in Criterion Month

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad is an odd movie to start my Criterion month off on, and just an odd movie to be in the Criterion Collection at all. But then again, I suppose one of Criterion’s aims is to make obscure oddities a little less obscure. I say this because The Thief of Bagdad seems to be lacking the high artistic pretensions of your typical Criterion release, in that it seems to be nothing but a pure popcorn spectacular; it just happens to be 80 years old. Which makes it a film whose ambitions are only skin-deep, though it is notable for the way it could be seen as a precursor to our modern fantasy blockbusters.

The plot of The Thief of Bagdad is a little on the incomprehensible side, but an easy way of boiling it down is that it’s basically a live-action Aladdin. Much like Aladdin, it’s derived from the Arabian Nights folk tales, and centers around a former Bagdad sultan named Ahmad (played by John Justin), who was thrown in jail by an eviler sultan named Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). See, I told you this was like Aladdin. Jaffar then holds a princess hostage, while Ahmad swears to return to power with the help of a young thief, who unsurprisingly is named Abu (played by Sabu). Oh, and of course Abu meets a Genie eventually and they get into some fun hijinks.

I suppose the first thing to address in a film like this, is how weird is it now watching a British-produced film set completely in an Arab region with all Arab characters. And… it’s not the worst. I suppose the fact that they have an Indian-born actor in Sabu co-starring in the film helps somewhat. As does the fact that a lot of the background actors seem to be non-white people. Still, it’s not great that the other leads are clearly white. But considering the film Exodus: Gods and Kings pulled the same shit (and went even whiter) 4 years ago, I can’t really judge The Thief of Bagdad too harshly. Especially when it’s such a fantastical tale that isn’t aiming to serve as a realistic representation of the region’s history.

Also, the film kind of brings up the debate that happened a few months ago over Isle of Dogs. Where it’s also hard to be offended by cultural appropriation when there’s a real reverence for the other culture being invoked here. Sure, it’s a little questionable that the Hindu goddess Kali, a religious figure, is used in the same story as a genie, a figure mostly seen in Arabic folklore and mythology. But you always get a sense of appreciation for its setting flowing throughout The Thief of Bagdad, even if it is sometimes a bit misguided.

Another part of this movie being impressive for its time (but not so great now), is its use of special effects. Not only does the movie have a vibrant look to it, due to its early use of Technicolor. But it was also one of the earliest films to use bluescreening for its special effects, a then-innovative improvement over the already popular matte techniques used in humdrum car sequences. The most notable example of this effect happens when the Princess’s dad (who unsurprisingly looks a lot like the princess’s bearded dad from Aladdin) watches Jaffar ride a flying horse into the sky. It doesn’t look remotely believable, but you have to remember that it’d probably never been done before onscreen, so you at least have to admire the film’s tenacity on that level.

Similarly, you have to admire the way this film’s genie is employed, even if the character itself is a bit hokey, though perhaps charmingly so. In this film’s genie depiction, he’s fucking huge. Like 100 feet tall. Which is kind of odd to think that there probably hadn’t been a ton of 100 foot dudes in movies at this point, or at least you wouldn’t think so looking at this one. The most amusing part of the genie’s big-ness comes from the massive props used for his feet and hands, as he’s often either carrying Abu or threatening to stomp him with a terrifying cackle.

So, much like the types of inventive big budget spectacles that would follow in the decades to come, I give this film a solid pass. There’s really nothing terribly deep to dig into thematically, while unlike a lot of the Criterion catalogue, this is far from the work of an auteur. Helming the film was a hodgepodge of British directors (including Michael Powell), who were hired to give life to this thing under the guidance of producer Alexander Korda. Also, the film had to eventually be completed in Hollywood after the realities of World War II began to take hold of Great Britain. Which would ultimately give The Thief of Bagdad an air of pure escapism in the midst of troubled times.