There have been several films titled The Thief of Bagdad or some variation thereof (some of them inserting the “h” of the modern spelling), but there are only two to have garnered any significant critical acclaim. As it happens, the ones receiving the acclaim were the first two adaptations. The first, released in 1924, stars Douglas Fairbanks and is a monochromatic (yet not strictly black-and-white) silent film; the second, in 1940, is a technicolor talkie featuring Conrad Veidt as the villain. The 1924 film has been inducted into the National Film Registry, and is #9 on the AFI’s top 10 fantasy films. The 1940 film won three Oscars for its art direction, cinematography, and special effects.
Both films are roughly adapted from stories in 1001 Arabian Nights. So how do these cinematic classics stack up against each other? How are they similar, and what are the differences? And, of course, we have to ask: Which one is more enjoyable for the modern audience?
And who mugs for the camera better? OK, that one’s easy: Fairbanks.
The 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad was clearly a labor of love for Douglas Fairbanks, and was reportedly his favorite film of his career. Not only did Fairbanks star in the title role as Ahmed the thief, he also produced the film and was one of the writers on the script. Raoul Walsh directed the film, and an interesting choice was made to tint the film with different colors depending on the mood of the scene; night scenes are typically tinted blue, day scenes in yellow, some exotic locales in red, a forest in green, and so on. In retrospect, this was a fairly obvious transition from black and white films to full color, but I had never seen the technique before, so it was particularly interesting.
The story is a classic adventure tale. Ahmed is a happy-go-lucky thief, who takes what he wants and thinks nothing of the consequences. After stealing a magic rope (of the climb to the sky variety), he and his associate (Snitz Edwards) hatch a plan to break into the palace and steal some jewels. But once inside, Ahmed spies the Princess (Julanne Johnston) and is instantly smitten. He returns with just her shoe, and then proceeds to draw up a plan to steal her. Not win her heart, steal her. By drugging her and kidnapping her.
Ahmed doesn’t exactly start off as a nice guy.
This plan, too, goes awry. The Princess (whose name is never given) is being courted by princes from far off lands. The Prince of the Indies (Noble Johnson), cold and aloof. The Prince of Persia (Mathilde Comont), corpulent and opulent. And the Prince of the Mongols (Sôjin), dark and sinister. Ahmed sneaks into the procession as “The Prince of the Isles and Seas”, and the Princess becomes smitten by him in turn, particularly when he fulfills an oracle’s prophecy by touching her rose tree. When Ahmed finds out the Princess is already smitten by him, he finally discovers he has a conscience, and can’t go through with the kidnapping plan. (It becomes a bit easier for a modern audience to sympathize with him at this point; the whole kidnap-romance plan seemed more like a villain plan to me).
Outed as a thief by a serving girl (Anna May Wong) who had seen him during his first escapade (and who was a spy for the Mongol Prince), Ahmed has to flee. But the Princess, determined to stall for time and give him a chance to prove his worth, sets a goal for her suitors: Whoever can bring her the rarest treasure after seven months will win her hand in marriage. Each of the Princes, and Ahmed, set off in different directions to seek different treasures. Ahmed’s quest forms the majority of the film from that point on, but there are also scenes for each of the Princes acquiring their treasures (which include the obligatory flying carpet, and an all-seeing crystal eye). And, of course, there’s the Mongol Prince, who is plotting a military invasion of Bagdad should the Princess not choose him.
He should just give up. Anybody who fights a giant spider underwater isn’t going to roll over for a mere army.
Ahmed has to deal with several different mystical threats in his quest, and then he has to hurry back to Bagdad to face the Mongol Prince and defeat him. It’s a solid adventure yarn, and quite a bit of fun, and does a lot to reinforce its moral that “Happiness must be earned”. But it has to be noted that this is also a very long movie, especially for a silent film. Its run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes, and when you don’t have sound effects or frequent dialogue — and what dialogue there is has to interrupt the action with a title card — it’s hard not to notice just how long it is. Nevertheless, it’s still fun, and very artistic, and worth it if you have the endurance for a 140 minute silent film.
The 1940 film takes a different approach to the same basic storyline. While in the 1924 film, Ahmed starts off as a thief, and elevates himself to a prince. In the 1940 film, starring John Justin as Ahmad (spelling changed slightly), Ahmad starts as a prince, and becomes a thief. It isn’t entirely his fault. It’s just the latest in a string of deliberately bad advice from his Grand Vizier (Conrad Veidt). In this case, Jaffar has told him to go among the people in secret, pulling the old “prince and pauper” routine only without somebody to switch with. Then when Ahmad is out amongst the people acting like a commoner, Jaffar declares him dead, and the “commoner” a dangerous madman, and has him imprisoned.
Veidt permanently stained the name of Jaffar for Grand Viziers.
In prison, scheduled to be killed the next morning, Ahmad meets Abu (played by Sabu, a child actor from India), the “Thief of Bagdad” in the title (yes, in this version, while Ahmad briefly becomes a thief, he’s not the thief.) Abu has picked the pocket of the guard who brought him in, and with the keys they make their escape. The two become fast friends, and Abu instructs Ahmad on the ways of the street. After a bit of traveling, they find themselves in Basra, where Ahmad gets a glimpse of, you guessed it, a Princess (June Duprez) and instantly falls in love. She doesn’t have a name in this version either.
Of course, Jaffar has designs on the Princess as well, and on Basra itself. He bribes the toy-loving Sultan (Miles Malleson) with a mechanical flying horse for the Princess’s hand in marriage, and plots a takeover. Naturally, it’s up to Ahmad and Abu to put a stop to it. Actually, it’s mostly up to Abu. While he’s ostensibly the sidekick to Ahmad’s heroic lead, it’s Abu who winds up doing most of the heroics in the picture (and incidentally gets the better lines). Ahmad only really has precedence in the romance scenes and during the period in which Abu has been transformed into a dog.
Outwitting genies, fighting giant spiders, prying giant gems from ancient statues… “sidekick”. Sure.
The film had no shortage of directors; it credits three (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan), and according to IMDb, producers Alexander and Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies also had hands in its direction. While one might expect a “too many cooks” situation to result, the film winds up looking great, especially accounting for the time it was produced. As I noted above, it was awarded three Oscars related to its visual look and special effects, and it certainly deserved them. While its special effects may not quite hold up to today’s standards, they’re very good for the time — in fact, being the first film to use ChromaKey, they were pushing the envelope. And the resulting effects still look pretty good on the whole. The appearance, size, and flight of Rex Ingram as the genie are all very convincing. Really, the only special effect I had a problem with was the way they swapped out the mechanical flying horse for a real horse during its movement sequences; this may mark the only time I complain about something looking too real.
The dialogue is worth noting as well. Although the romance plot is your standard pedestrian love-at-first-sight with few interesting lines, the rest of the film is pretty darned good. Of particular note is the way Sabu gets the majority of the witty lines, and he really has the most screen presence among the heroic cast; you have to look to Conrad Veidt as the villain to find someone to match him. And Sabu plays well off Veidt, off Justin, and particularly off of Rex Ingram. It all adds up to a very fun little film.
It’s a good thing when beings that can crush you like a bug have a code of honor to uphold.
There are some definite similarities in the films, as befits a pair of adaptations of the same story. Both feature a heroic thief fighting a tyrannical conqueror for the hand of a beautiful princess. Both feature a flying carpet, an all-seeing crystal eye, and all sorts of mythical dangers abound. And both are pretty entertaining films. On the negative side of things, both feature an abundance of European and European-Americans pretending to be Arabs (as well as an Indian pretending to be Arab and a Japanese man and Chinese-American woman pretending to be Mongols). Not that I really expect racial sensitivity or accuracy from 1920s and 1940s Hollywood (or, really, today in all cases), but it was one of those things that stood out to me. If you can look past that, though, they’re still entertaining movies, and both are definitely worth a look.
Version Verdict: If you have the patience for a two-and-a-half hour silent movie, the 1924 version can be very rewarding, but I suspect most modern movie watchers will have more fun with the 1940 film, with its technicolor cinematography, spoken dialogue, and playful attitude.