgive my language, he’s a bit of a cunt (he IS going to abduct the Princess after all and do god knows what to her). Surely this cocky bastard will get his come-uppance?
And he does when he falls in love with the Princess and, for the first time, Ahmed has something that means more to him than himself. At first I didn’t like this as Ahmed kinda mopes about for a bit, love-stricken and bereft of his cheeky grin. But he resolves to win the Princesses hand and so off on an epic adventure he goes.
Yet something was niggling at me: Ahmed really is pretty shallow and only wants to have money, power and a beautiful woman. Sure, he’s now willing to work for it but… but…?
And then it hit me — Douglas Fairbanks is, essentially, Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’! Now let me explain. Both characters start off as petty criminals with a huge attitude problem and zero remorse (“What I want, I take”). They both want it all with one of the lines of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ being “Bagdad is yours” (and even though this is said to the evil Mongol Warlord, you can imagine Ahmed lying back grinning at the night sky as it spells out in stars “Bagdad is yours” just as Montana watches the airship from his mansion spelling out “The world is yours”). They both embody rampant ambition.
But, for me, the biggest similarity between ‘Thief’ and ‘Scarface’ is that they end with both men going crazy to the point of excess with white powder. Tony had his mountain of coke but Ahmed has his chest of magical powder that can summon anything and boy, does he go for it. Whereas Frodo was trying to destroy the Ring and resist using its power, Fairbanks goes fucking crazy with his magic powder, chucking it about all over the place in excess until he has a massive army outside the gates of Bagdad.
This is Scarface. It is Tony Montana on Pegasus rather than a Cadillac. However, unlike Montana, Ahmed actually gets away with all this selfish behaviour. What is the moral here? “Happiness must be earned”? Tony Montana agreed with that statement, he just went about earning it in a different way from Ahmed. It’s the American Dream after all. So the ends justify the means? Is that it? Or it could just be a fantasy adventure I’m reading too much into?
That aside, you can see the influence this film must have had on countless others and not just fantasy films. Hang on! Is that the Rosebud shot from ‘Citizen Kane’? I mean, it sure as hell looks exactly like Kane dropping the snow-globe shot. Also the scene when he finds the cloak of invisibility gives the tesseract scene from Interstellar a run for its money in terms of a set that cuts up space and dimensionality. The plant person he meets is like something from a Del Toro movie and there are a few more ‘Lord of The Rings’ resonances — is that a Palantir type globe that guy has there as they gaze at Ahmed through the mists of a seeing-crystal ball.
You can also see the influence others films must have had on ‘Thief’; the set design of the palace windows echoes the cut out style of ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ by Lotte Reiniger as is so pretty.
Away from the visuals Carl Davis’ score also adds immeasurably to the experience and, thankfully, isn’t an original score but variations on the themes of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade which are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful themes ever written. It is perfect soundtrack music and has the effect of total transportation.
There are so many other treasures here too. The comedic moments are played beautifully, especially by Fairbanks, although Anna May Wong is equally delightful as the double-crossing handmaiden
But ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ is, ultimately, all about scale. Everything is big: big scimitars; the use of children to make a chimp look huge; big gates that open like teeth. The only thing bigger than the sets is Fairbanks’ massive grin.
The central message of the movie that “happiness must be earned”. You can’t breeze your way through life expecting everything to be dropped in your lap. You must grow and push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of. Then again, if you want happiness immediately you could just whack this wonderful film on instead and save yourself a lot of hassle.