The Thief of Bagdad

Haven't seen Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (which Michael Powell and six other directors handled) in, oh, fifteen years, I think, and the opening image--a ship with gigantic blood-red sails, billowing at the screen--is an eye-popper.

The sets, however, are a bit of a disappointment: the colors are bright, but the design isn't as ornate or ostentatious as you'd expect from Islamic architecture. If you want extravagant film sets, you might want to take a look at K. Asif's Mughal-E-Azam, with its terrace after terrace of dancing women and intricate canal system; most of that picture was shot in black-and-white (I don't know why, but I suspect it's to give our overworked eyes some relief), but a climactic dance sequence in full color is shot in the famed Palace of Mirrors (the sequence might be compared to a lightning bolt striking a glacier, or a tornado scoring a direct hit on Tiffany's).

As for the cast, June Duprez and John Justin are nice-looking kids, but barely the kind of wondrous beauties you might expect to find in Bagdad, no matter how heavily they apply eyeliner to Justin's eyes; even the poorest Bollywood musical has a better-looking cast.

Conrad Veidt, however, is wonderfully villainous, and actually not as one-sidedly evil as you might think: with the princess in his hands, he hesitates, because for all his powers he does love her and wants her to love him of her own free will. At one point, he confides to the princess' captor: "Love she has yet to learn. But I'm here to teach her;" later he declares "Forget Ahmed. He's no longer blind. For a man with eyes the world is full of women. Only I am cursed, that I can see only you." Justin's Prince Ahmad can only show a fraction of Veidt's passion, and about a hundredth of his initiative; truth to tell, Ahmad is something of a limp rag, and you wonder why the princess just doesn't dump him in favor of the older, far more intense lover.

The problem may be that the Prince Ahmad character has been divorced from the thief character (unlike in the Raoul Walsh silent version, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), with the resulting decrease in, well, character (not to menton balls) in the former. When things get rough, Justin's Ahmad throws himself down in despair; Sabu as Abu, the thief of Bagdad (and real hero of the film), doesn't give up so easily.

Sabu is a joy, of course, and gets all the best lines; he has many adventures, but none so memorable as the ones he has with the genie (Rex Ingram), a far more malevolent and unpredictable creature than Robin Williams' fuzzy old dear. I'm assuming the character split was made so that they could use Sabu (who's too young here to be a romantic lead--or is it they didn't think an Indian actor could be a romantic lead?), and still have a romance, in which case I suppose the split was the best compromise they could make under the circumstances. A wonderful fantasy, despite my reservations, mainly thanks to Ingram, Veidt, and Sabu, though (in my opine) it can't possibly hold a candle to Lotte Reiniger's wonderful, wonderful The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

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