“Praise be to Allah – the beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three Worlds!”
‘The Thief of Bagdad’, directed by Raoul Walsh in 1924, is a silent American historical adventure produced by and starring Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks plays Ahmed, the titular thief, a man who lives selfishly by his wits and driven by his avarice. He falls in love with the caliph’s daughter, played by Julanne Johnston and discovers that to win her he needs to learn sacrifice and he needs to earn it. Unfortunately, he has rivals in his quest for the princess, three princes with dubious reasons for wanting to marry her. The suitors embark on a series of quests for magical objects including a flying carpet, and invisibility cloak, a panacea and a crystal scrying globe and, ultimately, Ahmed both wins the princess and saves Bagdad from occupation by the Mongols. It’s an extraordinary, extravagant movie packed with arresting visual imagery, ridiculously lavish sets, stunts and special effects. It’s not difficult to see the origins of the Hollywood popcorn movie here, with a film that relies on pyrotechnics and spectacle rather than subtext or depth. Walsh keeps the camera still and allows his star to perform acrobatic stunts whilst making the most out of the elaborate backdrops. It’s a vertical movie – everything operates on the ‘y axis’, so characters climb ropes and rocks, ascend stairs and fly. This really marks the movie out from others, the feeling not of depth or breadth but of skyscraper like constructions that dwarf the actors. Such is the charisma of Fairbanks, that despite being made to look tiny in front of the sets, he never fails to draw the eye. His performance, appropriately for a silent film, is heightened, but his movements are subtle and lithe. Finally, the special effects, particularly those of the magic carpet, are exceptional and almost hold up today. There is one moment, when the carpet swoops into the city, turns a corner and lands, that I can’t imagine how is was done. It’s big, brash and, in some respects, vulgar, but it’s difficult to watch without a sense of awe.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s the foundation of the modern special effects movie. So many films owe a debt to it from the Ray Harryhausen adventures of the 1950s and 1960s to ‘Doctor Strange’ via the Indiana Jones movies and ‘Star Wars’. So watch in a double bill with one of those.