Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Thief of Bagdad

I can show you the—oh, look, I can see your house from up here…

Okay, this one you have got to see. But first, a word about… Orientalism.

You will hear Orientalism condemned as a racist, patronizing, colonial way of looking at certain other cultures, in which the men are weak and treacherous because fundamentally inferior to the clear-eyed Aryan hero and the women are all exotic beauties with no morals. Pull a harmless little prank like stealing the ruby eye out of some heathen idol and some heathen devil will come crawling into your tent at night, dagger gripped between his filthy teeth, what?

Appalling, of course, and today any writer who even attempts to write a parody of this kind of thing had better be damned careful. But…

There was once such a thing as Romantic Orientalism, and it was entirely different. It was fostered by the Thousand and One Nights, wherein the cities were breathtakingly beautiful, the heroes bold, bronzed and daring, the maidens virtuous and clever. The religion of Islam was treated with respect. There were magical things like flying carpets and there were peacocks and apes and gardens with fountains and, and, well, a whole lot of gold and purple splashed all over the place. If there were wicked viziers, there were also kindly caliphs and wise mullahs. Romantic Orientalism was fascinated by the color and excitement of a powerful culture, and nearly always approached its subject with love.

So let us accept that we’re dealing with a well-intentioned fairytale here, OK, and not get all bent out of shape? Because if you don’t run out immediately and rent the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad, you will be denying yourself some serious viewing pleasure.

The first thing we see is Night in the Desert, under a million stars, and a holy man is explaining to a small ragamuffin that “Happiness must be Earned.” The message spells itself out in the stars, and presumably the holy man tells the story that follows. Next we get a quote from the Koran praising Allah; next a quote from the introduction to the Thousand and One Nights; and then the first intertitle tells us we’re about to see “Bagdad, dream city of the ancient East” which is such a different place from the Baghdad we see in the evening news it doesn’t even bear discussion. Moving right along…

Exotic traders are leading camels, wealthy merchants are going to and fro, everyone’s wearing huge turbans with feathers, and everyone is dwarfed by gigantic architecture. The Bagdad set took up something like six and a half acres on the Formosa lot, but I haven’t seen any figures on how far up it went; it must have been visible for miles, in 1924-era Hollywood. At the back is our titular hero, pretending to be asleep on a rock ledge over a… er… actually it’s a drinking fountain a lot like the ones in your local grammar school yard. As various citizens come up to drink, the Thief steals their purses. In fact, he’ll steal anything from anyone, as we see subsequently.

Douglas Fairbanks was 41 when he made this film, and it shows. There is a close-up shot of his sleeping face that looks distinctly airbrushed to make him look younger, but the fact is that in waking motion his is the hard, calculating face of an older man. Fairbanks’ body, however, was still slim and perfectly toned, perfectly controlled. You don’t particularly like him as he makes his thieving rounds, but you can believe this is a street thug who will do anything to survive, a sensual amoral animal. His emotions are primitive (and so is Fairbanks’ acting style) but somehow it all comes together. 

The Thief’s outrages mount, until he breaks into a mosque and mocks the white-robed holy man, denying Paradise and proclaiming that you only get on in life by taking what you want. This nearly gets him killed by the outraged faithful, but the holy man is apparently of the All-Merciful and Compassionates party rather than the vengeful sort, because he holds the crowds back. Clearly he can see something worth saving in the Thief.

Next the Thief decides to break into the Caliph’s palace. But first we zip off to China to see the Mongol Prince (splendidly played by Japanese actor Sojin Kamiyama) who intends to capture the city of Bagdad and wouldn’t mind getting his hands on the Caliph’s beautiful daughter either. He may be supposed to be a Mongol but he comes off far more like Fu Manchu than Ghengis Khan. He states that what he wants, he takes, putting him at exactly the same moral level as the Thief. He is, however, a lot smarter. We learn that a bunch of princes from other lands have been invited to Bagdad to vie for the hand of the Princess, and the Mongol Prince decides this dovetails neatly with his invasion plans. 

Meanwhile, back in Bagdad, the Thief breaks into the palace, makes his way to the Princess’s bedroom, and falls in love with the sleeping Princess. He also encounters her alert serving girl (and Mongolian double agent) played by Anna May Wong, who raises the alarm. The Thief escapes with the Princess’ slipper and the lustful intent to kidnap her. When the foreign princes arrive, he steals fancy clothes and a horse and presents himself as one of them. His blinding smile captivates the Princess from afar. She doesn’t care for the other suitors—the Indian Prince looks bad-tempered, the Persian Prince is way fat (and played by French actress Mathilde Comont, with an extra-eunuchy flair), and the Mongol Prince is just scary. The Mongolian serving girl recognizes the Thief and informs her Prince.  The Thief, meanwhile, breaks into the Princess’ rooms again and learns that she has fallen for him in a big way. He can’t bring himself to go through with his plan of drugging her and carrying her off—in fact, he get smacked upside the head by Love in one of those Complete Change of Character moments.

Exposed as an impostor by the Mongolian Prince, the Thief gets flogged and thrown out of the palace. He wanders off to the mosque, where the holy man welcomes him and sends him off on a quest that will transform him. And now the film really gets into gear.

The Princess, who is desolated her sweetie isn’t in the running anymore, cannily sets her three despised suitors quests of their own: each must travel off and find a fabulously rare treasure, and return with it “by the seventh moon.” Cool! So now we have two competing sets of quests! The three suitors ride out, though the Mongol Prince thoughtfully leaves instructions for his army to infiltrate the city over the next seven months, so that he’ll have twenty thousand troops ready to hand when he returns. 

If romance and spiritual redemption aren’t really your thing, you will at least love the remaining hour, which is full of action, adventure and giant monsters. We go straight to a Defile in the Mountains of Dread Adventure, where the Thief encounters the Hermit of the Defile, who tells him that many have entered the Defile but none have ever returned. Our hero goes bravely on and fights his way through a realm of fire. He travels farther and encounters a dragon… well, it’s a hand puppet actually, and not very convincing with our hero matted in via whatever they used for greenscreen before the days of color films. But next there’s the genuinely creepy Cavern of Enchanted Trees…

Meanwhile the Princes are scoring big. Persia finds a magic carpet. India, obviously non-observant in his religion unless he’s a Moghul, sends one of his lackeys climbing up a giant statue of… Shiva, maybe? The lackey chips out the all-seeing crystal ball that forms the pupil of the idol’s left eye. You know, that never ends well, does it? In this case the lackey slips and falls screaming to his death, but the Prince manages to retrieve the crystal ball. Meanwhile, the Mongol has his men break into a sacred shrine and capture a golden apple reputed to cure the sick and raise the dead. He has an innocent bystander bitten by a deadly snake so he can test the apple, and it works. Then he sends word on ahead to his double agent to have the Princess poisoned. (You have to admire this guy for his planning. No little detail overlooked!)

Back to the Thief: he keeps charging through deadly dangers, including a lengthy underwater sequence so realistic I still can’t tell you how it was done. He just keeps fighting on, resisting temptation and killing monsters, and gets to the prize at last—a chest full of magic something-or-other that provides him with anything he needs. Back he goes to Bagdad on a fast stallion, over what looks suspiciously like second-unit footage of the Pismo Dunes, but meanwhile…

The three Princes meet at a roadside caravaserai and each shows off his loot. They see in the crystal ball that the Princess is at death’s door. All three hop the flying carpet and zoom to her bedside. The Mongol cures her with the golden apple. She smiles and explains the scores are still tied, due to the fact that it took all three magical objects to save her. At this point the Mongol trumps everyone with his concealed army. There’s a battle for Bagdad! Will our hero ride to the rescue in time? Him and what army?

The Thief of Bagdad was not a commercial success, due primarily to the fact that it cost more to make than any film before it—$2,000,000, which was pretty hard to recoup at the 1924 boxoffices. Every buck shows, though, and as the years have passed its virtues have come to be more and more appreciated. In fact, the American Film Institute has voted it one of the top 10 fantasy films of all time.  It is now in the public domain, and, accordingly, you will need to be careful which version you watch, because there are a lot of thoroughly crappy prints floating around and this film deserves reverent treatment.

Image Entertainment provides a reasonably good print, an early (1975) restoration with little missing footage and a musical accompaniment on theater organ by Gaylord Carter that creates a great 1920s vibe. Your very best bet, however, is the DVD released by ever-reliable Kino Video.  It’s pristine, it’s a great transfer, it has beaucoups extras, and the musical score is derived from the original 1924 cue sheet. It’s also available in a boxed set with some of Fairbanks’ other great swashbuckling films.

We’ll never see the like of Thief of Bagdad again—hell, I doubt whether it would even be possible to make something like Disney’s Aladdin nowadays—and maybe that world of purple and gold and nightingales singing in pomegranate trees was only ever a fantasy, propagated by western moviemakers who, if they were even aware that crusaders had once besieged Jerusalem, assumed it was all long since forgiven and forgotten, because who holds grudges for a thousand years?

It’s still a keen movie.

—Kage Baker

Kage Baker is a writer of SF, fantasy and horror best known for her Company series. Her most recent book, a steampunk novella titled The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, just sold out its entire run for Subterranean Press.


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